The Maturation Of Radio, 1932-1939

Radio blossomed in the 1930s. Where earlier programming had relied primarily on musical and discussion shows, in its second decade broadcasting expanded its versatility to offer listeners as wide a range of entertainment and information as could be found in the other popular arts. During this period, radio developed the various genres of expression that were already recognizable in literature and film. Now it produced detective programs, westerns, the serialized melodramas that were the soap operas, comedies, romances, and serious dramas. In quiz shows and broadcast journalism, programming unique to the medium was introduced. With such an array of amusement for audiences trapped by the economic depression and social uncertainty of the 1930s, radio became the great wellspring from which came escape, diversion, knowledge, and inspiration.

National radio needed national reputations, well-recognized personalities who would appeal immediately to audiences throughout the nation. In 1932 the networks turned to such men and women and initiated the most creative new season to date. A fortuitous development for radio at this time was the virtual collapse of vaudeville. The dog acts, ventriloquism, slapstick comedy, whistlers, and tap dancers that had been the content of vaudeville could not withstand the competition of the electric entertainment media. Radio, movies (especially the "talkies" that had become standard by 1930), and enhanced phonograph recordings made the vaudeville stage shows lackluster and predictably boring. Radio was new every time a listener tuned in; films were vivid and engrossing every time a viewer entered the theater; phonograph records brought the music and jokes directly into the parlor. These new influences not only undermined vaudeville as an institution, but created unemployment problems for vaudevillians.

In the fall of 1932 broadcasting presented the most dazzling array of new talent it had ever unveiled at one time. Comedians, the most compelling feature of vaudeville, highlighted the new programs. The Marx Brothers, Ed Wynn, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Jack Benny, George Jessel, Jack Pearl, and Fred Allen all began their broadcasting careers that fall. Network radio that year also introduced the vocal talents of singers like Bing Crosby, the Boswell Sisters, Paul Robeson, Ruth Etting, Jane Froman, Gertrude Niessen, and Al Jolson. New that season, too, were news commentators Walter Winchell, Boake Carter, and Edwin C. Hill.

The maturation of network radio coincided with the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt to the presidency of the United States. That FDR understood the persuasive potential of broadcasting was notable even before his inauguration, for in December 1932, his popular wife, Eleanor, began appearing regularly on Vanity Fair, an NBC variety program sponsored by Pond's facial cream, offering her ideas on the state of the nation, and on women's problems in particular. With President Roosevelt and his New Deal, Americans received a psychological and material antidote to the Depression that had existed since the last months of 1929.

In radio, FDR found the most effective means of communicating directly with his constituency, thereby enabling him to explain his activities and to expand his popular support. Roosevelt's warm, friendly talks with the American people, the so-called "Fireside Chats," became the hallmark of his administration. During 1933 he broadcast four such personal discussions, always commencing his conversation with the democratic salutation, "My dear friends." Throughout his terms in office, Roosevelt utilized network radio to communicate directly with the people.

Between March 1933, and June 1935, for example, the President broadcast forty formal and informal speeches. And he was heard by the citizenry. C.A.B. ratings show that his post-Inaugural Fireside Chat on March 9, 1937, was heard by 30 percent of the radio audience, and his campaign address on October 10, 1936, was heard by 25 percent of the listeners.

As a corollary to Presidential speeches, the coverage of news events by radio in the 1930s led inevitably to a unique type of reporter: the broadcast journalist. Whether it was reporters like Lowell Thomas or Gabriel Heatter reading the news, or political commentators like Dorothy Thompson or H. V. Kaltenborn making intelligent appraisals of new developments, radio produced new styles of reporting and commentary that matured in this decade.

Coincidentally, radio brought speeches and interviews with national and international newsmakers. The controversial actions of the New Deal were praised and blasted in coverage of events as diverse as discourses by members of the FDR cabinet and the 1936 Republican Presidential Convention. Foreign leaders were heard frequently in the United States. Overseas transmissions brought American listeners the diatribes of Fascist leaders Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini; but they also brought events as touching as the funeral of Britain's King George V and the abdication of Edward VIII.

When World War II began in Europe in September 1939, it was not surprising to most Americans. Although isolationist and neutral in their foreign policy, via radio Americans had heard the speeches, lived through the crises, understood the concessions, and anticipated the consequences. If it had been an unaware populace that went to battle in 1917, because of radio it was an informed Citizenry that by 1939 heard and assessed the unfolding events of the new conflagration.

The impact of broadcasting through its coverage of news was vital and profound. Yet, as a source of fictional characters and popular culture, radio also placed its imprint upon American society. Network radio either created or popularized the most admired culture heroes of the decade. The war against crime, such an important part of actual law enforcement in the 1930s, was aided by champions such as Lamont Cranston (the Shadow), Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons; Britt Reid (the Green Hornet); Steve Wilson, the fighting newspaper editor on Big Town; and the comic-strip ace detective, Dick Tracy.

Although the Western was not adequately developed on radio until the 1950s, several stalwarts galloped out of the sagebrush (or the Northwestern tundra in some cases) to defend society against criminality—among them the Lone Ranger and Tonto; Sergeant Preston and his "wonder dog," Yukon King; and the hero of Laurie York Erskine's stories, Renfrew of the Mounted. Radio created heroes of domesticity, too, like the sympathetic Ma Perkins, the paternalistic Henry Barbour of One Man's Family, and the self-sacrificing Helen Trent.

In the 1930s radio appropriated celebrities from other areas of entertainment. Babe Ruth, Jimmy Foxx, and Max Baer—all sports champs—had their own programs. Although Tom Mix had retired from motion pictures in 1933 and died in 1940, he became a radio personality (Mix did not play himself.) and remained so until 1950. Radio also gave fuller realization to comic strip characters like Little Orphan Annie, Don Winslow of the Navy, Skippy, Buck Rogers, and Flash Gordon. And besides Renfrew, literature provided radio many personalities in the early 1930s, among them the hard-working Stella Dallas, Tarzan of the Apes, the youthful Frank Merriwell, and the ageless Sherlock Holmes.

Radio heroes, like most champions in American popular culture, were symbols of truth, justice, honor, and other bourgeois virtues. Products of a middle class, commercial, and competitive society, they embodied the essence of those morals and values upon which social order was founded. Perhaps it would have been expecting too much for a sponsor to finance a program with an antisocial character as its recurring central character. This would have identified the advertiser's product with an evil personality. Even when the insidious Dr. Fu Manchu was dramatized, the plot stressed the heroic actions of his arch-nemesis, the good Nyland Smith. Such programming, moreover, would have been incompatible with the nature of popular culture in American society as it functions to improve and stabilize life, not to undermine its operative value system. Nowhere was this pattern more closely observed than in the content of those programs designed for children.

Radio aired its programs for children in the hours after school, on Saturday mornings, and in the early weekday evenings. In the first years of radio kiddie programming had been confined primarily to storytelling. Several personalities, among them Ireene Wicker of the Singing Story Lady series, and Nila Mack, the writer and director of the long-running Let's Pretend, would perpetuate this style of broadcasting into the 1950s.

From the beginning, broadcasting was filled with scores of network and local "uncles"—like Uncle Don on WOR and the Mutual network, Uncle Olie and His Gang on CBS, and Uncle Elmer's Children's Hour on WJAS (Pittsburgh), and Uncle Bob on KYW in Chicago—who related stories and songs and introduced regular characters like those appearing in 1931 on the NBC series, Jolly Bill and Jane: Fritzie the Fiddler, the Bugle Man, and the Three-Legged Piano Man. Parents scrutinized such programs, making certain that their children would not be influenced by adverse ideas, images, or words.

Early kiddie shows ranged from the heroic Uncle Bob of KYW in Chicago who in 1922 invented his “The Curb Is the Limit Club” to train children to stay safely on city sidewalks—an accomplishment that many felt actually saved young lives—to the ridiculed Uncle Wip of WIP in Philadelphia who inadvertently uttered a profane word into an open microphone following a broadcast in April 1930 and was summarily fined by the Federal Radio Commission and fired by the station.

But children’s fare created national controversy because of the action and violence of that crept into many of the adventure dramas intended for juvenile listeners. By the late 1930s such programming was roundly assailed as detrimental to American youth. For years network and agency representatives had defended such dramas against scattered attacks by educational groups, women's organizations, and generalized parental criticism. But by 1938, the pressure against mayhem on the air became overwhelming. The adults assailed adventure series aimed directly at youngsters—programs like Jack Armstrong, which featured an athletic teenager fighting pirates, menacing natives, and diabolical gangsters; Jungle Jim, an adult character who struggled against enemies similar to Armstrong's rivals; The Green Hornet, an urban vigilante whose programs often included beatings, shootings, and murder; and Howie Wing, an aviator and do-gooder who usually encountered crime and brutality.

These series often employed fistfights, loud action, and death to add spice to the plot. They also featured cliffhanger endings guaranteed to draw kids back to the radio for the next installment. Parent groups, like the Parent-Teachers Association, argued that such programming left children on edge, upset their normal upbringing by placing destructive ideas in their young heads, and generally made kids prone to violence.

But if parents were unnerved by children's programs, they saved their bitterest criticism for adult-oriented shows that children heard in the evening. The critics attacked series such as Gangbusters, realistic stories of criminals being brought to justice; The Witch's Tales, frightening accounts of ghosts, murderers, superstitions, and assorted horror characters. Even The Lone Ranger—whose central character never killed anyone—was assailed for being filled with gunfights and narrow escapes from sudden death. Typical of the criticism launched against these dramas was the comment in 1939 from a Des Moines parent who remarked:

Our six-year-old has become gangster-minded this past year since he has been allowed to run the radio at his will. He plays G-man constantly and talks at great length about Jack Armstrong and the rest. Most children at this age have adequate imagination without this added stimulus which radio brings them. I am very greatly opposed to the various programs for children which employ terrorizing situations.

The criticism of radio and its relationship to children became so intense that the networks were compelled to reassess the importance of violence in juvenile programming. In 1939, they either reissued or revised earlier program-policy codes which addressed a wide range of controversial subjects. In meeting the problem of violence in adult shows the NBC statement—a new revision of its code published originally in 1934 and revised two years later—pledged to listeners that no obscene, profane, sacrilegious, vulgar, or salacious material would ever be aired. As it affected children's programs, the new code spoke in more specific terms.

All stories must reflect respect for law and order, adult authority, good morals and clean living. The hero and heroine, and other sympathetic characters must be portrayed as intelligent and morally courageous. The theme must stress the importance of mutual respect of one man for another, and should emphasize the desirability of fair play and honorable behavior. Cowardice, malice, deceit, selfishness and disrespect for law must be avoided in the delineation of any character presented in the light of a hero to the child listener.

In a similar vein, the CBS statement of policies—adopted originally in 1935—spoke of social values and the vulnerability of youngsters:

  • The exalting, as modern heroes, of gangsters, criminals, and racketeers will not be allowed.
  • Disrespect for either parental or other proper authority must not be glorified or encouraged.
  • Cruelty, greed, and selfishness must not be presented as worthy motivations.
  • Programs that arouse harmful nervous reactions in the child must not be presented.
  • Conceit, smugness or unwarranted sense of superiority over others less fortunate may not be presented as laudable.
  • Recklessness and abandon must not be closely identified with a healthy spirit of adventure.
  • Unfair exploitation of others for personal gain must not be made praiseworthy.
  • Dishonesty and deceit are not to be made appealing or attractive to the child.

In these network statements is the essence of all effective juvenile programs. With their emphasis upon recognizable champions and moral purposes, children's programs were socializing agents bringing to youngsters—in an entertaining context—the values and ideals of American society. One step above fairy tales in their subtlety, these series offered Truth, Justice, Honor, and Decency as personal lessons. Jack Armstrong never cheated; Don Winslow was not a liar; Joe Palooka never succumbed to evil temptations. Brutality and violence, in this light, not only added verve to the serialized plots, but they substantially augmented the moral communication. Mayhem added tension and uncertainty to the stories. It introduced the possibility that the heroes and all they represented might not succeed. This device made the eventual triumph of morality all the more impressive in the minds of young listeners.

The victory of complaining parents in compelling the networks to reconsider their program policies illustrates the functioning of commercial radio in the United States. Always fearful of losing their broadcasting licenses, radio stations and networks had to be responsive to listener criticism. This was especially true when such complaints were organized into a single, sizable movement with political potential. And it was true not only of children and the programs they heard. A wave of indignation against soap operas in the early 1940s, for example, led to a refashioning of the content of such series in that decade.

The cautious approach of broadcasters extended even to the words that were heard on radio in the early 1930s. Revealingly, in January 1935 the fan magazine, Radio Stars, debunked the notion that there was no censorship in radio. It cited the language of Section 326 of the Communications Act of 1934 which stated that no person shall broadcast “any obscene, indecent or profane language” and that the penalty for violations is a fine of $10,000 or two years in prison or both. According to the Radio Stars article, among the words that “are too hot…you’ll never hear them on the air” were Belly, Diarrhea, Pimples, Infected areas, Expectant mothers, Pregnancy, Belching, Gagging, Gooey, Phlegm, Liverbile, Blood, Pus, Cracked toes, Colon, Vomit, Scabies, and Eruptions.

Such verbal censorship emanated from station and network programming officials as well as from advertising agencies writing for the medium. One station executive at WOR in New York City explained to Radio Stars that,

There are three words which are taboo on WOR….They are hell, damn, and nigger. Of course the two first mentioned may be used in sermons and religious talks, but we delete all three from songs, sketches, stories, and similar broadcasts. Nigger is taboo because the word is offensive to many colored people who may be listening—and rightly so.

Networks also feared offending sponsors. If commercial programs were intended to raise money from advertising, controversial programming alienated rather than satisfied consumers. Existing as they did in a highly-competitive industry that sought to please large audiences while competing with other stations, broadcasters vigilantly assessed audience reactions.

This vulnerable situation was even more precarious after 1934 when a fourth major network, the Mutual Broadcasting System, was created. Mutual was formed by the pooling of several large, independent stations—WLW (Cincinnati) , WXYZ (Detroit) , WGN, and the key station, WOR—with the regional Don Lee Network on the West Coast, and several smaller outlets throughout the nation. By 1938, Mutual had grown to 110 stations and by the mid-1940s to more than 300 affiliates.

With such competition, network producers were quick to spot trends in program preferences. The pattern created a history of fads in which an innovative show with great popularity quickly became the prototype after which ad agencies and networks fabricated similar series. The success of Eddie Cantor led to the inundation of radio by vaudeville comics. Later, broadcasting endured crazes such as those for amateur shows, quiz and giveaway programs, and Hollywood-celebrity series in the 1930s; situation comedies, detective mysteries, and big-jackpot quiz shows in the 1940s; and Westerns in the 1950s. As the airways became saturated with these faddist trends, listeners became satiated and shifted their interests to new types of broadcast entertainment. In this manner, commercial radio developed a range of programming while meeting the popular demands of its mass audience.

In the 1930s radio realized the esthetic extremes of its programming. These poles were manifest in the audience participation shows that emerged in the middle of the decade and the dramatic series which appeared throughout the period. “Audience participation" described those shows that utilized people in the studio or listening audience to provide the substance of the program.

This was realized most clearly in the amateur programs, the singing and spelling shows, and the quiz series that occupied the attention of millions of Americans. There was a relationship between these shows, moreover, as they reflected the similar social values. These programs appealed to the sense of individualistic accomplishment that is at the base of American civilization. In a society stressing intelligence, talent, and hard work as the means of self-improvement and economic betterment, the American people eagerly accepted programs that promised a chance to succeed. The coincidence of the worst economic depression in the nation's history only added intensity to those who participated in, and listened to, such broadcasts.

The amateur craze began in 1934 with the appearance of Major Bowes' Original Amateur Hour. The show offered talented contestants throughout the country a chance to compete for prizes and possible discovery by talent scouts. Within a year the program was the top show in radio, outdrawing the prestigious Jack Benny Program, the Rudy Vallee Show, and the popular George Burns and Gracie Allen Show. Amateurism swept Depression America. New shows emerged like National Amateur Night on CBS, Amateur Revue on NBC-Blue, and N.T.G. and His Girls on Bowes’ own network, NBC-Red. Amateurs appeared in unexpected places, as in comedian Fred Allen's Town Hall Tonight program where each week he allotted part of his show to budding performers.

The popularity of amateurism was intense. By 1936, Bowes was receiving ten thousand applications a week from singers, tap dancers, one-man bands, saw players, yodelers, operatic talents, and the like. This popularity was felt also in local broadcasting. Throughout the United States local stations had their own amateur shows. Here tens of thousands of hopeful aspirants appeared on such showcases as The Children's Hour on WNOX (Knoxville), Opportunity Parade on KFRC (San Francisco), The Italian Amateur Hour and The Spanish Amateur Hour on WBNX (New York City), The Sunsweet Amateur Hour on WMCA (New York City), and The Monte Carlo Amateur Hour on KMAC (San Antonio).

Critics assailed the amateur craze as banal, exploitative of the talentless, and offensive to the ears. Radio producer Roxy Rothafel attacked the genre bitterly, contending that "an amateur hour is nothing short of a heathen Roman holiday, with the lions of those past carnivals having a much better chance for survival than the performers on the modern show." Roxy was at least statistically correct. Of more than fifteen thousand hopefuls who performed for Major Bowes, only a handful of future talents (e.g. ventriloquist Paul Winchell) was discovered, and only one-- that being Frank Sinatra who appeared in 1937 in a quartet called The Hoboken Four--ever achieved overwhelming success. Yet, the amateur show was a democratic form of radio amusement. It was the average citizen entertaining his colleagues. It was as close as an audience came to controlling directly the content of its own entertainment. And it was all done in the name of self-achievement, the struggle by the individual to "make it" in a competitive society.

By 1937 contests had replaced amateurs as the most popular form of audience participation programming. In a sense, these shows held more potential for personal success, since they did not require an obvious talent to win. From such participant shows as Gillette's Community Sing where the audience sang along with the show, and Spelling Bee, where participants could win up to $5 cash for spelling words, the modern quiz show was created. Even before 1937, however, radio was dispensing prizes to listeners. Professor Quiz, which appeared on CBS in mid-1936, offered $10 cash to the contestant best at answering general information questions. And contests were often held in connection with daytime soap operas. Audiences were invited to complete the last line to a jingle, or to write "in twenty-five words or less" a testimonial to the sponsor's product. Prizes in these contests could be as trivial as a supply of the sponsor's product, or as grandiose as a new automobile.

Network radio by 1938 was filled with quiz shows. Bingo, lotto, keno—games that had helped revive sagging movie attendance in the early Depression—were now brought to the millions of listeners drawn to their radio sets. The quiz format was adapted to every type of program. There were sports quizzes, news quizzers, courtroom quizzers, quizzers for children, quizzers that matched men against women, and children against adults. For intellectuals, there were shows like Information, Please! with Clifton Fadiman as well as The World Game with Max Eastman. For the jitterbug set, there were Kay Kyser's Kollege of Musical Knowledge, Beat the Band with Ted Weems and his Orchestra, Ben Bernie's Musical Quiz, and by the early 1940s, Cab Calloway's Quizzical. And for the mystery fans, there were quizzes that offered prizes if one could name the criminal in that evening's broadcast. Radio even developed anti-quiz shows in such comedic parodies as It Pays to Be Ignorant and Can You Top This?

Perhaps the most controversial quiz program was Pot O' Gold which debuted on NBC-Red in 1939. Where most question-and-answer shows offered only small financial prizes, Pot O' Gold gave away $1,000 to anyone who picked up his telephone if called during the broadcast by host Ben Grauer. Even if not listening to the show, the contestant would win the grand prize simply by answering the phone. A consolation prize of $100 was awarded to those who were not at home when telephoned.

Upping the ante in giveaway programs had a dramatic effect on Americans. Movie houses lost a significant number of patrons during the Pot O' Gold broadcast. The program became one of the top-rated shows in radio, and demands for investigation of all quizzers were instigated. Critics argued unsuccessfully that all radio quiz shows should be cancelled because they were illegal lotteries and a form of gambling. Although they faded in popularity during the war years, quiz programs never disappeared completely. In the postwar era they would reemerge, and reach new heights of popularity.

Like the amateur programs, the quiz and giveaway shows may not have been esthetically pleasing, but they were fully compatible with American social values. Instead of talent, quiz shows called for intelligence as the means of achievement. Again, the self-reliant individual could succeed if he had the requisite knowledge. At a time when unemployment, economic sluggishness, and governmental experimentation diminished popular faith in the American system, these radio programs reaffirmed social premises.

In contrast to the simplicity and materialism of quiz shows, however, radio produced its most artistic achievements in its dramatic programming. Of course, most dramas were not cultural triumphs. The romantic comedies found on series like Curtain Time, Grand Central Station, and The First Nighter Program followed the hackneyed formula of boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl. And quaint, but predictable, rural dramas unfolded on Soconyland Sketches, Sunday at Seth Parker's, and Real Folks. But in the writing and production of several important dramatists, radio achieved its finest artistic hours.

Drama on radio dated back to the WGY Players in the early 1920s. By the following decade, however, production improvements would allow for a more sophisticated broadcast. Network drama had its origins in the late 1920s when several magazine publishers sponsored dramatizations of stories found in their journals. The Collier’s Hour in 1927 began such a practice on NBC-Blue. Soon similar dramas were adapted from Redbook, True Story, True Romances, and The American Weekly. At this time, too, dramatic actors appeared in other radio genres—the detective story, the western, and the daytime soap opera. Broadcasting, however, had two shortcomings which hindered the offering of refined, above-average drama: it lacked well-known acting talent, and it needed first-rate writers.

Hollywood, the depository of "name" dramatic talent, resisted broadcasting. Although a few movie personalities headed their own programs in the early 1930s—Adolph Zukor, the president of Paramount Pictures, discussed films, and D. W. Griffith's Hollywood was a movie gossip show during the 1932-1933 season—the studios barred their stars from "cheapening" their box-office appeal through exposure on the radio. Advertising agencies, moreover, were reluctant to pay the exorbitant fees demanded by celebrities even willing to face the microphones.

Nonetheless, radio was drawn to motion pictures. Well-known gossip commentators like Walter Winchell and Jimmie Fidler came to radio in the 1930s. Local stations regularly broadcast movie reviews. One station even aired remote broadcasts from the projection room of a local theater, allowing listeners to hear sections of movie soundtracks. But when NBC-Red introduced Talkie Picture Time, a series in the 1933-1934 season which dramatized scenes from motion pictures, it started an irresistible trend.

Other shows in 1934 began re-enacting scenes from feature films, although radio actors and actresses, not Hollywood celebrities, played the various parts. Here were series like Forty-Five Minutes in Hollywood, and Hollywood Hotel, the latter hosted, significantly, by the Hearst newspaper Hollywood columnist Louella Parsons. Her influential position in the movie industry made it difficult for a movie personality to reject her request to appear as a guest on Hollywood Hotel. An interview with “Louella” promised instant publicity for a star’s latest film, and refusal of an invitation meant the risk of offending the most powerful movie writer in journalism. During her years on the program, Parsons used her leverage to bring the biggest names in Hollywood to her mike. In the process, she broke down much of the resistance of the stars and studios to radio.

With the appearance of the Lux Radio Theater the greatest broadcasting vehicle for Hollywood stars was inaugurated. Originally airing adaptations of Broadway dramas, the Lux Radio Theater floundered after its premier in 1934. Within two years, however, the hour program successfully switched its emphasis to Hollywood movies, and changed its broadcasting site from New York City to the motion picture capital. It was a doubly significant stroke. The success of the new format and the transfer of location precipitated a wholesale exodus of radio production to the West Coast. Here the networks were close to the glamour and name-recognition of the film colony. Now that stars were cooperating with radio, nothing but the brightest future seemed assured. Before the end of the decade, the most important programs in broadcasting were originating from network studios in Hollywood.

The Lux program was an overwhelming radio hit and would remain so until 1955. During its run most of the alluring names in movies acted on it, not just in scenes, but in full adaptations of their greatest film triumphs. William Powell and Myrna Loy appeared in 1936 in The Thin Man; Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in 1939 recreated It Happened One Night; James Cagney and Pat O'Brien the same year came before the microphones in Angels with Dirty Faces; Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, and James Stewart in 1942 played The Philadelphia Story; and Humphrey Bogart and Walter Huston in 1949 brought The Treasure of Sierra Madre. The series was given even greater stature by the fact that throughout its first decade in Hollywood it was hosted by movie director Cecil B. DeMille.

Importantly, the Lux program inspired the appearance of movie stars in other dramatic series. In the late 1930s such programs as The Screen Guild Players and Warner Academy Theater broadcast adaptations of feature films. Silver Theater and DuPont’s prestigious Cavalcade of America utilized movie stars in original dramas. Underscoring the change of attitude by the studios, in 1938 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer produced Good News of 1938 a dramatic-variety series which featured most of the MGM celebrities.

It would be incorrect to assume that because radio courted Hollywood personalities, it was unable to develop its own acting talent. By the late 1930s many distinguished actors were emerging in radio, some moving into successful movie careers. Agnes Moorehead, Don Ameche, Art Carney, Arlene Francis, Richard Widmark, Frank Lovejoy, and John Hodiak were among the more well-known graduates of broadcasting. Perhaps the most prestigious alumnus, however, was Orson Welles.

Before he left radio for films, Welles emerged as a first-rate actor and director in such series as The Shadow, The Mercury Theater on the Air, and The Campbell Playhouse. On The Mercury Theater he left his most enduring mark on radio history, a performance which clearly illustrated the potency of this new medium of communication.

The broadcast on October 30, 1938, of an adaptation of H. G. Wells' novel, The War of the Worlds, was meant by Welles and the Mercury Players as a Halloween "trick" good-naturedly played on American listeners. By enacting the novel as if Martians were actually invading the United States and CBS was actually covering it, Welles inadvertently terrified a sizable portion of the American people.

Many of those who missed the opening credits mistook the program for an authentic invasion. And when the announcer stated, "Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt our program of dance music to bring you a special bulletin from the Intercontinental Radio News," for millions of listeners fantasy became frightening reality. Others could not help but relate it to the war scare which Hitler had precipitated a month earlier over the Sudetenland area of Czechoslovakia, an international incident which nearly precipitated a new European war.

The impact of the broadcast was to create a near-hysteria in the nation. No one anticipated that radio could have such a devastating control over its listeners. From New York City and Washington, D.C., to Chicago and Seattle, listeners panicked because of the sounds they heard from broadcast drama. If ever radio demonstrated its need to be scrupulously responsible in its programming, it was in that panic broadcast in 1938. It was a broadcaster's moral equivalent of yelling "Fire!" in a crowded theater.

As well as frothy romances and adaptations of Hollywood films, network radio produced occasional dramatic series that were more artistic than commercial. Such programs were almost always network sustainers that garnered more prestige than Hooperatings. In 1937 interest in such prestige drama became a point of rivalry. CBS drew several of the finest actors in Hollywood to stage radio adaptations of Shakespeare. Among them were Burgess Meredith as Hamlet, Walter Huston as Henry IV, and Edward G. Robinson as Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew. NBC countered by engaging the noted actor, John Barrymore, to enact four Shakespearian plays. His portrayals in Hamlet, Macbeth, Richard III, and Twelfth Night were solidly praised. CBS also produced other Shakespearian plays in 1937 with noted talents like Leslie Howard, Rosalind Russell, and Tallulah Bankhead. The Mutual network joined the rivalry, producing a seven-and-one-half-hour serialization of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables that starred Orson Welles.

The trend toward serious drama did not end with this outburst. In the following year radio broadcast the works of such world-class writers as Ibsen, Marlowe, Gogol, Corneille, Eliot, and Tolstoy. The network contest for cultural leadership even spread to fine music. To counter the success of CBS in airing Sunday concerts by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, David Sarnoff in 1937 ordered the formation of his own NBC Symphony Orchestra. He engaged Arturo Toscanini to be its conductor.

Impressively, during the year beginning May 1938, network radio turned overwhelmingly to fine drama for inspiration. According to Variety Radio Directory, radio that year aired 164 adaptations of stage plays, 60 adaptations of prose and poetry, and 208 plays written specifically for radio. Add to this the 138 plays, stories, operettas, symphonic dramas, and dramatizations of books produced by the Federal Theater Radio Division—a New Deal project of the Works Project Administration under the Federal Theater Project—and it is clear that by the end of the decade the networks had made a distinctive commitment to adult drama.

Nowhere was this maturation in radio more apparent than in the celebrated CBS program, The Columbia Workshop. The series began in July 1936, and was an experimental theater wherein sound effects, production techniques, and innovative writing were often more important than plots. As a sustained series it brought to radio the works of aspiring and acclaimed writers—among them Archibald MacLeish, Pare Lorentz, Dorothy Parker, Irwin Shaw, Stephen Vincent Benet, and James Thurber—whose artistic dramas would have been otherwise incompatible with the generally less mature offerings of network broadcasting.

Directed first by Irving Reis and then by William N. Robson and others, and scored by the brilliant composer Bernard Herrmann, The Columbia Workshop was one of radio's most impressive achievements. Many Workshop productions became classics of American broadcast drama. MacLeish's Fall of the City was a stunning play in verse form which warned of impending dictatorship and loss of personal liberty. Benet's John Brown's Body was a choral and poetic reiteration of the promise of freedom.

Among the program's other triumphs were Lorentz's Depression documentary, Ecce Homo; Shakespeare's Hamlet and As You Like It; The Four Quartets of T. S. Eliot; and, with its author, Aldous Huxley, as the narrator, Brave New World. Many associated with The Columbia Workshop entered as unknowns and graduated to successful careers in radio and the other arts. In its several seasons on CBS (1936-1942, 1946-1947, and, as the CBS Radio Workshop, 1956-1957) the series forged a prestigious legacy for both the network and radio.

Despite the success of network drama, radio seemed always a "poor cousin" to the other popular arts. Trade journals consistently carried stories regarding the lack of name talent being developed in broadcasting, and the failure of the medium to produce great writers or directors. Critics also condemned the limitations created by commercialism, considerations of scheduling which always superseded art, and the fact that radio limited an actor to the voice only.

The prominent radio actor Joseph Julian boldly suggested this when he wrote in 1941 that radio inevitably led to artistic stagnation and to the disintegration of the creative performer. Julian alleged that most radio performers lacked "inner satisfaction after doing a radio job," and that, despite a few bright lights, "corn still runs rampant on the air waves.” Although Julian's opinion was blasted by some of the more respected talents in broadcasting—Bing Crosby, Irene Rich, Gene Autry, Les Tremaine, Katherine Seymour, Carleton E. Morse, and Erik Barnouw—his attitude again pointed up the sense of inferiority and anonymity with which many radio professionals worked. Especially hard hit by defeatist criticism was the paucity of fine radio writers.

Most radio writers produced formulaic stories for formulaic series. But even when radio did develop outstanding dramatists, they invariably were lured into writing film scripts or novels. Such was the case with men like Irving Reis, who became a movie director; Ralph Berkey, who graduated from soap operas to Broadway plays; Irwin Shaw, who leftThe Gumps and eventually wrote the best-sellers, The Young Lions and Rich Man, Poor Man; Herman Wouk, who emerged from the Fred Allen Show to write The Caine Mutiny; and Arthur Miller, who left composing dramas for Cavalcade of America and The Theater Guild on the Air to compose award-winning scripts for Hollywood and Broadway.

Although broadcasting served as a training ground for several important writers, it still was not without its own luminaries who developed radio drama into a polished art form. Arch Oboler came to radio in the early 1930s when writing and production standards were low, and when an understanding of the medium was generally absent. Oboler described the situation when he remarked:

Radio in those days was an imitation of motion pictures, and an echo of the stage. No one had really used it as a theater of the mind, had realized that a few words, a sound effect, a bit of music, could transport—in the mind of the listeners—one to any corner of the world, evoke emotions that were deep in the consciousness of the listener.

Oboler scored a quick success in his long-running horror program, Lights Out. By 1939, he was the honored "experimental drama" writer for NBC on his own series, Arch Oboler's Plays. Although he also wrote for the romantic-comedy series Grand Hotel, as well as composing skits for several NBC variety series, Oboler's mark was made as an innovative, original playwright.

In Arch Oboler radio found its greatest exponent of using sound effects to maximize drama. One of his more famous plays involved giant earthworms taking over the world, complete with the sound of the crunching creatures devouring everything on earth. In other dramas he turned people inside out, had a chicken heart expand to the point that it destroyed all civilization, and caused a man to be trapped half-way while trying through telepathy to transport himself through the solid concrete wall of a bank—all possible only in radio where audible suggestion and imagination conspired to fashion illusion.

Oboler also specialized in self-reflecting dramas, plays that took the listener into the minds of his protagonists. His drama "Baby" followed the thinking of a pregnant woman awaiting the birth of her child. "The Ugliest Man in the World" traced the pain of a unsightly man taunted by insensitive people who eventually found love with a blind woman. "Buried Alive" probed the thinking of a living person mistakenly thought dead and interred. And in 1940, Oboler's dramatization of Dalton Trumbo's anti-war play, "Johnny Got His Gun," took listeners into the mind of a soldier who had returned from World War I as a "human vegetable" but with fully-human thoughts.

Oboler was a prolific writer. In his first decade in radio he produced almost 800 plays. Although he tried his hand at writing for motion pictures, he seemed wedded to broadcasting. Oboler stood as a spokesman for radio dramatists. In 1938 he chided radio producers for paying so little and expecting so much from playwrights. “To pay $5000 for a guest star and $150 for the words she emotes," he wrote, "is obviously not a method or situation to build a group of eagerly working radio dramatists.” In the early 1940s he became the advocate of politicized, propagandistic dramas, a posture which conflicted with network policies adhering to neutrality before war erupted, and only reasonable propaganda after it began.

As late as 1946, Oboler was still chiding radio management, this time for the dishonesty in advertising which, he argued, was indecent, untruthful, and depreciatory for broadcasting. According to him, "Our radio franchise rests on service, not in trumped-up claims and counter-claims of pseudo-virtues, either in ourselves or what we sell.” Arch Oboler ended his creative career in radio on a note of bitterness and disillusion. In 1948, after confessing that, "the writing of each play, over these years, has been a nerve-wracking, stomach-turning, head-spinning series of week-after-week crises," he assailed radio as never before. Radio, in his view, had a "rapacious appetite"—expressed in deadlines and cycles of thirteen, twenty-six, and fifty-two successive broadcasts—which allowed the writer no time for reflection or study or replenishment of his depleted inner creative reservoirs. Oboler summed up his medium in a curious mixed metaphor: "Radio, for the dramatist, is a huge, insatiable sausage grinder into which he feeds his creative life to be converted into neatly packaged detergents." His answer to the dilemma was to pray for acceleration in the emerging reality of television.

If Arch Oboler exploited the audible nuances of radio, Norman Corwin realized the poetic beauty possible within the medium. Corwin's skill lay not in handling radio as a new artistic forum, but in his ability to write words effectively and to produce a breadth of broadcast drama that ranged from rhapsodic impressions of life and moving patriotic statements, to clever satires and sensitive human fantasies. Corwin brought the older art forms—literature and poetry—into radio and, more brilliantly than anyone before or after, demonstrated its esthetic potential.

With a background in journalism and movie public relations, Corwin came to radio in 1937 as a poet. From his local program, Poetic License, on WQXR (New York City), he moved the next year to the Columbia network to write a personalized series called Words without Music, and soon to the prestigious Columbia Workshop. At CBS, Corwin's styles began to emerge. His "Plot to Overthrow Christmas" was a delightful holiday fantasy that became a regular Christmas-time feature. His political satire, "They Fly through the Air with the Greatest of Ease," was an attack on fascism which was dedicated sarcastically "to all aviators who have bombed defenseless civilian populations and machine-gunned helpless refugees." In the patriotic series, The Pursuit of Happiness, which commenced in late 1939, Corwin further developed as a writer, director, and producer of tasteful, artistic drama.

That radio drama could be an emotive, sophisticated art was aptly demonstrated by Corwin's work during the war. His impressive contribution to The Columbia Workshop in 1941, a six-month series called "Twenty-Six by Corwin," was a singular triumph. Corwin's dramas here extended from the first wisp of the light of dawn which he impressionistically followed around the globe in "Daybreak," to ringing salutes to democracy and Americanism in "The People, Yes!" and in "Between Americans," to a tender escapist fantasy of a determined boy searching the galaxies for his dead dog, "The Odyssey of Runyon Jones."

In the series This Is War in early 1942, and An American in England at the end of that year, Corwin brought his art to stark realism, exposing the dislocation and hopefulness that were shared by people on both sides of the Atlantic. And when the war ended in Europe and then Japan, Corwin's acclaimed programs, "On a Note of Triumph" and "14 August" happily, yet soberly, proclaimed the coming of peace. In reviewing "On a Note of Triumph," Variety epitomized the contribution of Corwin to peace and to radio.

Here was Corwin the fashioner of beautiful prose, Corwin the exponent of realistic ideals, the Corwin who can make words sing, the poet who glorifies the common man and above all the Corwin who is the master of radio and its assorted techniques.... Corwin is the first to prove that radio can inspire great works of art and, by the same token, he disproves the theory that writing for the medium fetters and binds creative talent.

Unlike the disillusioned Oboler, Corwin remained a dedicated practitioner of the craft he had helped create. In the mid-1940s he travelled around the globe employing a wire recording machine to preserve the postwar voices and sounds he encountered. The result of this four-month excursion to thirty-seven countries was an impressive series, One World Flight, broadcast in early 1947.

Yet, the future was dim for Corwin. With the coming of television and increased network competition for a diminishing audience, his narrowly-focused craftsmanship became incongruent with CBS policy. As Erik Barnouw has related it, Corwin left radio in the late 1940s because his work lacked the broad appeal found in many of the top-rated programs. Although he had crafted epic achievements for William Paley and CBS, he was not the dramatist to reach as many people as possible. When Paley offered him unacceptable terms in a new contract, Corwin was essentially out of broadcasting.

For every Oboler and Corwin, radio produced scores of undistinguished writers who quietly plied their trade. Perhaps their accomplishments were little more than predictable plots with uninspiring characterizations. Nonetheless, through its various dramatic programs—even those with hack writers—radio emerged by the late 1930s as more than a medium of music and discussion, comedies and quizzes.

Even if trite, it was a type of programming that tied broadcasting to the traditions of the theater. Perhaps soap operas were overly melodramatic, the Western was still an immature genre, and detective shows were ordinary by this time, but radio programming was still theater and it was enjoyed by uncritical millions every day. Many dramatic series became radio favorites. Programs like Inner Sanctum, Escape, and The Mysterious Traveler entertained listeners for years. And Suspense, which began its twenty-year run in 1942, effectively blended Hollywood actors, fine writers, and suspenseful plot development until 1961.

No dramatist or actor could hope to change broadcasting. It was a reflection of the people and system and culture which produced it. Therefore, in a mass medium directed by commercial interests and competing for consumer attention, the remarkable achievement is that brilliant dramatists ever succeeded. Their triumphs, moreover, must be shared by the networks which employed them.

By the end of the 1930s radio was solidly a part of the lives of most Americans. Most homes had at least one receiver. Portable sets and automobile radios made broadcasting a mobile medium. Radio was seriously undermining newspapers as the preferred source of news, and motion pictures as the favorite form of diversion. Radio was producing its own cultural personalities—among them Kate Smith, Arthur Godfrey, Clifton Fadiman—and it was breathing vitality back into the careers of many entertainers from other media—among them Fannie Brice, Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, and Jean Hersholt.

Through its heavy diet of popular music, moreover, radio was playing an instrumental role in rejuvenating national spirits during the Great Depression. As the austerity of the early 1930s gave way to a broader national confidence by the end of the decade, radio created for its audience—as the title of both the Al Jarvis (KFWB, Los Angeles) and the Martin Block (WNEW, New York City) disk jockey programs suggested—a "Make-Believe Ballroom."

The dance music called "swing" was largely popularized through radio. Network radio allowed a nation of jitterbugging "hep cats" to hear remote broadcasts from the more important ballrooms and nightclubs in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York City. Many big band leaders had their own regular network series, and swing fans could regularly hear the pulsating music of Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller, and Tommy Dorsey. With the Lucky Strike cigarettes program, Your Hit Parade, radio in the late 1930s made the country familiar with the weekly Top Ten in record sales.

Yet, radio's greatest challenge lay ahead. During World War II broadcasting would be called upon to play a strategic role in maintaining unity and self-confidence among the American citizenry. Less than twenty years old, radio was compelled to accept the challenge with all its incumbent responsibilities.

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