- 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
Much of this fan mail, especially after the mid-thirties, was prompted by free offers by sponsors or stations themselves. But some programs sought to generate mail for other reasons: U.S. senators received some 200,000 telegrams, inspired by Father Coughlin’s opposition to the World Court. Coughlin’s weekly fulminations attracted an estimated 30 million listeners on an independent network of thirty-one stations. By 1935 he claimed he was receiving half a million letters a week. Coughlin solicited contributions, and these had built, over a ten-year period, a $750,000 shrine and support for a staff of 220, half-ownership of a Detroit printing plant, and $14,000 per week to purchase air time.
Despite increasingly sophisticated audience research, the networks also relied heavily on fan mail for program decisions. Salaries of stars were often based on how many letters they drew; Ed Wynn, for example, attracted 5,000 to 22,000 per week; Rudy Vallee never received fewer than 100 a day and sometimes 11,000 per week. NBC claimed to have received more than five and a half million letters in 1936. So important had fan mail become that the network spent $300,000 the next year on postage to answer each letter. Furthermore, it had established an elaborately mechanized system using punch cards and a staff of “expert correspondents, statisticians, library researchers, mail boys, stenographers … [and] hardworking, eagle-eyed young women” to process communications from listeners. Laborers in this vineyard had, over the years, collected some favorites: “For the sake of suffering humanity … a hot dinner plate placed outside the shirt over a pain will give relief in ten minutes.”
“Last night our baby was born during the Victory Hour. We are going to raise him on the radio.”
Rudy Vallee is “more wonderful than Beethoven’s Sonatas.”
One astute listener captured one of radio’s major appeals. Responding to radio coverage of the 1931 London Naval Conference, an early effort at spot reporting of news events, this gentleman had commended “an enterprise that permits ordinary men to button up their underwear to the accompaniment of an address by a European monarch.”
E NABLING THE listener to be present at a news-making event, as this letter writer realized, was radio’s most remarkable contribution to journalism. It was truly magical, at first, to listen directly to the actual voices of the participants and to visualize, aided by increasingly skillful announcers, the actual setting for these events.
Politicians quickly recognized this. In the 1920s, when Elihu Root was asked to speak into a microphone, the statesman could expostulate: “Take that away. I can talk to a Democrat, but I cannot speak to a dead thing.” But by 1928 the Republicans were allocating the largest share of their presidential campaign budget to radio. Al Smith was the last major politician in America who could exclaim, as he was propelled closer to a microphone: “Leave me alone! I don’t like these things.” During the 1928 campaign live audiences received Herbert Hoover in “a frost” and Smith in “a frenzy,” but radio, said one observer, “has converted a poor platform speaker [Hoover] into an effective campaigner and has nullified the influence of a master-campaigner [Smith].” While working its change on political style, radio also offered access to audiences of staggering size. When Hoover and Smith gave election-eve addresses on November 5, 1928, their potential audience was estimated at 40 million. (By comparison, the speaker previously thought to have addressed the largest number of people, the evangelist Dwight L. Moody, had reached an estimated 100 million listeners in his whole lifetime.)
But politicians had good reason to be wary of the new medium. The old-style hellfire-and-brimstone speech seemed to alienate rather than inspire listeners. Radio “has slain the political orator,” said the Saturday Evening Post . “The day of the spell-binder is over. ” Aylesworth believed that radio detached the listener from mob psychology; instead, “he judges logically the relative merits of the candidates. Fire-eating and armswinging are gone from the political arena. Common sense, facts and figures and cool logic have taken their place.”
David Sarnoff in 1930 spoke of the American citizen “in his armchair at the fireside … judging political issues, not only from the record of the parties, but from the personality of the candidates. The catchwords of oratory ring somewhat hollow in such environment.” H. V. Kaltenborn noted in 1931 that radio had made political audiences more tolerant of views different from their own; fewer listeners demanded that speakers with views opposed to their own be removed from the air. By the same token, radio was gaining respect among speakers; some, he noted, refused to appear at banquets unless the proceedings also were broadcast. “After you have talked to millions on the air,” he explained, “a roomful of foodstuffed celebrants means nothing.”