August/september 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 5
How the novelty item of 1920 became the world-straddling colossus of 1940
IN 1921 Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, who was charged with what meager regulation of the airwaves there was, called radio “an instrument of beauty and learning.” Waldemar Kaempffert, who, as editor of Scientific American , had followed the beginnings of the technology, in 1922 imagined “a radio mother … crooning songs and telling bedtime stories” while “some future Einstein” could elaborate his theories “to a whole world with an ear cocked to catch … his voice as it wells out of the horn.” M. P. Rice, manager of General Electric’s pioneering station in Schenectady, New York, hoped in 1922 “that the power to say something loud enough to be heard by thousands will give rise to the desire to say something worthwhile.”
And indeed, to the growing audience, the sounds that could be discerned above the squawks, screeches, hums, and cracklings of the ether were pure enchantment. The sports columnist Red Barber listened for the first time in 1924, at the home of a high school friend in central Florida. “A man … in Pittsburgh said it was snowing there. … Somebody sang in New York … a banjo plunked in Chicago … it was sleeting in Atlanta.” Barber walked home at dawn filled with “intimations of a new life … I was excited completely.”
So were millions of others as they braved an ear-rending racket on primitive earphones. Hundreds of manufacturers leaped into production, but most audio fans in the early 1920s built their own sets from a chunk of germanium crystal hooked to a coiled copper wire, both attached to a “breadboard.” The most expensive component was the headset, at $1.98; families often would place it in a soup bowl and cluster with their ears close to this primitive loudspeaker. What they heard was “ AWK … RAACK … hello out there … hello ouBriee … crackle … snap … weee … this is … ROAR … HISS … STA tion 8 xk CRASH -hiss … ROA rrr … pop.…”
The transmitters were equally crude. The first microphone at WLW in Cincinnati was a huge morning-glory horn eight feet long and three feet across. “You shouted into the big end,” an announcer recalled, but to be sure of being heard, “you stuck your head halfway down into it.” Phonograph music was transmitted “by putting the morning-glory horn of the phonograph player against the morning-glory horn that was the microphone.” Similar contraptions were the rule at most of the stations, which erupted, like measles, across the American landscape in 1922. At the beginning of that year there were 28 stations, by the end, 570, all operating on just two frequencies. Total confusion was averted only because most of them had little power—twenty to fifty watts—and none of them operated full time. During the next two years, however, the situation degenerated into complete chaos. Some 1,400 stations, said one critic, filled the air with “shrieks and groans, cross-talks, muddled and garbled music and announcements” to create “a radio reign of terror.” Hoover declared the license book “filled” and refused to issue any more until compelled by court order.
While what was perhaps the first commercial had already sullied the airwaves on August 28, 1922—a plug for Long Island real estate aired by WEAF New York for $100—most people in the industry saw stations chiefly as a means of promoting sales of radio sets. And despite the din on the headphones, Americans bought more than $350 million worth of radios and parts in 1924; one-third of all money spent on furniture actually went for receivers.
Radio people everywhere were quickly learning that the brash new medium was incredibly voracious. The sheer quantity of material required was staggering. Darwin Teilhet, a critic for Forum in the early 1930s, wrote that his worst problem was to find enough time to listen to all the offerings on radio. Gilbert Seldes, the philosopher of popular culture, compared it to a circus in its “extraordinary mixture of good and dull things, this lack of character,” which, like the circus, made it “easy to like and useless to think about.” The critics recognized early radio’s ability to affect taste and perhaps even thought. Hilda Matheson, a sociologist, hoped radio would “stiffen individuality and inoculate” listeners with “some capacity to think, feel and understand”; otherwise it would become, she thought in 1933, “a huge agency of standardization.” Lee De Forest, inventor of the triode valve, believed that international broadcasting would create “a single audience taking part in a universal forum of enlightenment,” the greatest contribution to world peace ever made.
But whether it provided noble sentiments, uplifting messages, or inoculations of individuality, radio’s major requirement remained material. A visitor who watched the writers of a popular comedy program riffling through gag files asked the producer Carroll Carroll why these haggard folk spent so much time retreading old jokes rather than creating new ones. “There isn’t time,” Carroll said. “Radio needs too much material too often. It eats up copy too fast. No one is capable of being that creative all the time… so men who are funny have to develop a technical skill for reconstituting comedy so that there’ll be enough to supply the market.”
James Thurber said that early radio was “something like the deck of a sinking ship … old timers sound curiously like … survivors of disasters. ” By 1927, however, the ad hoc days were largely over. No longer would listeners be startled by inspirations like the one that came to the announcer Norman Brokenshire as he struggled desperately to fill an unexpected five-minute pause. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he told his audience as he thrust the microphone outside the studio window, “we bring you the sounds of New York City.” And those who tuned in on WHN (now WMGM) could no longer join “an enchanting madhouse,” where the announcer Nils T. Grandlund would sob out Kipling’s “Boots” four or five times a night as listeners requested it and the pianist Harry Richman would repeat and repeat a ditty titled “There’s No Hot Water in the Bronx.” Instead, increasingly large chunks of territory were being brought into the orderly orbit of two fiercely competing networks: the National Broadcasting Company, established in 1926, and the upstart Columbia Broadcasting System, founded the following year.
NBC was the inspiration of Owen D. Young, the board chairman of General Electric and the Radio Corporation of America. Half its shares were held by RCA, 30 percent by GE, and 20 percent by the Westinghouse Corporation, and its original purpose was to stimulate sales of radio sets, for which all three corporations held vital patents. By the summer of 1927 NBC had forty stations covering major markets across the United States, all linked by telephone lines leased from AT&T. Each time a new station joined, radio sales within its territory doubled within a month. And to the parent companies’ delight, the network programs also attracted commercial sponsors. Its very first offering, a four-and-one-half-hour variety show on November 15,1926, was punctuated by discreet sales pitches for Dodge automobiles. After that, wrote the radio critic Robert J. Landry, the “sponsor system” was never “seriously threatened.”
This was particularly true because NEC’s vigorous competitor had no patents and consequently no radio sales to add luster to its balance sheet. Depending entirely on advertising revenue, the twenty-seven-year-old William Paley brought imagination, energy, and gall to the CBS sixteen-station network he took over in 1928. He had persuaded his father and a few familyfriends in Philadelphia to buy the ailing company as an advertising medium for the family-owned La Palina Cigar Company. To succeed it would have to subsist entirely on selling time to advertisers.
B OTH NETWORKS faced the big question of how much tolerance the audience would have for commercial messages. As early as 1922 Hoover had told the First Annual Radio Conference that it was “inconceivable” that such a “great … possibility for service … news … entertainment … education” should be “drowned in advertising chatter.” He urged that direct advertising be confined solely to the call letters of the station and the name of the sponsor. Two years later Hoover told the Third National Radio Conference that the “quickest way to kill broadcasting” would be to lard it with advertising. “If a speech by the President is to be used as the meat in a sandwich of two patent medicine advertisements,” he warned, “there will be no radio left. ” Advertisers themselves were distinctly timid about the number and stridency of their messages. In 1926 Herbert Wilson Smith of the National Carbon Company explained that advertising must be “delicately handled,” as in the following message: “Tuesday evening means the Ever-Ready Hour, for it is on this day and at this time each week that the National Carbon Company, makers of Ever-Ready flashlight and radio batteries, engages the facilities of these 14 radio stations to present its artists in original radio creations. Tonight, the sponsors of the hour have included in the program, etc.…” This kind of delicacy, however, quickly crumbled. In the 1927–28 season thirty-nine companies sponsored programs on NBC and four on CBS, including the A&P Gypsies, the Fisk Time to Re-Tire Boys, and Frank Munn and Virginia Rea, singers who were billed as Paul Oliver and Olive Palmer for Palmolive. For the 1928–29 season sixty-five sponsors bought network time. Even more prophetic was N. W. Ayer’s founding, during that season, of a separate radio department with a capacity not only to advise clients about radio advertising but also to produce whole programs.
Alarmed by the proliferation of advertising, the year-old Federal Radio Commission, in August 1928, refused to renew the license of station WCRW because it “exists chiefly for … advertising of a character which must be objectionable to the listening public. ” The commission put four other stations on probation, renewing their licenses for only thirty days instead of the customary ninety, because their listeners had no alternative to “unwelcome messages … entering the walls of their homes.” Nevertheless NBC sold $10.0 million worth of advertising in 1928 and $15.0 million in 1929. CBS net sales that year were $4.2 million.
Yet advertising and network executives remained exceedingly cautious about offending listeners. In 1930, as NEC’s advertising revenues leaped to $22.0 million, the company’s president, Merlin H. Aylesworth, told the Senate Committee on Interstate Commerce that commercial sponsorship of such programs as football games was unsuitable. “I just did not quite like to see the Yale-Harvard game announced,” he told the senators, ” ‘through the courtesy of so-and-so.’ ” Paley told the committee that advertising took up less than one percent of his network’s air time, while William S. Hedges, president of the National Association of Broadcasters, assured the senators that his own station, WMAQ Chicago, limited commercials to one minute per half-hour and that many NAB members “do not use as much as that.” The NAB’s standards of commercial practice, promulgated in 1929, forbade any advertising at all between 7:00 and 11:00 P.M.
But as the broadcasters all too quickly discovered, the audience was a good deal more impervious than had been thought and, far from objecting to the rising commercialism of the airwaves, it enthusiastically embraced it. By January 1,1929, a survey by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor, Daniel Starch, commissioned by NBC, found that one-third of American homes had a radio, that 67 percent of the more than 11 million sets had enough tubes to bring in an adequate signal, that the audience numbered 41.4 million people, and that 80 percent of them had developed a habit of listening daily, mostly from 8:00 to 10:00 P.M. Tastes in programing, Starch found, were amazingly uniform, though rural listeners showed slight preferences for religious services, crop and market reports, and children’s programs, while urbanites leaned slightly toward concert music and opera.
M ORE SIGNIFICANT than the findings was the process; Starch was the first of a legion of academics who would be drafted by the radio industry to answer that most pressing question: Who is listening? Only a year before the Starch survey, a trade publication, Radio Broadcasting , had ridiculed a proposed listener survey by the Association of National Advertisers as “equivalent to determining the number of crickets chirping at any given instant, in a swamp, on a foggy summer evening.” But the claims and counterclaims of networks and individual stations were often so overblown that advertisers were beginning to insist on unbiased audience surveys.
The size of the audience might be in dispute, but on the value of radio its executives were predictably enthusiastic. Aylesworth deemed it “an uplifting influence in the lives of people,” and thought “the mere simultaneous participation as listeners to great radio programs” was making Americans “a far more homogeneous people.” NBC’s general engineer, C. W. Horn, believed it would remove “the last barriers to … perf ect understanding among peoples… [so that]… the people themselves will form their opinions and not be dependent upon leaders or spokesmen.” But now there was widespread dissent from these Utopian fancies. As early as 1924 the journalist Bruce Bliven had described the emanations from the “magic toy” as “outrageous rubbish,” and in 1930 the literary critic Henry Volkening berated “the whole commercial system of broadcasting” for programs that mostly “tickle the tastes of the mentally deficient.” The general level of American radio, he charged, was pitched at fifteen-year-olds. This was disputed by William Orton in the Atlantic Monthly : he believed programs were beamed at thirteen-year-olds. He bitterly quoted Federal Bureau of Education instructions for would-be radio teachers: “Do not overrate the intelligence of your listeners. Anecdotes, short and clearly to the point, are good. ” He concluded that “where the thought [of the mass] … and its demands dominates and colors all activity, civilization itself may ultimately be in peril. The redemption of the mass cannot come except from minorities.”
This mounting criticism of radio was prompted by a profound change in its merchandising efforts. As Fortune noted in 1932, sponsors in 1930 “still hesitated to put a substantial merchandising pill into their amusement sugar. … Radio was polite. Radio was genteel. Radio was the guest in the home, not the salesman on the doorstep. … But some eighteen further months of Depression have changed all that.” On local stations, the “hard sell, repetition and blatancy were standard, ” recalled one announcer; “sirens, gongs, even pistol shots frequently introduced announcements.” On Detroit’s WJR, “after each three songs sung by a blind tenor, Harold Keen, … would come the reading of ten consecutive announcements. In forty-five minutes, thirty announcements would be presented. Sometimes, while the announcer was going through his stint, a salesman would tiptoe into the studio and sneak another announcement on the bottom of the waiting pile.”
On the networks, too, commercial messages burgeoned; in 1931 a total of 343 sponsors spent $37.5 million on radio advertising. And advertisers were taking increased interest in the program content. The year 1931 saw the demise of programs like “The Gold Dust Twins,” “The Cliquot Club Eskimos,” and “The Interwoven Pair,” largely musical shows packaged by the networks and sold to sponsors. Now it was increasingly the sponsor or his advertising agency who developed the entire program. The change found few advertising people ready, recalled Carroll Carroll, “but all were prepared to fake it. … Every day … was an on-the-job training session.” The music to be played by Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians was selected by the wife of the advertising manager for General Cigar Company. “Men who ran oil companies, drug, food and tobacco corporations,” Fred Alien recalled, “were attending auditions, engaging talent.” When Ed Wynn was first considered for a radio program, a group of Texaco officials sat through his entire Broadway show with their eyes closed, to imagine how it would work on radio. “It was inevitable,” Alien ruefully concluded, “that the sponsors would soon consider themselves authorities on the tastes … of the general public.” On his own program Alien had to accept an organ solo in the middle because the sponsor’s wife liked organ music. It was, he said, “like planting a pickle in the center of a charlotte russe.”
And yet one could hardly blame the advertisers for exploiting a medium that seemed to have a wondrous effect on sales curves, despite the Depression. Fortune cited the example of Bourjois, a French cosmetic company that sponsored a program called “Evening in Paris” to give cachet to its products. So many women started asking for a nonexistent perfume that bore the name of the show that Bourjois created an “Evening in Paris” line; it promptly outsold all its competitors combined. In view of such success, the hard-sell increasingly blared forth on the airwaves. One critic described “First Nighter,” a half-hour program with twelve minutes of advertising, as a drama “rotted away by commercials.” By 1934 advertisers were spending $42.6 million on radio, 15 percent of their total advertising budget, and radio was the only medium with a consistent gain in revenue, Depression notwithstanding. Between 1928 and 1934 radio advertising had grown by 316 percent; newspaper advertising had dropped by 30 percent and that of magazines by 45 percent. Some 246 daily newspapers ceased publication entirely.
Understandably the print media resented the intrusive new medium, even though a number of newspapers owned stations (by 1940 they would own almost one-third of all stations in the United States). Locked as they were in desperate competition with radio for advertising dollars, newspapers and magazines tried to ignore it in their editorial columns. A study showed that while newspapers claimed 400 or more “radio editors,” most of them were office boys or old men who simply edited the daily radio logs or network handouts, occasionally highlighting a few programs in boxes. To punish radio, some newspapers even stopped running a daily program log, but reader protests forced them to bring it back.
In March of 1933 the newspaper publishers made a last-ditch effort: they shut off the radio networks from all three news services. In the news drought that ensued, Paul White, the CBS news director, agreed with his arch-competitor, NBC news director Abel Schechter, that both networks would carry news so long as either one of them “could (1) read and (2) make phone calls and send cables. ” Schechter found it “remarkable how many good stories you can pick up by taking out a membership in the Scissors-and-Pastepot Press Association.” Some local stations continued to filch newspaper items, but several lawsuits established that news has a commercial value based, like that of fish, on its freshness. The life of a news item was set by various courts at between four and twenty-four hours.
In January of 1934 radio and newspaper representatives signed a truce. A special Press-Radio Bureau would be established to give the networks fiveminute news summaries to be broadcast in the morning, but not before 9:30 A.M. , and in the evening, after 9:00 P.M. The networks would pay for this news, even though they could not sell it to sponsors. In addition, the bureau would supply bulletins for news of “transcendent” importance. “The only saving grace of this arrangement,” said the commentator H. V. Kaltenborn, “is that it won’t work.” Indeed, during its first year of operation, the Press-Radio Bureau issued 4,670 bulletins of “transcendent” news, 2,300 of them dealing with the trial of the Lindbergh baby kidnaper Bruno Hauptmann. By the end of 1934, Transradio News, founded by the former CBS news director George Malore, had signed up 150 stations, and by 1935, International News Service and United Press were again serving radio networks; Associated Press, which was owned cooperatively by newspapers, resumed its radio tickers only in 1939. The dispute’s major result was precisely what the newspapers had hoped to prevent: the radio networks were prodded into forming their own news organizations.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
The dean of them all was H. V. Kaltenborn, a mature journalist who had been free-lancing as a commentator since the early twenties. Born in Wisconsin, where friends called him “Spiderlegs Kalty,” he had left school at the age of fourteen and served as a twenty-year-old volunteer in the Spanish-American War. He took a degree at Harvard and was the classmate of John Reed, Maxwell Perkins, and Walter Lippmann. By 1910 he had landed a $40-per-week job as an editor at the Brooklyn Eagle ; in 1917 he became its war editor when he was rejected as a volunteer in the Allied Expeditionary Force because his uncle, Hans von Kaltenborn-Stachau, had been German minister of war during the 1890s.
On April 4, 1922, at an experimental radio station in Newark, New Jersey, Kaltenborn clamped his head into a viselike frame to keep his lips near the crude carbon microphone and gave his views on a coal strike, the first “spoken editorial” ever heard on radio. From then on he developed a unique mixture of reporting and extemporized interpretation. By 1930, when he turned to full-time radio work, he had traveled the world and had interviewed Sigmund Freud, Chiang Kai-shek and Chang Tso-lin, Aguinaldo and Manuel Quezon, Adolf Hitler, and the man who had embalmed Lenin. When war broke out in Spain in July 1936, Kaltenborn found a farmhouse located on a thin finger of French territory that protruded into the area where the Battle of Irun was taking place. Then he persuaded a French radio engineer to run a phone line to the farmhouse and also to a haystack in the line of fire. Wires in place, he sent a message to CBS in New York that he could report a raging battle, live and complete with rifle and artillery fire. The reply was: “Stand by. … Too many commercial programs just now.” As Kaltenborn waited, fearful that the fighting would shift away from him, the cable broke twice, and each time the engineer crawled out under fire to splice it. Then, when the network sent word that it was ready, the relay engineer in Bordeaux was out having an apéritif. It was 9:00 P.M. on September 3 when Kaltenborn finally got his pathbreaking broadcast on the air. He spoke for fifteen minutes, pausing at intervals to allow listeners to hear the sounds of rifles and explosions.
For this broadcast, CBS paid him its customary fee—$50.
While the live broadcast was an impressive technical feat, the series of talks he gave upon returning to America had more profound consequences. Not only was Kaltenborn critical of U.S. nonintervention, he also foresaw, as few Americans then did, the possibility of a more widespread war in Europe. The most crucial convert to this point of view was his boss, William Paley. The CBS president was in the midst of an “upgrading” campaign. Burns and Alien, Kate Smith, Lum and Abner, and Eddie Cantor brought in record income—$28.7 million in 1937, more than $3.0 million net, though still less than NEC’s $38.5 million and $3.7 million net—but Paley wanted prestige. In the summer of 1935 he had hired the industrial psychologist Dr. Frank Stanton (who would become president of CBS) as a $55-per-week research specialist and a twenty-eight-year-old named Edward R. Murrow to whom he gave the vaguely defined title of “director of talks.”
A few months later CBS decided to ship Murrow to Europe as chief correspondent. To a Scribner’s reporter of the time, he was “tall without being lanky, darkish without being swarthy, young without being boyish, dignified without being uncomfortable … a scotchand-story man.” Murrow immediately called on J.C.W. Reith, head of the British Broadcasting Corporation; he would need use of BBC facilities for his broadcasts to America. The BBC policy, Reith said proudly, was to give its audience what they should have. “We are not so daring, Sir John,” replied Murrow. “We give the people what they like.”
Though he had no journalistic training or broadcasting experience whatever—he had worked for an international student organization before coming to CBS—Murrow had a natural talent for turning contacts into friends and news sources into scoops.
The first person he hired had just lost his job as Berlin correspondent for Universal News Service. He was William L. Shirer, a crack reporter with an unfortunate handicap. He had broadcast just once for CBS and his voice was extremely soft; “he sounded timorous and often tended to drone.” But he had excellent connections and, like Murrow, his job was mostly to line up other speakers rather than to broadcast himself. Before the end of the year Shirer was installed in Vienna, where he expected the next European crisis to break.
It did. The Nazis marched into Austria on March 11, 1938, and Shirer was prodded out of the Austrian radio studios in Vienna at the point of a bayonet. Paley, in New York and sick in bed with the flu, telephoned the head of Austrian radio to arrange a broadcast. The official broke down and wept, saying it was out of his control. Shirer caught the first plane out and at six-thirty the following evening broadcast from London. “I’m here tonight to report what I saw,” he said, “not to give any personal opinions. ” But he made it clear that the Nazis had lied about “violent Red disorders” in the Austrian capital and told such a vivid story that no one paid much heed to the quality of his voice.
Back in New York, Paley asked his engineers, “Why do we have to depend on one microphone? Can’t we get several overseas reports at the same time for the same program?” The news director immediately ordered Murrow, who had flown to Vienna when Shirer left, to arrange a news roundup for live broadcast eight hours hence, during prime time in America.
T HUS, ON March 13,1938, at 8:00 P.M. , the “Voice of CBS News,” Bob Trout, spoke in Studio 9 on the seventeenth floor of the CBS building: “The program ‘St. Louis Blues’ will not be heard tonight,” he said. Instead, there would be “pickups direct from London, Paris, and such other European capitals as at this late hour abroad have communications channels available.” It was 1:00 A.M. in London, and Shirer smoothly came in on Trout’s cue. He was followed by the leftist M. P. Ellen Wilkinson, then Edgar Ansel Mowrer from Paris, Pierre Huss in Berlin, and Frank Gervasi from Rome. Murrow, who had somehow gained access to a circuit in Vienna, concluded the half-hour roundup, his first significant broadcast.
Both technically and journalistically the program was a landmark. The splicing of firsthand reports on a precise schedule was considered miraculous, though Murrow thought it merely “lucky.” And Paley trumpeted to stockholders that radio, “by merely presenting events as they occurred and the factual but personalized accounts of its own reporters… was able to help make up people’s minds for them and to further one side of the biggest … question of the time, the rise of Nazi power.” NBC’s immediate reaction was to downplay radio news. “Radio is a show,” an NBC executive told the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Its job is to build “illusions of reality for those in the seats before the proscenium of the loudspeakers.” To prove it, NBC news in 1938 featured an international competition for singing mice and, two months after the Anschluss , a talkingparrot contest won by a bird who squawked, “Polly wants a cracker.”
Less than six months after the Anschluss , when Hitler again was restive, this time over the Sudetenland, Shirer cabled New York asking for five minutes a day. “The home office thought I was crazy,” he recalled, and offered five minutes on a Sunday afternoon. But within a week CBS was broadcasting daily, not only from Berlin and Prague but also from London, Paris, Rome, Godesberg, and Munich. Since the Austrian invasion, Murrow had “lived in the air and in a suitcase” to fulfill the command from New York: “Give us this day our European sensation. ” When the Munich crisis broke on September 12, both networks were ready for live coverage at a level never before attempted. Within the next eighteen days, they spent $200,000, more than had ever been paid for coverage of any single sequence of events. CBS carried 151 shortwave pickups and NBC 147—at an average cost of $500 each. This time listeners not only heard directly from observers in various capitals, they also eavesdropped on spontaneous, continuing conversations among all of them as they questioned each other and commented ad lib.
The hero of those twenty tense days was H. V. Kaltenborn, as even the rival NBC news director Abel Schechter conceded. During the long crisis the sixty-year-old commentator lived in Studio 9 at CBS, napping on a cot between bulletins, flashes, running stories, and commentaries. He made 102 broadcasts ranging from two minutes to two hours in length. So habituated did Kaltenborn become to instant analysis that when the Archbishop of Canterbury broadcast a prayer for peace, he analyzed that too. “I drew on everything I had learned during my entire lifetime,” he wrote, “my travels, my interviews, my knowledge of languages, my close association with current events.” Not only correspondents but the participants themselves became familiar voices to American listeners: Mussolini from Trieste, Premier Milan Hodza from Prague, Pope Pius XI from Rome, Hitler personally attacking Czech President Benes, Chamberlain’s myopic “How horrible … that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas-masks here because of a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we need know nothing.” Reporters and commentators were careful to avoid editorializing: “We are trying to provide material on which an opinion may be formed,” said Murrow, “but we are not trying to suggest what that opinion might be.”
The effects of radio coverage during these days were profound. Kaltenborn went from one or two broadcasts per week, at $100 each, to a weekly income of thousands of dollars. For the first time in radio history, news drew more listeners than entertainment. CBS coverage alone received 50,000 fan letters, and so many phone calls came in that Kaltenborn lamented that he had never before or since “had a chance to refuse to talk on the telephone to so many prominent people.”
The coverage of the Munich crisis prompted a major shift in public attitudes toward radio news: in 1937 and early 1938 Columbia University’s Office of Radio Research had found that less than half the public preferred radio to newspapers as news sources; in October 1938, just after Munich, more than two-thirds preferred radio news. Soon after this survey, Congress passed a special bill and, for the first time in history, on April 25, 1939, radio reporters were admitted to the press galleries of the Capitol.
The era of electronic journalism had arrived.
Murrow’s grave “This … is London” was first heard on September 22, 1938. It would become the trademark of his broadcasts during the blitz and, somehow, a symbol of the embattled city. It serves to symbolize, too, how radio had in a very few years grown from a sputtering toy to the vast and powerful engine, which, for all its cant and babble, still kept millions informed of the progress of a worldwide struggle.
I RONICALLY, AS RADIO reached maturity, its decline was already looming. In 1926 the first true television picture had flickered across a tiny screen in Britain. By the early 1930s broadcasting executives regularly were predicting the imminent arrival of commercial television, and in 1938 an antenna for receiving signals from as far away as Washington, D. C., was built atop the Empire State Building. The following year Franklin D. Roosevelt became the first President to appear before the cameras when he opened the New York World’s Fair.
But the Second World War gave radio a reprieve. Though regular television broadcasts began in 1941, they were suspended through the war years. The vast audience created by a flood of cheap television sets did not begin to gather until the late 1940s. By the time America settled in front of the tube, the three networks that had controlled radio had adroitly taken over television as well.
As the big national advertisers switched to television, a rising chorus prophesied radio’s demise. Indeed, for a decade, until the early 1960s, radio floundered to find its new niche. But while the giant audiences for single programs were now watching Milton Berle, the radio audience never tuned out entirely. And under the few giant oaks of vigorous—and expensive—television networks, a profusion of radio stations bloomed. The massive console with its great speakers and multiple dials may have been ousted from the American living room, but it reappeared, sleek and trim, in the bedroom, the automobile, and, eventually, sprout- ing directly from people’s ears. Furthermore, with the opening of hundreds of extra spaces on the broadcast band through development of frequency modulation, radio could offer programs tailored to special interests—classical music, sports, all news, gospel or country or other sub-genres of popular music, even educational programs. In the mid-sixties, for example, a station in Spencer, Iowa, regaled its listeners with readings from the classics. When the reader went on vacation, the station was deluged with a record number of complaints and promptly resumed the readings.
Thus, while radio yielded the center stage as a medium of entertainment, it remained vital. And like a good parent, it passed on its experiences along with many physical characteristics to its offspring. When it came to structuring television, radio was the textbook: almost all the major types of programing—variety, game shows, sitcoms, soap operas, news, sports, live on-the-spot reporting—were spawned by the parent. Even public television still leans heavily on productions by the BBC, which, in the late twenties, pioneered radio dramatizations of great novels and important events.
F REED FROM the pressure to marshal giant audiences for giant advertisers and with a multitude of channels available even in smaller cities, radio is successfully catering to the wishes and needs of specialized audiences while it attracts support from smaller, local advertisers.
Like most predictions, those for radio’s future have been notoriously unreliable, but perhaps there is still room for the enthusiasm with which William Paley spoke in 1930: “Almost every move made in this fantastic beginning business amounted to crossing a new frontier. There were really no precedents and no limits to what you could do or try to do. It was a business of ideas.”