radio

The Metamorphosis Of Radio, 1945-1960

Ironically, the ending of World War II dealt a serious blow to the radio industry. Since 1939, and more dramatically after American entry into the struggle, commercial radio had been the most vital communications and entertainment medium in the nation. Broadcasters had rallied behind the embattled flag. Government programs and announcements were dutifully aired; regular shows integrated patriotic themes into their scripts; and voluntary self-censorship was carefully and successfully carried out. But the cessation of the war left radio without purpose or direction, and in need of self-appraisal. Waging a crusade so intensely for so many years, by late 1945 radio personnel found it difficult to discover meaning in the new world.

The pages of Variety during the 1945-1946 radio season reveal an intense argument over the future of radio. The diversity of opinion was demonstrated in the split between veteran comedians Fred Allen and Eddie Cantor. Allen maintained that radio was still in its infancy, that it was still a problem child and needed to develop its showmanship and its writers. Cantor argued that radio had grown up, and that it could now afford adventure, "dare to do different," as he phrased it.

At the same time, FCC Commissioner Clifford Durr raised the question of whether or not radio really knew what listeners wanted. He demanded hard-hitting programs that were constructive but not afraid to offend people. The call for more meaningful programming was the essence of the editorials appearing in May 1946, in both Life and The Saturday Review of Literature. Significantly, the same point made by William S. Paley in a critical speech in October 1946 before the National Association of Broadcasters, a powerful organization comprised of station and network officials.

Several writers seemed to suggest that radio could rediscover its vital importance by developing "socially respon­sible programs. According to Carroll Carroll, the writer of Bing Crosby's popular Kraft Music Hall, radio needed a cause such as racial and religious tolerance. As he explained in January 1946, the “fight against intolerance is a long, slow, never spectacular campaign of education decency and good taste that we, who discovered the propaganda weight of radio during the late war, must carry on for true peace on earth, good will to all.”

In the same progressive direction as Carroll and Rosen, the producers of the successful series, "Mr. District Attorney", Ed Byron and Bob Shaw, argued there was a "noblesse oblige" inherent in the radio business and that it was the obligation of broadcasting to battle the evils that menaced Americans. Specifically, they maintained that "the multitude of antidemocratic whispers and rackets perpetrated on the people" must be exposed in programming. According to Byron and Shaw, "Mr. District Attorney" intended "to keep on clamping down hard on any group or anyone whose purpose is an America which is not for all Americans."

Radio programming reflected the ambivalence of postwar criticism. In most instances it returned to escapist shows, yet social relevance was not totally absent. The top-rated comedy shows reverted to non-topical gags and clichés, while dramatic series emphasized escapist romance, mystery, and horror. Nonetheless, there were popular comedians like Fred Allen and Henry Morgan who continued, even increased, the tempo of their social and political satire. The appearance throughout the late 1940s of realistic series, among them Dragnet, Treasury Agent, and The Big Story—all dealing with actual criminal events—added a note of authenticity and relevance to radio drama.

Perhaps the most popular expression of escapism, however, was the resurrection of the quiz show craze. Quizzers had not disappeared during the war, but their popularity waned, and their mass appeal had been curtailed by the code dictated by the Office of Censorship. But shows like Truth or Consequences and The Quiz Kids had endured the war.

In the postwar world the quiz shows would boom. Beginning with Truth or Consequences in 1945, and followed by new shows like Stop the Music! in 1948, the giveaway programs abandoned the inexpensive prizes awarded in the past and began offering jackpots worth as much at $30,000. Significantly, several shows directly involved the home audience by telephoning listeners at random and offering them the chance to answer questions and win big money.

By 1948 radio was offering annually more than $7 million in cash and merchandise. After years of austerity, this materialism proved irresistible to American listeners. In unprecedented numbers they now tuned in the quiz shows, sat waiting for the phone to ring, and fantasized with elated winning contestants.

There was also a markedly relevant nature to postwar programming. This quality was revealed particularly in the radio documentary. Prepared usually by network news staffs, documentaries probed most areas of social concern. From juvenile delinquency to the Cold War, from the consequences of the atomic bomb to alcoholism, American listeners heard radio assume a social responsibility it had avoided in the past. Documentaries were usually broadcast as specials, yet series like NBC's prestigious Living-1948 presented such probative programs on a regular basis.

Add to the documentary the appearance of new panel-discussion programs, among them Our Foreign Policy, Meet the Press, and Capitol Cloakroom, and it becomes apparent that there was a fuller sense of social responsibility emerging in network radio.

Even in children's programs there was a new seriousness. The most explicitly progressive series was Superman, which had its hero fighting racial and religious bigotry for several years after the war. The appearance of non-Anglo-Saxon heroes—the Comanche Indian brave, Straight Arrow; the Latino avenger, the Cisco Kid—also guided postwar youngsters toward tolerance.

Other series spoke to juvenile listeners in terms of contemporary issues. If Jack Armstrong dealt with fixing boxing matches, the series was merely reflecting the headlines of the day and offering lessons condemning gambling and organized crime. Cold War themes of sabotage and espionage continued in Hop Harrigan, Captain Midnight, and Sky King. And later Tom Corbett, Space Cadet and Space Patrol brought themes of space exploration together with more familiar cops-and-robbers plots.

Regardless of the orientation broadcasting took following the war, it experienced a barrage of destructive criticism from outside the industry. This hostility was compounded, moreover, by business developments which challenged the nature of radio in America. Radio was seriously hurt by a diminishing of listener interest. Soldiers returned to find the same familiar voices, many still broadcasting at the same hour. Radio stars who had been weekly attractions in the early 1930s continued into the early 1950s to dominate the evening hours.

Statistics substantiate the inertia in broadcasting. In 1950 there were 108 different network series that had been on the air for at least a decade, twelve of these having been on the air for two decades, making them almost as old as network broadcasting itself. As the following chart suggests, the same programs continued to dominate the monthly ratings:

APRIL 1953 APRIL 1948
1. Amos ‘n’ Andy 1. Fibber McGee & Molly
2. Jack Benny Program 2. Jack Benny Program
3. Lux Radio Theater 3. Amos ‘n’ Andy
4. Bergen-McCarthy 4. Lux Radio Theater
5. You Bet Your Life 5. Walter Winchell
6. My Little Margie 6. Fred Allen Show
7. Bob Hawk Show 7. Bob Hope Show
8. Fibber McGee & Molly 8. Phil Harris-Alice Faye
9. My Friend Irma 9. Bergen & McCarthy
10. Mrs. & Mrs. North 10. Arthur Godfrey Show

APRIL 1943 OCTOBER 1937 – APRIL 1938
1. Fibber McGee & Molly 1. Bergen-McCarthy
2. Bob Hope Show 2. Jack Benny Program
3. Bergen-McCarthy 3. Bing Crosby Show
4. Lux Radio Theater 4. Lux Radio Theater
5. The Aldrich Family 5. Eddie Cantor Show
6. Walter Winchell 6. Burns & Allen
7. Fannie Brice Show 7. Major Bowes’ Original Amateur Hour
8. "Mr. District Attorney" 8. Rudy Valle Show
9. Jack Benny Program 9. Fred Allen Show
10. Rudy Valle Show 10. Al Jolson Show

To many who wanted new voices, new programs, and new formats, this time was what one critic called "the era of the doldrums." And as radio continued with its traditional bill of fare, the size of the audience dropped off strikingly. Although this trend would reach its nadir in 1946 and listenership would begin rising, it was a development from which radio broadcasting never fully recovered.

If traditional programming was causing an exodus of listeners, experimentation could be risky. In a period of Cold War with its groundswell of anti-Communist fanaticism, producers could not be too imaginative lest they invite charges of subversion. The radio industry, like the motion picture industry, came under investigation by several governmental agencies. The House Committee on Un-American Activities under Congressman Martin Dies, and later J. Parnell Thomas, sought to expose the writers, producers, and actors who, it purported, were subverting Americanism. Even the FCC was probed by a congressional committee.

Out of this political paranoia came some of the most divisive years in the history of entertainment. Liberal commentators lost their jobs and the more successful ones such as Drew Pearson had their reputations sullied. Rumor publications, like Red Channels, a book which listed those it claimed to be Communists and "fellow-travelers," destroyed careers and separated the industry into opposing camps. Timorous networks and fearful advertisers dropped controversial actors, writers, and producers without investigating the charges against them. In fact, blacklisting—closing the door to employment to anyone considered controversial—became a common practice by the early 1950s. If the unions or craft guilds sought to oppose these unthinking practices, they usually ended up with internal factionalism that stymied meaningful action.

Such divisiveness within the industry was only aggravated by the heated rivalry that developed among the networks. With four networks competing for a dwindling number of listeners in an atmosphere inimical to innovative programming, broadcasters reverted to an obvious course of action: pirating stars and hit programs from other networks. In this activity no one outdid William Paley and CBS. In the late 1940s he wooed from NBC some of that network's greatest celebrities. Spending millions of dollars, he brought to Columbia Amos 'n' Andy, The Jack Benny Program, The Red Skelton Show, The Edgar Bergen-Charlie McCarthy Show, and The Burns and Allen Show. From ABC Paley also obtained The Bing Crosby Show and the Groucho Marx series, You Bet Your Life. By December 1949, CBS had sixteen of the top twenty shows in the Nielsen ratings. Conversely, in the first four months of 1949, NBC lost almost $7 million in advertising revenue.

Other changes within the industry further revealed the turmoil in which radio found itself as it entered the 1950s. The president of the Mutual network, Edgar Kobak, was fired; the major networks slashed their advertising rates as much as twenty-five percent; and some of the largest accounts—like Kellogg's, Pillsbury, and Standard Brands—dramatically curtailed their spending in radio. On the local level, many stations, seeking new consumers to whom to appeal, began shifting their formats to please black listeners. In matters of programming, transcribed shows, long anathema to NBC and CBS, became increasingly common, and recorded reruns of popular shows became a summer feature by 1949. These were tumultuous times for radio. Even when the networks pinned their hopes and cash on new series, disappointment was the inevitable result. This was especially the case in the recorded series sold by Frederic Ziv Company (I Was a Communist for the F.B.I., Freedom U.S.A., Bright Star, Boston Blackie) and M-G-M Attractions (The Hardy Family, Black Museum, Dr. Kildare, Maisie, M-G-M Theater of the Air, etc.) and in NBC's ninety-minute variety extravaganza, The Big Show, which was budgeted at $35,000 per program, but which never delivered the anticipated large audience during its two years on radio, 1951-1953.

These developments suggest that radio was changing. It was a new era, a new social context in which the medium had to find a balance or perish. Some like David Sarnoff could contend that radio would not die because too many homes had radio sets. But this was hardly a convincing argument. If radio were to survive, it needed new financial arrangements, programming that suited its changing role in society, and a new awareness of what its function would be in America at mid-century. The prepossessing reason for these considerations was, of course, the fatal threat that the emergent television industry was presenting to radio.

Americans had been living with the promise of television since the 1920s. To a nation enraptured by technology and its electrical gadgets, the ability to see entertainers and orators in the living room seemed the logical extension of radio. Thus it was with the Washington inventor who predicted in September 1925, that within five years every household in America would be equipped with a video receiver that would allow people to see what they were hearing.

It was in this spirit of confidence and anticipation that Variety headlined its edition of April 16, 1930: "TELEVISION NEAR READY." By the end of the 1930s, moreover, video had become a reality. The marketing of TV sets began in 1938. In May of that year Variety printed its first review of a television program, and in the following spring Billboard began to review TV shows. For the popular fan magazine, Radio Mirror, this was indeed an auspicious period. In August 1939, it changed its name to Radio and Television Mirror, and the next month announced the first TV giveaway contest in history: six new Philco television sets for the best answers—in one hundred words or less—to the statement: "The radio or movie star I would most like to see in a television program is: ...” In announcing the contest, the magazine captured the optimistic spirit that television generated:

Now you won't have to wait until you have the money to be the first on your block—perhaps in your town—to own a Philco television set! The newest miracle, this decade's greatest thrill, may be yours for the price of a postage stamp.... Only recently put on sale, they're an engineering achievement!

Had World War II not interfered with the research, production, and distribution of receivers and transmitters, TV would have challenged radio in the early 1940s. With the demands of war, however, the radio and television industries were converted to production for military purposes. But the potential of TV was not forgotten. As the war concluded, manufacturers and network officials were already planning to reintroduce television to American consumers. Perhaps the most accurate observation on the future for video was made early in 1944 by Paul G. Hoffman, president of Studebaker automobiles, when he suggested that within a decade it would be a billion dollar industry employing 4.6 million people. Hoffman argued that the $100 billion Americans had saved by purchasing war bonds during the war would be a strong force in this development.

The emergence of television in the postwar era was a mixed blessing. In some ways it was a complement to radio. Many considered TV an extension of radio broadcasting, some calling it "sight radio," "radio optics," "radio moving pictures," and "radio vision." Many programs in 1945 and 1946 were simply adaptations of radio series, and most TV programs were the same types of shows that radio had utilized. In this regard, television's primitive quiz, dramatic, audience participation, and comedy telecasts were not unfamiliar to American listeners.

The debt to radio, however, went deeper. It can reasonably be argued that television only began to develop a large following when several of the biggest names in radio began appearing on it, and when some of the largest advertisers in broadcasting transferred their capital to video. In 1948, Milton Berle, Ed Sullivan, Fred Allen, and Edward R. Murrow appeared as featured guests or hosts of their own TV shows. Several radio series—The Lone Ranger, The Original Amateur Hour, and Break the Bank—became TV features in 1948 and the following year. By 1950, some of the best television programs—The Goldbergs,Suspense,Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts, Stop the Music!, The Life of Riley—came directly from network radio, several with the same sponsors and stars. With such programming, what had begun as "sight radio" began now to destroy its "hearing-only" competition.

The only impediment to the inundation of America by television was the lack of transmitters. But as new stations were erected, the popularity of the young medium exploded. By 1950, in cities like Los Angeles, Philadelphia, New York City, and Baltimore, more people watched TV than listened to radio. Surveys overwhelmingly suggested that once more stations and sets were in use, radio would collapse.

Alarmists noted that when cities became saturated with television, radio could hope for no more than fifteen percent of the evening audience. Four years earlier a Variety headline had wondered if TV were "RADIO'S FRANKENSTEIN?" The answer seemed to be in the affirmative. In a doomsday vein, a CBS vice-president, Hubbell Robinson, Jr., compared the situation to Custer's Last Stand. “Television is about to do to radio what the Sioux did to Custer," he wrote in 1948. “There is going to be a massacre.” Ironically, that same year in a NBC film promoting its radio operations, Behind Your Radio Dial, the network addressed the emerging new medium. But this short movie failed to appreciate the devastating effect TV would have on radio broadcasting as it then existed.

In the 1950s radio producers tried to regain their momentum. In doing so, they would create some of the more impressive series in broadcasting history. Science fiction and westerns had traditionally been children's fare in radio. But in the period of competition with TV, radio produced distinguished adult series in these genres. NBC's Dimension X and X Minus One presented serious science fiction based on stories by leading writers in the field. CBS concentrated on the adult western. Beginning with Gunsmoke in 1952, it introduced Fort Laramie, Luke Slaughter of Tombstone, Frontier Gentleman, and as late as November 1958, an adaptation of a television hit, Have Gun, Will Travel. NBC also experimented with mature westerns with Dr. Six-Gun and Jimmy Stewart's The Six-Shooter.

A new sophistication also appeared in detective programs. Police dramas like Dragnet, Broadway Is My Beat, and Twenty-First Precinct were grim, informative dramas that painted an unglamorous picture of law enforcement in an urban context. Private investigator programs like Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar and Night Beat also had heroes operating within an adult environment. The networks also produced several impressive dramatic series. In these waning days of radio drama they introduced NBC Star Playhouse, Philco Playhouse, and Your Nutrilite Radio Theater. In late 1955, NBC's last attempt at substantive drama was Your Radio Theater, a fifty-five minute showcase whose stars included Fredric March, Herbert Marshall, and Victor McLaglen in such powerful plays as "Death of a Salesman," "The Informer," "Lost Weekend," and "There Shall Be No Night."

Despite those creditable achievements, radio as heard since the early 1930s was dead. In December 1955, the Nielsen ratings showed that there was not one evening program listed in the top ten. In fact, the most popular evening show was Dragnet which was tied for fourteenth place, well behind the soap operas and variety shows of daytime radio. Startling, too, was the fact that although that year there were over 46.6 million homes equipped with radios, the average evening broadcast was heard in only 786,000 households. Daytime network programming could hardly be considered a business with a future. By the end of 1960 there was not one soap opera remaining on the air. In fact, by that date radio had assumed a new function and a new appearance in American society.

In the postwar era, television replaced radio broadcasting as the primary entertainment medium of the mass audience. In an incredibly short time, it preempted radio as the preferred source for drama, sports, soap opera, variety, comedy, western, and children's programming. Radio's inherent problems in adjusting to peacetime conditions were exacerbated by the challenge of the new visual medium. It is in light of this reality that one must consider the loss of advertisers, the talent raids, the sinking ratings, and ineffective new programs.

The Nielsen ratings in late 1955 only confirmed the obvious point: national radio had lost its audience and now had to contend with a new environment. On the network level radio was now a supplementary, secondary entertainment source. To survive, it had to do better those things which television could not do. It also had to find new means of attracting revenue. A decade earlier NBC President Niles Trammell had predicted that radio would to discover "a niche where it can best serve the public." In late 1954 the trade film Tune in Tomorrow was an attempt by CBS Radio to pump life back into the business and entice advertisers.

The answer to this problem had already been discovered by most of the independent, non-network stations. In the late 1940s slightly more than seventy-five percent of the stations in the United States were affiliated with one of the four major networks. To meet this rivalry, independent stations focused on programming not offered by the networks or TV. These shows featured music, foreign language programs, sports coverage, and local-interest features.

The independents also concentrated on the portability that TV could not match. They provided programs for the beach, automobile, restaurants, shops, and factories. The independents also appealed to local sponsors, and to groups of advertisers who individually could not subsidize a full program, but who as a cooperative unit shared sponsorship.

There were instances where these practices were abused. An FCC document in 1946, Public Service Responsibility of Broadcast Licensees, or, as it was popularly called, "the blue book," showed how crassly commercialized some local stations had become. During a sample week in 1945, for instance, KIEV (Glendale, California) devoted eighty-eight percent of its time to phonograph records and other recorded music, interspersed with 1,034 commercials and eight public service announcements. At KMAC the figures were more startling as that station aired 2,215 commercials in a 133-hour period, an average of 16.7 commercials per hour. Although these cases were exceptional, they reveal the dedication to local sponsorship and inexpensive programming that non-network radio had developed.

That the radio networks needed an economic boost was made clear by financial statistics by 1955. During the nine years before that date, gross revenues for the four networks had been declining at a rate of $32 million per year. In this atmosphere, the networks began experimenting with multiple-sponsorship and local programming. Affiliates also were urged to obtain local commercial support instead of expecting a single national sponsor to underwrite a network show. This movement toward decentralization may have weakened the hold the New York City networks had over their affiliates, but it produced a new affluence for individual stations. Consisting of the more powerful stations in the nation, the affiliates found themselves increasingly independent in terms of program choices, and increasingly wealthy in terms of time sales. Cut-backs in offerings from the networks, and the ability to reach a wider local and regional audience than the weaker-signaled independent stations, soon allowed them to become more profitable than ever.

By the 1960s the networks provided only a remnant of what they once fed to their affiliates. News on the hour, special events coverage, recorded music, and a few features scattered throughout the day—this was the typical offering from NBC, CBS, ABC, and MBS. Radio was no longer a comprehensive entertainment forum. But the medium survived by allowing local stations to do what cumbersome TV could not. And radio did it faster, more conveniently, less expensively, and more intimately. This development was well understood by Matthew J. Culligan, NBC's vice president in charge of radio, when in 1958 he told a group of advertising agency officials:

Radio didn't die. It wasn't even sick. It just had to be psychoanalyzed.... The public didn't stop loving radio despite TV. It just starting liking it in a different way—and radio went to the beach, to the park, the patio and the automobile.... Radio has become a companion to the individual instead of remaining a focal point of all family entertainment. An intimacy has developed between radio and the individual. It has become as personal as a pack of cigarettes.

Radio certainly was not dead by 1960. It had simply experienced a metamorphosis. Just as it had always reflected the values and realities of its environment, radio by this date was reflective of a mobile, affluent, and commercialized America, solidly committed to television for its creative amusement, but still requiring radio for music and instantaneous information. Radio in the 1960s would be the realm of the disk jockey and the newscaster. And in the mid-1970s—when there were more than 4,400 AM stations and 3,500 FM stations, and more than 402 million radios in use (compared to 121 million television sets)—this was still the case.

One of the more perceptive personalities in broadcasting was Arch Oboler. Writing in early 1945, he foresaw the demise of radio as he had known it. His article, "Requiem for Radio," stated it bluntly: "Television will supplant 'blind' broadcasting even as sound pictures did way with the silent movies. To deny this is to whistle in the dark of wish-thinking.”

What was passing away was an era in American cultural history. What had begun in the 1920s as an experimental toy and a popular fad had emerged in the next decade as the most engaging medium in communications. Recognized early by American capitalists as a profitable and strategic new industry, radio became an entertainment, informational, and artistic utility. Certainly, it was filled with commercialism. Certainly, too, it was shaped in part by sponsor and agency prejudices. But radio was still functional. To many critics it lacked esthetics. Not enough classical music! Not enough fine drama! Too much soap opera!, they proclaimed. Yet, radio from 1920 to 1960 mirrored the American civilization which it served.

If it was commercialized, it was because the entire society was shaped by a capitalist, consumer economy with its penchant for competitive advertising and its advocacy of a business ethic. If it lacked grace and refinement, it was because radio served a democratic audience, a mixture of educational and economic levels which generally appreciated a belly-laugh more than a polite curtsey. Norman Corwin epitomized this situation when in January 1945 he concluded that radio

rises no higher and sinks no lower than the society which produces it, and if its abuses and shortcomings and perversions seem relatively greater than those of corresponding mass media of information and entertainment, it is only because of radio's relatively greater ubiquity. The local newspaper comes out once or twice daily, the local movie bill changes once a week, but the local loudspeaker, meaning the one in your living room, performs all day long if you will permit it, changing its bill hundreds of times within the range of an average dial in any average broadcasting day.... I believe people get the kind of radio, or pictures, or theater, or press they deserve.... The gist of what I am saying is that the radio of this country cannot be considered from the general culture and modes of the American people. Radio today is neither as good as the program executive will have you believe in his statement to the interviewer; nor as bad as the intellectual guest at the dinner party makes it out to be.

As a democratic republic, the United States was established, populated, and maintained by relatively simple and hard-working people who demanded similar qualities in their entertainment. By a study of their principal medium of amusement in the middle of the twentieth century, it is possible to comprehend and appreciate fuller the nature of that commercial democracy and the character of the people who made it work.

Continue Reading        Previous