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Radio Grows Up
How the novelty item of 1920 became the world-straddling colossus of 1940
August/september 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 5
Yet advertising and network executives remained exceedingly cautious about offending listeners. In 1930, as NEC’s advertising revenues leaped to $22.0 million, the company’s president, Merlin H. Aylesworth, told the Senate Committee on Interstate Commerce that commercial sponsorship of such programs as football games was unsuitable. “I just did not quite like to see the Yale-Harvard game announced,” he told the senators, ” ‘through the courtesy of so-and-so.’ ” Paley told the committee that advertising took up less than one percent of his network’s air time, while William S. Hedges, president of the National Association of Broadcasters, assured the senators that his own station, WMAQ Chicago, limited commercials to one minute per half-hour and that many NAB members “do not use as much as that.” The NAB’s standards of commercial practice, promulgated in 1929, forbade any advertising at all between 7:00 and 11:00 P.M.
But as the broadcasters all too quickly discovered, the audience was a good deal more impervious than had been thought and, far from objecting to the rising commercialism of the airwaves, it enthusiastically embraced it. By January 1,1929, a survey by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor, Daniel Starch, commissioned by NBC, found that one-third of American homes had a radio, that 67 percent of the more than 11 million sets had enough tubes to bring in an adequate signal, that the audience numbered 41.4 million people, and that 80 percent of them had developed a habit of listening daily, mostly from 8:00 to 10:00 P.M. Tastes in programing, Starch found, were amazingly uniform, though rural listeners showed slight preferences for religious services, crop and market reports, and children’s programs, while urbanites leaned slightly toward concert music and opera.
M ORE SIGNIFICANT than the findings was the process; Starch was the first of a legion of academics who would be drafted by the radio industry to answer that most pressing question: Who is listening? Only a year before the Starch survey, a trade publication, Radio Broadcasting , had ridiculed a proposed listener survey by the Association of National Advertisers as “equivalent to determining the number of crickets chirping at any given instant, in a swamp, on a foggy summer evening.” But the claims and counterclaims of networks and individual stations were often so overblown that advertisers were beginning to insist on unbiased audience surveys.
The size of the audience might be in dispute, but on the value of radio its executives were predictably enthusiastic. Aylesworth deemed it “an uplifting influence in the lives of people,” and thought “the mere simultaneous participation as listeners to great radio programs” was making Americans “a far more homogeneous people.” NBC’s general engineer, C. W. Horn, believed it would remove “the last barriers to … perf ect understanding among peoples… [so that]… the people themselves will form their opinions and not be dependent upon leaders or spokesmen.” But now there was widespread dissent from these Utopian fancies. As early as 1924 the journalist Bruce Bliven had described the emanations from the “magic toy” as “outrageous rubbish,” and in 1930 the literary critic Henry Volkening berated “the whole commercial system of broadcasting” for programs that mostly “tickle the tastes of the mentally deficient.” The general level of American radio, he charged, was pitched at fifteen-year-olds. This was disputed by William Orton in the Atlantic Monthly : he believed programs were beamed at thirteen-year-olds. He bitterly quoted Federal Bureau of Education instructions for would-be radio teachers: “Do not overrate the intelligence of your listeners. Anecdotes, short and clearly to the point, are good. ” He concluded that “where the thought [of the mass] … and its demands dominates and colors all activity, civilization itself may ultimately be in peril. The redemption of the mass cannot come except from minorities.”
This mounting criticism of radio was prompted by a profound change in its merchandising efforts. As Fortune noted in 1932, sponsors in 1930 “still hesitated to put a substantial merchandising pill into their amusement sugar. … Radio was polite. Radio was genteel. Radio was the guest in the home, not the salesman on the doorstep. … But some eighteen further months of Depression have changed all that.” On local stations, the “hard sell, repetition and blatancy were standard, ” recalled one announcer; “sirens, gongs, even pistol shots frequently introduced announcements.” On Detroit’s WJR, “after each three songs sung by a blind tenor, Harold Keen, … would come the reading of ten consecutive announcements. In forty-five minutes, thirty announcements would be presented. Sometimes, while the announcer was going through his stint, a salesman would tiptoe into the studio and sneak another announcement on the bottom of the waiting pile.”