History of Broadcasting, 1920-1960

Somewhere between vaudeville with its travelling troupes and live stage shows, and television with its audio-visual forms of electric amusement, America was madly in love with radio. It was not the news-and-music sameness of contemporary programming, which may be popular and lucrative, but is lacking in creative imagination. Instead, America was enamored of an entertainment medium which showcased everything from fine drama, mundane soap operas, and sports action, to formulaic detective stories, lavish comedy-variety shows, and the latest developments in world news.

Regardless of age, taste, wealth, or gender, there was much in broadcasting to please everyone. And daily countless millions of Americans were so pleased. By the 1940s almost every home in the nation was equipped with a receiving set through which to hear and enjoy this programming.

Radio was criticized. In the minds of many, it was too banal, too concerned with the unspectacular vanities of commonness and not involved enough with uplifting subjects like fine music and intellectual discussion.

For others, radio was too commercial. The advertisements that were sandwiched within and between programs not only interfered with the artistic aspects of broadcasting, they also insulted the intelligence of listeners. Moreover, it was alleged, the stations and networks airing shows lost their integrity and independence when they sold themselves to the makers of laxatives, automobiles, shortening, and the like. Instead of being a great moral force, radio had become a simple peddler for which program content was less important than the commercial announcements.

Culture reflects the environment in which it grows. One could not have expected to transplant the values and content of another historical period, or of a privileged few, to the mass audience of twentieth-century America. The culture of the United States must reflect the commercial and democratic populace. Although modified by governmental regulations and subsidies, the American economic system was primarily one of free enterprise. This system abhorred governmental interference and stressed the importance of the marketplace. To have excluded commercialism from radio would have demanded either independent wealth on the part of each station, or dependence upon government subsidies.

Seeking to please a vast audience of relatively free and equal citizens, radio inevitably reflected the middle-class listenership it served. It played to common tastes and it mirrored common values. The critics were in part correct. Radio, overall, never reached the high esthetic plane many felt it should have attained. It also never escaped the commercialism others felt hampered its sophistication. Yet, radio could not have done otherwise and still retained the mass following it had. It was an instrument of electrical entertainment aimed at a commercial democracy—a world of independent, average people who preferred an occasional advertising announcement to the implications of a broadcasting system fully regulated by governmental bureaucrats.


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