Radio Grows Up

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Not that music was uncontroversial. Soon after having a radio installed in her home, Gertrude Stein observed that “there is a deplorable amount of music going on in the world.” But despite the belaboring of the networks by intellectuals for their huge trash-bag of popular music, radio in America did create a vast audience for concert music. The first live network concert, NBC’s 1926 broadcast of Serge Koussevitzky conducting the Boston Symphony, attracted a million listeners. Both networks presented weekly full-dress concerts throughout the thirties; the Philadelphia Symphony under Leopold Stokowski on CBS and the New York Philharmonic under Arturo Toscanini on NBC. In 1931 NBC had persuaded the Metropolitan that it was technically capable of broadcasting grand opera and paid $100,000 for exclusive rights; within three years these broadcasts were the second most popular on daytime radio (“Father Coughlin” was first). In 1937 NBC lured Toscanini back to New York by paying him $40,000 plus his taxes for a ten-week season, and by 1938 the opera audience was estimated at 12 million.

“Unwant Hitler at any price,” wired CBS when its correspondent announced that he’d arranged an interview.

In New York a new independent station devoted solely to classical music and news had successfully entered the crowded airwaves. From a tiny experimental transmitter run by a radio inventor named John Vincent Hogan Lawless, by 1937 WQXR had grown—largely through the efforts of Lawless’s partner Elliott Sanger—into a commercially successful enterprise. The publisher M. Lincoln Schuster called the station “more than a miraculous and never-ending source of the world’s best music, but almost literally a habit, a sanctuary and a way of life. … If Keats were alive today, he would write a sonnet on first tuning in to Station WQXR.” The station’s success was based on the assumption that the listener is an intelligent and cultured person, a statement that The New Yorker called “the most astounding ever made by radio men.” Indeed, the station never accepted ads for laxatives, corn cures, baby pants, athlete’s foot remedies, or deodorants. It wanted no messages, said Sanger, “which would jar the sensibilities of a person who was still in a mood of exaltation after hearing a great masterwork.” But Sanger did persuade the New York Yankees to sponsor an afternoon program of good music interspersed with baseball scores and the New York Stock Exchange to pay for a Friday-evening symphony. Even the grand curmudgeon of commercial radio, the American Tobacco Company president George Washington Hill, was impressed by the maverick station. A cowboy hat tilted back on his head, he put his boots on the table while listening to a proposal for “The Treasury of Music,” a series that would feature Caruso recordings. At the end of the presentation, Hill pounded his fist on the desk and proclaimed, “We’ll make Caruso the Charlie McCarthy of this program.”

That was pretty much what the philosopher and music critic Theodor Adorno feared. Over the radio, he said, great music became just “a piece of furniture in a private room,” simultaneously “trivialized and romanticized.” What the listener “heard is not Beethoven’s Fifth but merely musical information from and about Beethoven’s Fifth. ” Finally, Adorno charged radio with the “electrocution of symphony” and claimed that, like other ready-made articles, it made the consumer “passive.”

No element of radio programing, however, took such advantage of the listener’s passivity as popular music. Through the 1930s the entire music industry was transformed from an entrepreneur-workshop to a corporate system of mass production. In the genesis of a hit song, a group of sociologists found in 1939 after a detailed study, “any romantic notion of the creative artist must be excluded.… The process must… be viewed … as very practical, almost cold-blooded … carried out according to a standardized pattern based upon past success.” Most songs were written by several people to meet criteria set by music publishers: they should be easy to sing and play; lyrics, which were ten times more important than melody, ought to be “romantic, original and/or tell an appealing story; and the music of the chorus must be 32 bars long.”

Once created, the songs were taken over by “pluggers,” a group of “hardy, indefatigable, insistent and relentless individuals whose sole mission in life is to persuade, wheedle, cajole and implore band leaders and singers to ‘do’ their song.” By such persuasion—and sometimes by direct cash payment—a song would be played fifteen to forty times a week for three to six weeks. If successful, the song would get two to five weeks of follow-up plugging. If not, it would be “abandoned as a ‘dog.’” This was the system by which, in 1938, almost half of American radio programing was selected. An FCC survey during the week of March 6 studied the content of 62,000 radio hours. By then advertising accounted for a solid third. Of the rest, 50 percent was music, largely popular; 9.1 percent drama, 8.8 percent variety, 8.5 percent news and sports; 5.2 percent religious; 2.2 percent special events, and 16.2 percent “miscellaneous,” mostly talks on farm subjects, women’s topics, politics, and general culture.