How Radio Brought the World Into American Homes ‹ Literary Hub


Starting in the early 1920s, radio graduated from being a plaything of amateur tinkerers, electrical engineers, and physicists and became big business. There was no lack of entrepreneurs who served up the tantalizing possibility for newcomers to break into the fascinating new technology. In the early days of broadcast radio, home-correspondence programs and residential vocational schools used the romantic image of radio to attract students.

One of the largest schools was the National Radio Institute, which ran ads in the pulp-fiction magazines likely to be read by young men. A different approach was the use of a 1921 publicity photo of Mary Texanna Loomis (18801960), who operated the Loomis College of Radio Engineering in Washington, DC, from 1920 to the mid-1930s. The success of NRI and of Loomiss schoolwhich were just two of numerous such operations in America in the 1920s, 30s, 40s, and even laterwas indicative of the popular view of radio as a possible route to obtaining skills to qualify for a glamorous job.

There was another side to radio, however, that many people found not so attractivethe stereotypical modern scene of groups of people sitting around a restaurant table, saying nothing to one another all the while their noses are stuck in their smartphones, is actually nothing new. The fascination of the new wireless technology was already widespread more than a century ago, with headphones and primitive radios acting as great-grandpas and great-grandmas smartphones!

The eventual widespread availability of AM radio receivers, in homes at all levels of economic status, caused major cultural shocks in entertainment, politics, and religion. Each was, individually, a big shock, but that they occurred almost simultaneously further magnified the impact of each on society. When the BBC broadcast Mozarts Magic Flute live from the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, in January1924, it was received by the UK radio audience to great acclaim. But what exceeded that feat, by a wide margin (although that was not immediately appreciated) was the broadcast by 2LO that same month of the first BBC radio drama.

The fascination of the new wireless technology was already widespread more than a century ago.

Titled A Comedy of Danger, it was the story of a rescue from a coal mine accident. Taking place totally in the dark, the story relied not only on speech and sound effects but also on the listeners imagination. It, too, was received with great enthusiasm by the UK audience. Ironically, when the author of that drama was in America a few months later, he found that radio executives there were of a radically different mind. Instead, they

rejected the whole idea [of radio stories]. That sort of thing might be possible in England, they explained, where broadcasting was a monopoly and a few crackpot highbrows…could impose what they liked on a suffering public. But the American set-up was different: it was competitive, so it had to be popular, and it stood to reason that plays you couldnt see could never be popular.

Never have the experts been so wrong!

Within the next four years American radio dramas appeared on nationwide networks, starting with Real Folks on NBC in 1928, and then Amos n Andy a year later (it had been on Chicagos local radio station WGN as Sam n Henry since January1926). These shows were merely the initial ripple of what would become a tidal wave.

During the following years radio gave American listeners Just Plain Bill (the tale of a small-town barber with a mortgaged shop); The Romance of Helen Trent (during 7,222 broadcasts this program showed that just because a woman is 35 doesnt mean romance is over); Ma Perkins (a kindly amateur philosopher who owned a small-town lumber yard); Johns Other Wife (despite the naughty title, the other wife was Johns proper secretary) ; Pepper Youngs Family (set in middle America, the characters experienced love, hatred, and finally went crazy); Our Gal Sunday (which explored the question, Can a coal miners daughter find happiness married to Englands richest lord?); Young Dr.Malone (featuring a physician who had many adventures between operations, such as surviving being shot down over Germany in the Second World War, emerging victorious from a murder trial, and being saved by a blood transfusion from a fatal illness); When a Girl Marries (what happens when young lovers from opposite sides of the tracks marryand it wasnt always pretty); Backstage Wife (the tale of the troubles a stenographer from the Iowa sticks has after she marries a Broadway matinee idol who is relentlessly pursued by every woman under the age of 85 that he encounters); Young Widder Brown (widowed in her early 30s, the still devastatingly beautiful Ellen Brown spends the next 20years being pursued by every bachelor in Simpsonville)and on and on went the list.

These shows (in 1938 there were at least 50 of them on the air, uttering well over a million words each week) were serials, that is, continuously evolving 15-minute, five-day-a-week presentations from 10:30in the morning to 6 oclock in the evening. Sponsored mostly by the manufacturers of soaps and cleansing agents (in 1936 the top radio advertiser, by far, was Procter & Gamble, with the makers of breakfast foods and laxatives trailing behind), these programs became known as soap operas, dishpan dramas, and washboard weepers.

Specifically targeting the millions of stay-at-home women of the 1920s through the early 1950s, the soaps were tales of perpetually troubled people wallowing in melodrama, and they were both immensely popular and hugely profitable. In 1940 one-third of the total advertising income of NBC and CBS, combined, was due to the soaps.

The development of television, however, and the changing post Second World War economic forces that encouraged the mass departure of working-age women from the house and into the labor force combined to spell doom for the radio soap opera. When Ma Perkins said her final goodbyes on Friday, November25, 1960, after 7,065 broadcasts, it was the end of the road for radio serials after more than three decades of fabulous success.

Along with the adult soaps, broadcast radio also introduced a markedly different sort of dramatic program: the crime-and-horror show. As one writer said of those programs:

Come five oclock each weekday afternoon, millions of American children drop whatever they are doing and rush to the nearest radio set. Here, with feverish eyes and cocked ears, they listen for that first earsplitting sound which indicates that the Childrens Hour is at hand. This introductory signal may be the wail of a police siren, the rattle of a machine gun, the explosion of a hand grenade, the shriek of a dying woman, the bark of a gangsters pistol, or the groan of a soul in purgatory. Whatever it is, the implication is the same. Radio has resumed its daily task of cultivating our childrens moralswith blood-and-thunder effects.

The childrens program that probably best illustrates what Gibson had in mind is Gangbusters, first heard on CBS in January1936. The opening of each broadcast certainly was something to hear: tires screeching, a policemans whistle, the shattering of a glass window, the wail of a sirenall as the background to a voice yelling Calling the police! Calling the G-men! Calling all Americans to war on the underworld! So raucous was this energetic opening that it gave birth to the still common use of the phrase coming on like gangbusters! as a description of anything with a strong start. Despite all the possible objections to the appropriateness of such a program for children, Gangbusters had a huge, loyal, enthusiastic audience, and it stayed on the air for more than 20years (until 1957).

Its almost a guaranteed bet that Hardy would never have listened to any of these horror shows, and certainly not to the soaps (which enjoyed the occasional label of being American rubbish when rebroadcast abroad). Other kinds of broadcasts, however, gained the attention of nearly everyone as politicians discovered radio early on: on June21, 1923, Warren Harding became the first president of the United States to be heard on the radio.

A few months later, in November, former President Woodrow Wilson followed in Hardings footsteps. Hardings successor, Calvin Coolidge, had his 1925 inaugural address broadcast coast to coast over a network of 27 stations, and then, two years later, his February1927 address to a joint session of Congress was transmitted to an audience of 20 million over a network of 42 stations stretching from Portland, Maine, to San Francisco, California. The speech was the first international political broadcast as well, as it was sent by shortwave radio to London, where the BBC rebroadcast it over 2LO to the whole of the UK, to Paris, and to South Africa. President Franklin Roosevelt and Germanys Adolf Hitler brought political radio to its peak, both before and during the Second World War, with Roosevelts Fireside Chats and Hitlers loud, melodramatic (occasionally even unhinged) rants.

As fast as politicians embraced radio, they did not outpace the radio priests, the so-called Bible-thumpers of the ether, who were the ancestors of todays television evangelists. The start of the twentieth century was the age of Elmer Gantry-type evangelists (fundamentalist preachers) who held wildly popular tent revivals attended by vast crowds. It is estimated that the best known of these masters of religious fervor, Billy Sunday (18621935), spoke directly, face-to-face, to a total of perhaps 100 million people over the span of his entire career (as early as 1929 he also had his own radio show, The Back Home Hour).

Thats an impressive number, to be sure, but it could easily be equaled in a single month of Sunday-morning radio broadcasts. The multiplicative force of radio made the preachers who came after Billy Sunday into Hollywood-style celebrities-even cult figures-to millions of listeners during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Television killed old-time radio, but it wasnt a total victory.

The radio age of religion began just two months to the day after KDKA/Pittsburgh broadcast the 1920 Harding-Cox presidential election results, when that same station broadcast the January 2, 1921, sermon of the pastor of Pittsburghs Calvary Episcopal Church. The joining of radio and religion quickly blossomed from that simple beginning into what became known as the Invisible Church, or the Electric Church, or the Electric Pulpit.

These phrases describe what one writer called the promise of GE & Jesus walking hand in hand to make radio [a] rousing commercial success. It also made the radio preachers into influential forces to be reckoned with, whether with a regional or a national reach. Of the former, the Pentecostal evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson (18901944) is noteworthy, as in 1924 she started her very own radio station, KFSG, in Los Angeles (the call letters stood for Kall FourSquare Gospel).

Even when such programs were at the height of popularity, much more was happening in broadcast radio in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s than simply soap opera, crime shows, church services, adventure and Western programs, and political talk. There was sports, starting with the July2, 1921, broadcast of the world heavyweight championship boxing match between the American Jack Dempsey and the French light-heavyweight champion Georges Carpentier (300,000 listened to what was billed as The Scientific Sensation of the Century). There was news and gossip (Walter Winchel); gossip shows (Your Hollywood Reporter); comedy (The Life of Riley); and game shows (Hit the Jackpot). In 1926 the US Department of Agriculture started its Radio Service to broadcast educational programming to farmers. That same year saw the start of the US Bureau of Home Economicss Housekeepers Chat program, starring Aunt Sammy (so named because the star of the program was supposed to be the wife of Uncle Sam). These broadcasts, which continued until 1944, carried important information to Americas homemakers on topics that included nutrition, sanitation, child care, and emergency plumbing repairs. It was an enormously popular production. When the meal plans that had been broadcast were brought out in printed form (Aunt Sammys Radio Recipes) the Government Printing Office received more than a million orders.

Television killed old-time radio, but it wasnt a total victory. A price was paid, as illustrated by the final paragraph of Joseph Julians 1975 book This Was Radio:

Trying to analyze the reasons for the broad, universal appeal of radio drama I find it expressed best by a little seven-year-old boy who…was asked which he liked better, plays on the radio or plays on television.

On the radio, he said.

Why? he was asked.

He thought for a moment, then replied, Because I can see the pictures better.

This perfectly illustrates why early radio became known as the theatre of the mind.

But that is just the end of a particular era. I vividly recall the thrill of hearing, after the end of old-time radio (but still more than half a century ago), the first voice radio message from the Moon, and, I predict, there are readers of this book who will hear the first voice radio transmission from the surface of Mars, a transmission not from alien space invaders but from humans who are alive on Earth right now. Wont that be something!


From The Mathematical Radio: Inside the Magic of Am, Fm, and Single-Sideband by Paul J. Nahin. Copyright 2024 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press.

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