- Historic Sites
Radio Grows Up
How the novelty item of 1920 became the world-straddling colossus of 1940
August/september 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 5
T HE PRESS-RADIO war was a good indication of the maturing of radio as a full-fledged medium of communication. By 1934 it was reaching 60 percent of all American homes, and the percentage was rapidly growing; in the previous year the number of sets had risen from 16 to 18 million. As might be expected, radio coverage was especially strong among urban middle- and upper-income people; nearly three-quarters of those with annual incomes between $2,000 and $3,000 had sets, and 88 percent of those with incomes over $10,000 had them. Indeed, Americans owned 43.2 percent of all the radio sets in the world. Mass production, plus the precipitous drop in the price of raw materials and labor due to the Depression, had by the early 1930s cut to $11.98 the price of a model that, a few years before, had sold for $350.00. In 1929 the average radio cost $133.00; in 1931, $62.00; and by 1934 an average set cost $45.40, with a price of only $34.65 for a table model.
Network executives were quick to draw a relationship between their commercial success and their contribution to the commonweal. “Because radio is a sound business enterprise,” wrote Paley, “it is able to make … a continuously effective contribution toward our nation’s cultural development.” This emphasis on cultural contributions was probably triggered by the establishment in 1934 of the Federal Communication Commission to replace the Federal Radio Commission. The new body was making ominous noises about regulating radio’s commercial excesses. Worse, the New Deal majority on the commission threatened to scrutinize programing and public service when licenses came up for renewal. Although its most stringent decisions would not come until the 1940s, the commission’s course was clear in the mid-thirties when its chairman, James Fly, borrowed an eloquent piece of invective from John Randolph to describe the National Association of Broadcasters leadership as resembling “a dead mackerel in the moonlight; it both shines and stinks.”
The major advertising abuses were supposedly brought under control by “new policies” announced by CBS on May 15, 1935, which banned advertisements for products that described “graphically or repellently any internal bodily functions … [or] symptomatic results of internal disturbances.” Children’s programs were not to exalt crime or disrespect for parents or authority, nor to glorify cruelty, greed, or selfishness. Commercials were “limited” to 15 percent of daytime programs and 10 percent of evening shows.
The networks were responding to a new pitch of criticism. Merrill Dennison, for instance, concluded in Harper’s that advertising agencies, “vested with all the authority and power of a paymaster,” had destroyed “any lingering idealism concerning the larger significance of the broadcasting medium … a good program sold goods, but a better one sold more goods. To radio’s attitude that it was an industry was added the agency’s theory that it was a midway.” The advertising executive Roy Durstine fought back: the typical listeners, he said, are “a very tired, bored, middle-aged man and woman whose lives are empty and who have exhausted their sources of outside amusement when they have taken a quick look at the evening paper. They are utterly unlike” the most vocal critics, “people with full lives, with books to read, with parties to attend, with theaters to visit, with friends whose conversational powers are interesting. Radio provides a vast source of delight and entertainment for the barren lives of the millions.”
Certainly the sacks of fan mail daily arriving at NBC lent support to such statements. In 1928 NBC received two million letters, among them one from a Buffalo pharmacist: “Your program is surely wonderful and we enjoy your artists.… Have a wonderful business on … [your ginger ale].” In 1931, when two characters in WOR’s “Main Street Sketches” were married, a wedding picture was requested by 150,000 people. After a single announcement, 42,000 people sent in a cigar band to get a picture of Kate Smith. A peculiarity of fan mail was that the audience often responded realistically to fictional situations. When Amos and Andy lamented that they had no typewriter, 1,880 machines arrived; listeners sent nearly five gross of pencils when the blackface stars needed one; bushels of bones and dog biscuits arrived for Amos’s dog, and when Amos and Kingfish started a bank, hundreds of listeners sent dollar bills for deposit.
By 1934 broadcasters were using fan mail as a possible answer to the perpetual question of who was listening. CBS said it had studied 10,000 letters to “The American School of the Air” and found 80 percent to be “from persons of a high order of intelligence.” NBC classified letters by the kind of paper they were written on—fine stationery, cheap letter paper, or scraps—as well as by grammar and word usage. But when a sampling of fan letters was shown to the historian Will Durant, he said that most of them were from “invalids, lonely people, the very aged, the very youthful, hero worshippers and mischievous children … [and] few from the average man or woman.”