Understanding the roots of American radio
To truly understand the future of radio, you have to know its past
June 13, 2016
By the editors of Media Life
This is one in a number of stories on radio in Media Life’s ongoing series “The new face of radio in America,” examining all the changes taking place in the medium. Click here for earlier stories.
Looking at the radio in our car or on a shelf in the garage, we probably see a device that plays music. We might listen to talk. We probably don’t think of it as a technology.
We should. Radio is arguably the most significant technology of the past century, certainly in its impact on American culture.
Radio changed America.
Before radio, back in the early 1900s, America was still a nation of small towns and farms, and the voices Americans heard were the voices of their neighbors.
What news they got of affairs beyond their towns was scant and dated, picked up from newspapers and magazines that came their way.
Suddenly, with radio, for the first time, America heard itself talk. Iowans heard the voices of Brooklyn, New Yorkers the voices of deepest Alabama.
What came out of it was a new, more common and inclusive vision of America.
Radio was America’s first truly mass medium.
It was the first people’s medium, the internet of its time. Radios were cheap to buy, or you could build one yourself from a kit. People set up radio stations in their garages and over barbershops.
Radio was live, in real time, as history was being made.
Together Americans followed blow by blow as Jack Dempsey knocked out Billy Miske in three rounds in 1920. They followed the counting of the election returns that put Warren G. Harding in the White House that same year. They listened as the New York Yankees beat the New York Giants in the first game of the 1921 World Series.
For the first time, politicians could speak directly to voters, and good speakers with powerful and commanding voices took to the airwaves. Most famously, Franklin Roosevelt spoke to the nation in his Fireside Chats from the White House, selling voters on his plans for pulling the country out of the Depression.
But radio also enabled the rise in Europe of the likes of Germany’s Adolph Hitler and Italy’s Benito Mussolini, both powerful speakers adept at selling their brands of fascism to the vast audiences enabled by the new medium.
Radio reinvented advertising. Before radio, advertising was sold as space in newspapers and magazines and on outdoor venues such as barns.
Radio faced a real challenge. How do you sell advertising on the air?
On Aug. 28, 1922, New York’s WEAF came up with the answer in an ad for Hawthrone Court Apartments in Jackson Heights, Queens. That afternoon a salesman for the apartments went on the air to make his pitch, paying the station $50 for 10 minutes of air time. And thus the idea of selling time versus space was invented.
As radio grew so did the offerings, news, dramas, opera, country bands, comedy, reports from far off capitals. All that TV is today, and more.
If there were no pictures, there was a greater, more immediate energy. What you didn’t see you were invited to imagine. You heard the clop clop of the horses, the blazing guns of cops as they shot it out with the bad guys.
The “Grand Ole Opry” debuted in 1925, and in 1928 NBC purchased a Chicago station that had a hit show, “Sam and Henry, ” about a couple of working stiffs and their friends. It relaunched the show as “Amos & Andy.”
By 1930, 12 million homes were equipped with radios. Even during the Depression, radio sets continued selling, and by 1935 over 22 million homes owned radios. In that year alone, more than a million radios were installed in automobiles.
News was news but also entertainment. In 1935, the show “Vox Pop” debuted, the original “person-on-the-street” program that asked random people an assortment of questions.
Evening radio was devoted to syndicated shows running for 30 minutes to an hour. Jack Benny, Phil Harris, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope became staples of the airwaves, along with dramas like “Gang Busters” and “Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.”
It all aired live. Nothing could be pre-recorded. The early leaders of radio understood the power of their medium was its immediacy.
The Thirties were known as the Golden Age of radio. NBC had been founded in 1926, CBS had come a year later, and advertising was flowing into the new medium.
But that Golden Age was short-lived. With the Forties, television was making inroads, and there was already talk that TV would kill off radio in time.
But television owed radio a huge debt.
Radio had invented a new medium. TV copied the model in its entirety, the programming model, the ad model, and the network structure. It stole away its talent, from the entertainers to the shows. Virtually every hit show on radio made the transition to television. The great newsmen of radio, such as Edward R. Murrow, moved over as well.
Yet radio was not killed off. It would find a second life with the explosion of the suburbs.
Coming tomorrow: Radio finds a second life with the rise of the American commuter and the emerging youth culture.
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