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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
The 1932 presidential race was radio’s classic political campaign. Not only had the Depression focused the nation’s interest on the contest, not only had radio sets become ubiquitous in people’s homes and in public places, but the personalities of the candidates offered dramatically contrasting images. Both the incumbent Herbert Hoover and Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt were amply exposed to the radio audience. The Democrats used 51.5 hours of network time, the same amount as in 1928, while the Republicans massively increased their time purchases from 42.5 hours in 1928 to 73.0 hours in 1932. For the networks the campaign was a bonanza. CBS charged $17,000 per hour instead of the $4,000 it had charged in 1928; NBC, for its much larger network, charged $35,000 per hour.
Nevertheless, Hoover, in addition to projecting a colorless and impotent image in the face of massive economic disaster, also suffered from overexposure; some ninety-five of his speeches had been broadcast during the previous four years. If listeners were indeed judging politicians more coolly and logically, Hoover should have enjoyed a wide appeal. In fact, many trivial events influenced voters. One was a speech Hoover broadcast on Tuesday, October 4, at 8:30 P.M. At 9:30 P.M. , as The Nation described it, “listeners confidently awaited the President’s concluding words. Confidently and also impatiently, for at 9:30 … Mr. Ed Wynn comes on the air. But Mr. Hoover had only arrived at point 2 of his 12-point program. The populace shifted in its myriad seats; wives looked at husbands; children allowed to remain up until 10 o’clock on Tuesdays looked in alarm at the clock; 20,000 votes shifted to Franklin Roosevelt. At 9:45, Mr. Hoover had arrived at point four; two million Americans switched off their instruments and sent their children to bed weeping.” In New York City alone, station WEAF was pelted with 800 phoned protests, and the network was so swamped with furious phone calls that only 6,000 got through to be counted.
In Roosevelt’s campaign speeches, however, “each word, each phrase, each sentence,” wrote the New York Daily News broadcast critic Ben Gross, “seemed to be built… with the invisible audience in mind … big issues were invested with a sense of intimacy. Roosevelt realized that though his radio audience numbered millions, this vast gathering was divided into small groups of individuals in homes, bars, restaurants and automobiles. So while painting a verbal picture expansive enough for a museum mural, he reduced it to the proportions of a miniature hanging cozily on the wall of a living room.”
Roosevelt was the first President to address the nation directly by radio, as opposed to simply permitting a speech before a group to be broadcast. Bryson Rash, a newscaster who had covered the campaign and was present at the first such talk on March 12, 1933, recalled that when the President entered the blue-draped White House room that was set up as a studio, it seemed that “the lights were suddenly turned on because of his cheerfulness and wit and tremendous love of banter.” From the first his speeches were timed to end precisely in the time allotted. In a privately distributed booklet, CBS triumphantly described the impact of that initial radio talk: “Surely, no one thing could have flung radio farther forward in the minds of men who must win public faith in a name, or an idea, or a product, than the use of the microphone to sell American sanity. ” The booklet went on to quote an observer who had lauded Roosevelt’s inaugural speech a week earlier: in “eight minutes over the radio, advertising ‘courage’ conquered despair.… Let [any advertising man] figure how much Mr. Roosevelt’s 8 minutes over the radio added to the cash value of the nation.… Commodity markets pulsated, dollars rose around the world, demand for department store credit leaped 40%.”
This vigorous election coverage, however, did little to soften the networks’ basic resistance to broadcasting serious news. American broadcasters had always lumped under the rubric news any happening from a wedding in an airplane to the election of a President. But there were priorities: in May of 1932 CBS’s sole European correspondent, César Saerchinger, was in Frankfurt arranging coverage of a Sängerfest when he learned that Chancellor Heinrich Brüning had been forced to resign. Saerchinger rushed to Munich and persuaded Hitler to make a fifteenminute broadcast for $1,500. CBS told Saerchinger to get back to the Sängerfest , cabling: “Unwant Hitler at any price.”
E VEN WITH their loose definition of news, the networks offered only tiny portions of it. NBC devoted just 2 percent of its programing to news in 1932, increasing to 3.8 percent in 1939. Included in these categories were such productions as “The March of Time,” a portentously dramatized weekly recreation of news events. And when the networks tried more ambitious programing, it often was greeted unenthusiastically by member stations. After great expense and effort to broadcast an international yacht race, for example, NBC received a wire from an affiliated station: “The Middle West has never heard of a J-Class sloop, has never seen one and never will. Give us music.”