Last outing I wrote:
The Wall Street Crash of 1929, known as “Black Tuesday” (October 29), actually began the previous Thursday on October 24 (Black Thursday).That incident was the most devastating stock market crash in the history of the United States, one causing massive lay offs followed by years of extremely hard times. Radio audiences grew as a result of those unemployed folks having lost their disposable income, therefore not having the cash or in some cases the desire to leave home for their entertainment.
Fact: During and immediately after the Great Depression and Recovery the radio gained in popularity becoming the main source of family entertainment. But how?
The beginning of radio:
The Italian inventor and engineer Guglielmo Marconi (1874-1937) developed, demonstrated and marketed the first successful long-distance wireless telegraph and in 1901 broadcast the first transatlantic radio signal.
Radio wouldn’t have been “RADIO” without Guglielmo Marconi and two other gentlemen: Owen Young and Ed Nally, Jr.
Owen Young, originally from GE and using his GE assets was instrumental in forming The Radio Corporation of America ( RCA). In 1919 Young acquired a company known as American Marconi. In doing so, Ed Nally, Jr., the former vice president of American Marconi became the president of RCA.
Let’s talk about the machine itself. Prior to 1925, virtually all radio receivers cost about $65.00 and were powered by large batteries not electricity: a single 1.5v dc dry cell battery and a 22.5v dc B+ battery.
One also needed a set of earphones, a suitable antenna and ground wire.
An amplifier could be purchased at the additional cost of $60.00 to gain a stronger signal so that with a horn speaker also purchased with additional cost, one could allow the entire family to enjoy “the radio”.
A few years later the invention of the A.C. rectifier tube made “plug in” (electric) radios possible.
In 1923 there was about 3 million radio sets (all battery operated) being used in the United States. In 1925, RCA introduced the all-electric receiver set, a game changer. By 1936, America had over 30 million radio sets all AC-powered.
The GOLDEN AGE OF RADIO, the time when radio reached its peak popularity with the general public is considered the period from 1933 throughout most of the 1950’s. Strange as it may seem this period started when most Americans had few luxuries, many with fewer necessities. For these depression era folks the radio was their escape as it supplied cheap, “affordable” entertainment.
While radios units were considered a “luxury” most could be bought “on time”. Even a hard pressed family struggling made their required radio payments, sometimes in lieu of other necessities.
These radios of The Golden Age weren’t small, they were large, tubular devices usually built into a cabinet and utilized as a piece of furniture in the family room.
By1935, automobiles were being equipped with radios.This radio phenomena was catching on. So, now that you have one of these new fangled inventions, what was there to listen to?
At first, radio programs were produced “live” in house. Imagination was the key, radio was strictly audio, not visual. The bike riding unicyclist telling tired jokes once a star in vaudeville would not make it on radio. To make it one had to come up with an idea, a concept or be a “star” attraction to have a show developed around you.
Most radio shows were about an hour in length and a bit expensive to produce depending on the salaries of cast members, the audio equipment, staffing, rent, etc. So sponsors, patrons of the arts so to speak, were needed.
Radio programs of that era were typically produced by a singular sponsor. There was The EVER READY HOUR, THE CHASE AND SANBORN HOUR, MAJOR BOWES AMATEUR HOUR, THE BAKER’S BROADCAST(with Rudy Vallee) and THE KATE SMITH HOUR. With the sponsor “owning” the show, the sponsor also controlled the show’s content.
In 1932 Ed Wynn pioneered the idea of performing LIVE in front of a studio audience.
But first a word about the development of radio networks. In 1923 two east coast radio stations thought it would be cost effective, that is more profitable, if they could share a few programs by linking two stations via telephone lines thus broadcasting one show on two stations at the same time, a revolutionary idea. Soon more stations linked in and the first radio NETWORK was born.
Well…NOT SO FAST, as AT&T (American Telephone and Telegraph stepped in attempting to monopolize the “wireless telephone service”.
The Department of Justice decided this infringement by AT&T was a monopoly and this being the era of TRUST BUSTING, AT&T had to pay dearly by selling off their radio company. Stepping in was RCA for a piece of that action. AT&T not to be outdone by the DOJ banned all competitors from using AT&T lines.
GE, WESTINGHOUSE, and RCA decided to sidestep this ban by starting their own network of stations The National Broadcasting Company and THE NBC RADIO NETWORK and it’s Affiliates with David Sarnoff as their President is born.
The local affiliates were given the authority to run their own local commercials around network programming, a practice still found today in TV land. Another regional network The CBS RADIO NETWORK started to show signs of struggling financially.
WILLIAM PALEY thought that purchasing CBS would in turn help his father’s profitable cigar company sell more cigars.(Yes, folks you could not make this up and it is THEE William Paley). Once up and profitable CBS became a rival to NBC.
When NBC’s monopolistic tendencies were challenged, the NBC network was forced to split into two parts, NBC RED and NBC BLUE. NBC BLUE was later sold and became ABC RADIO NETWORK.
Let’s not the leave the newspapers out. Before radio, news print was the way most citizens received their news, however slanted that news might be, this being the era of Muckrackers, Yellow Journalism, etc, etc.
So these new fangled radio networks start to do public service news reports, mostly local news with a bit of national flavor tossed in.
However, more importantly was the radio’s “breaking news” flashes and “news as it was happening” reports. Advantage in news reporting moves from newspapers to the radio and with that advantage those precious advertising dollars also shifted over to the radio. The only problem was newspapers controlled all the teletype machines which supplied the radio stations with their news, features, weather and up to date bulletins from around the world. In an attempt to side step this teletype issue William Paley of CBS set up its own news gathering agency.
The newspaper men became irate and sued CBS to cease .The paper unions also threw NBC under the bus for good measure by demanding that NBC News could broadcast only 2 five minute news summaries each day AND only after the morning edition of the newspapers hit the street AND again later after the evening’s edition of the paper was out. Also, to stymy the radio’s revenue, the radio news programs were prohibited from having sponsors. Newspaper men were “Giants of the Earth” at this time and won out.
Well, may be not in the long run. The radio stations found the chore of seeking, gathering, and producing news was not profitable so they reverted to music. Music being a lot cheaper than supporting a news staff. Ratings also supported the fact that most listeners were more interested in hearing music than the news.
In this The GOLDEN AGE of radio it must be asked how did a program grab and keep the interest of its listeners? Answer is simple : By imagination and a little thing called soap operas (sponsored by soap companies). The brain trusts of radio networks started to develop good family oriented programs like: “AMOS ’N ANDY” (racist as it might have been), GUNSMOKE, THE SHADOW, DICK TRACEY, BUCK ROGERS and then the “SIXTY FOUR DOLLAR QUESTION” a game show where the prize was not 64 thousand dollars, not 64 hundred dollars, just 64 bucks. THE 64 DOLLAR QUESTION was such a success it fostered the rise of other quiz shows:STOP THE MUSIC, BREAK THE BANK, all offering numerous cash prizes to participants.
Most ad agencies controlled the radio shows into the late 1940’s, hence we had Geritol, Evaporated Milk, and the proverbial “9 out of ten doctors recommend Lucky Strike cigarettes”.
See you next time…. Chapter 7: MORE THIEVERY . Comments? firstname.lastname@example.org