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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
On the networks, too, commercial messages burgeoned; in 1931 a total of 343 sponsors spent $37.5 million on radio advertising. And advertisers were taking increased interest in the program content. The year 1931 saw the demise of programs like “The Gold Dust Twins,” “The Cliquot Club Eskimos,” and “The Interwoven Pair,” largely musical shows packaged by the networks and sold to sponsors. Now it was increasingly the sponsor or his advertising agency who developed the entire program. The change found few advertising people ready, recalled Carroll Carroll, “but all were prepared to fake it. … Every day … was an on-the-job training session.” The music to be played by Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians was selected by the wife of the advertising manager for General Cigar Company. “Men who ran oil companies, drug, food and tobacco corporations,” Fred Alien recalled, “were attending auditions, engaging talent.” When Ed Wynn was first considered for a radio program, a group of Texaco officials sat through his entire Broadway show with their eyes closed, to imagine how it would work on radio. “It was inevitable,” Alien ruefully concluded, “that the sponsors would soon consider themselves authorities on the tastes … of the general public.” On his own program Alien had to accept an organ solo in the middle because the sponsor’s wife liked organ music. It was, he said, “like planting a pickle in the center of a charlotte russe.”
And yet one could hardly blame the advertisers for exploiting a medium that seemed to have a wondrous effect on sales curves, despite the Depression. Fortune cited the example of Bourjois, a French cosmetic company that sponsored a program called “Evening in Paris” to give cachet to its products. So many women started asking for a nonexistent perfume that bore the name of the show that Bourjois created an “Evening in Paris” line; it promptly outsold all its competitors combined. In view of such success, the hard-sell increasingly blared forth on the airwaves. One critic described “First Nighter,” a half-hour program with twelve minutes of advertising, as a drama “rotted away by commercials.” By 1934 advertisers were spending $42.6 million on radio, 15 percent of their total advertising budget, and radio was the only medium with a consistent gain in revenue, Depression notwithstanding. Between 1928 and 1934 radio advertising had grown by 316 percent; newspaper advertising had dropped by 30 percent and that of magazines by 45 percent. Some 246 daily newspapers ceased publication entirely.
“Men who ran oil, drug, food and tobacco companies were attending auditions, engaging talent.”
Understandably the print media resented the intrusive new medium, even though a number of newspapers owned stations (by 1940 they would own almost one-third of all stations in the United States). Locked as they were in desperate competition with radio for advertising dollars, newspapers and magazines tried to ignore it in their editorial columns. A study showed that while newspapers claimed 400 or more “radio editors,” most of them were office boys or old men who simply edited the daily radio logs or network handouts, occasionally highlighting a few programs in boxes. To punish radio, some newspapers even stopped running a daily program log, but reader protests forced them to bring it back.
In March of 1933 the newspaper publishers made a last-ditch effort: they shut off the radio networks from all three news services. In the news drought that ensued, Paul White, the CBS news director, agreed with his arch-competitor, NBC news director Abel Schechter, that both networks would carry news so long as either one of them “could (1) read and (2) make phone calls and send cables. ” Schechter found it “remarkable how many good stories you can pick up by taking out a membership in the Scissors-and-Pastepot Press Association.” Some local stations continued to filch newspaper items, but several lawsuits established that news has a commercial value based, like that of fish, on its freshness. The life of a news item was set by various courts at between four and twenty-four hours.
In January of 1934 radio and newspaper representatives signed a truce. A special Press-Radio Bureau would be established to give the networks fiveminute news summaries to be broadcast in the morning, but not before 9:30 A.M. , and in the evening, after 9:00 P.M. The networks would pay for this news, even though they could not sell it to sponsors. In addition, the bureau would supply bulletins for news of “transcendent” importance. “The only saving grace of this arrangement,” said the commentator H. V. Kaltenborn, “is that it won’t work.” Indeed, during its first year of operation, the Press-Radio Bureau issued 4,670 bulletins of “transcendent” news, 2,300 of them dealing with the trial of the Lindbergh baby kidnaper Bruno Hauptmann. By the end of 1934, Transradio News, founded by the former CBS news director George Malore, had signed up 150 stations, and by 1935, International News Service and United Press were again serving radio networks; Associated Press, which was owned cooperatively by newspapers, resumed its radio tickers only in 1939. The dispute’s major result was precisely what the newspapers had hoped to prevent: the radio networks were prodded into forming their own news organizations.