Radio Grows Up

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The drama category included a genre that had seeped throughout radio’s daytime hours. Neither invented nor developed, soap operas appeared to spring full-blown from the ether. What some consider their earliest manifestations, “The Amos and Andy Show” or “The Goldbergs,” were really situation comedies, mini-dramas complete in each daily episode. The classic soap opera was, according to James Thurber, “a kind of sandwich whose recipe is … between thick slices of advertising spread twelve minutes of dialogue, add predicament, villainy and female suffering in equal measure, throw in a dash of nobility, sprinkle with tears, season with organ music, cover with a rich announcer sauce and serve five times a week.” These concoctions began to wash over the airwaves in 1931; by 1933 there were nine in the daytime and three in the evening, including such perennials as “Ma Perkins” and “The Romance of Helen Trent.” By 1935 there were nineteen soaps on the air and two years later thirty-one, among them “John’s Other Wife” and “David Harum.” By 1940 the daytime air was clogged with no fewer than sixty.

By 1937 the average listener had his set on for four hours and twenty-two minutes every day.

Like popular music, soap operas were churned out in a factory system in which the creative labor was rationally subdivided into simple tasks. In one such factory the owners, Frank and Anne Hummert, dictated story plots for some twenty dramas and then farmed them out to writers called dialogers. The single most prolific writer was Irna Phillips, who, in a typical year, ground out 2 million words, the equivalent of twenty-two full-length novels. Actors generally went on the air after an hour’s rehearsal. The major thrust of the story was that there would be no major thrust: “A man saying goodbye in Friday’s episode,” said one observer, “is still departing the following Wednesday.” The historical weekly serial “Drums and Roses” stretched out longer than the Civil War it described. But though intellectuals spent a good deal of time ridiculing, dissecting, and denouncing soaps—and one New York psychiatrist blamed them for the relapses of his patients—listenership was small indeed, especially when compared with evening variety shows and special broadcasts. The record audience for a broadcast during the thirties, the Max Schmeling-Joe Louis bout in June 1938, had a Crossley rating of 57.6. (This meant that 57.6 percent of all those who had turned on their radios during that day had heard it.) Roosevelt’s “Fireside Chats” ranged between 30.0 and 40.0. By contrast, the leading soap opera, “Ma Perkins,” had only 8.0 to 9.0, and the average for all soap operas was 4.5, a matter of some 600,000 listeners. Among weekly programs at the top of the ratings in 1939 were Charlie McCarthy and Edgar Bergen, averaging 44.7, and Jack Benny, with 36.0.

These shows, too, were mass-produced. Carroll Carroll described the operations of the “first and undoubtedly the most efficient of the many joke factories that radio brought into being,” the pressure cooker in a three-story Central Park West penthouse operated by David Freedman. A compulsive gambler, Freedman was forced by his costly habit out of writing short stories for the Saturday Evening Post and into supplying the likes of Eddie Cantor and Fanny Brice with comedy routines. Jokes were filed alphabetically, by subject, in cabinets lining the walls of the apartment. A corps of young men combed periodicals for additional material and also carefully refiled all used material. On most weekday evenings, Freedman would preside over a “writing and rapping session” until two or three in the morning. “Much time was spent,” Carroll recalled, “as David got out the Talmud… to look up lessons that could be converted into a five-minute routine.” At one session the comedian Lou Holtz mused that Cole Porter’s words were genuine poetry. Freedman emerged cursing “from the depths of his mental retreat like a Polaris missile bursting from the sea. Then he began to sing Die Lorelei . ‘That,’ he said softly, ‘that is poetry. That is a lyric. That is Heinrich Heine.’” And that is the atmosphere in which was created Americans’ most popular entertainment, the pastime that consumed more of their waking hours than anything except work.

B Y 1937, THE average listener had his set on for four hours and twenty-two minutes every day. But he still didn’t hear much news. The conventional wisdom within the five-block radius of Rockefeller Center, where the radio industry had nested, was that for balance sheets, no news was good news. NBC “does not feel that it has a responsibility to its listeners to supply all the news,” said the network’s vicepresident Frank Mason in 1935. Nevertheless, radio executives were impressed with the popularity of newspaper columnists. On the air the staccato delivery of Walter Winchell and the sober intonation of David Lawrence; Boake Carter’s erudite British accent and Lowell Thomas’s short sentences and personal anecdotes; Gabriel Heatter’s lugubrious “There’s good news tonight …”—these personal styles gradually developed a following for radio news. Billed as “commentators,” they tried to interpret the events happening in Washington and elsewhere in the world. And they could—and did—find sponsors.