The Golden Age of Radio

How Radio Began       

The period when radio reached it's peak popularity was in the '30s and '40s.  Part of this period was during the "Great Depression" when people were doing without most luxuries and even a few necessities.  Radio and it's wide range of live music, comedy, variety shows and dramatic programs served as a welcome escape from those troubled times.  

Even though many people couldn't afford payments on their washing machines, vacuum cleaners or Model-A Fords, they desperately struggled to keep up payments on their radios.  Radios of that era weren't just small plastic devices.  They were built into large wooden cases that amounted to elaborate pieces of furniture. 

The large size was due to numerous large vacuum tubes in the circuitry; which were replaced decades later by transistors and integrated circuits.  Typically, these early radios also had large speakers that provided rich bass, and large loops of wire wound around an internal drum that served as an adjustable antenna for receiving distant stations.

By 1935, more than 22 million American homes had radios, and automobiles were being sold with radios.  Except for one very important thing, radio networks, the stage was set for radio's golden era.

The Beginning of the Radio Networks

 When radio began, all programming was "live"; which was costly and demanded major resources.  In 1923, two stations, WEAF and WNAC on the East Coast of the United States decided they could share the cost of originating certain programs by connecting the two stations with telephone lines and broadcasting the same program at the same time.  Other stations then joined this select group and the concept of the radio network was born.  

During the early days of radio AT&T tried to take control of this new medium. It claimed that radio was just a "wireless telephone service," and since they controlled telephone services, that meant that they should control radio too.  But that was a bridge too far for the U.S. Justice Department and they forced AT&T to sell its BCA radio network to several companies, including RCA.  Even so, AT&T maintained its lucrative monopoly on radio network lines by banning stations from using their lines. In response, stations owned by GE, Westinghouse and RCA networked their own stations.  

To join the network radio stations had to sign a contract requiring them to carry designated network programs.  Since the programs included commercials, the stations received a share of the network revenue.  At the same time, the affiliates could run their own local commercials around the network programs. This practice is still followed today by both radio and television network affiliates.

Then another major player in radio networks emerged, William Paley. Along with NBC President, David Sarnoff, he would become a corporate legend.  Paley's father, Sam Paley, owned a cigar company and William thought that by purchasing the struggling CBS radio network they could better sell their cigars. (The CBS radio network, which had just started, was having a hard time competing with NBC.)  Once he purchased CBS, it wasn't long before William Paley shifted his focus from selling cigars to building a strong rival to NBC.

After NBC ran into it's own monopoly problems it was forced to split its network into two parts: NBC Red and NBC Blue.   The latter was then sold to a group of businessmen who renamed it the ABC radio network.

Before we get too far ahead in our narrative, there's another radio "war story" we need to cover.  

The Press-Radio War  

  When radio stations started broadcasting news, the newspapers yelled "foul," and tried to stop them — or at least badly cripple them.  Clearly, radio had a major advantage in being able to "be first with the news" (the motto of more than one radio station).  Not only were radio stations scooping them on major stories, but they were siphoning off advertising revenue.  The newspapers, which had control of all the major news services, including the Associated Press (AP), the International News Service (INS), and the United Press (UP), launched a corporate war against the radio stations. This was quickly labeled the press-radio war.  

Recognizing serious competition from the radio stations, the newspapers threatened to cut off their flow of news.  Seeing the consequences of that, Paley and CBS set up their own newsgathering agency.  That move also represented a threat to the newspapers, so they demanded that CBS totally shut down its newsgathering operations. As if that wasn't enough, the newspapers further said that NBC could only broadcast two, five-minute news summaries a day — and then only after the morning and afternoon newspapers hit the street.  But, even that wasn't enough for the newspapers. They further stipulated that the newscasts could not be sponsored, lest the stations cut into newspaper profits. Clearly, the newspaper empire of the day had a lot of power — or at least they assumed they did.

After some time, the radio stations eventually won that battle.  Today however, very few radio stations are involved in their own newsgathering.  Most of those who have newscasts switch to a audio network on the hour for a short news summary.  But while radio did actively cover news, it did it very well.  It did especially well at covering World War II.  The most notable radio news personality of that era was Edward R. Murrow.   He was an excellent writer and had a deep, dramatic voice.  

  Murrow made you feel as if you were a personal witness to the events that were taking place.  He did a live report once from London with the sounds of bombs falling around him (a particularly impressive feat in those days).

This new radio medium could hold families around their radios night after night and hold women around their radios every weekday afternoon with soap operas  (radio dramas that were typically sponsored by soap companies).  For one thing, radio in the 1930s wasn't just designed to appeal to specific musical and philosophical tastes as it is today.  It was a family medium.  Families sat around the radio and listened to shows like "Gunsmoke," "The Shadow," "Our Miss Brooks," "Superman," "Ellery Queen, "Dick Tracy," "Buck Rogers," and the "Sixty-Four Dollar Question." (Yes, $64.00 was the top prize!)

Today's listeners, who use radio largely as a background to do other things, might wonder how radio could hold a listener's interest for several hours at a time.  There's a one-word answer: imagination.  Listeners could imagine what the people and situations looked like.  For this reason radio was personally involving.  In fact when some of these shows made the transition to television, audiences were very disappointed.  What people were seeing on TV just couldn't measure up to the images of the characters and surroundings that listeners had held in their minds.

Radio scripts were sprinkled with clues as to what was going on:  "Emma, why are you going to the window?";  "I see that you are wearing your bright red dress, Clare."  And then there were sound effects — the recorded or created sounds of footsteps, horse's hooves, doors being slammed, rain, thunder, car engines, dogs barking, babies crying, birds singing, fire crackling, etc.  There were  (scaled down) doors to slam, and telephone bells and door chimes to ring, etc.

But, some effects were a bit hard to bring into the studio and had to be created in other ways.  For example, massaging a piece of cellophane next to a microphone created the sound of a crackling fire, and wiggling a large sheet of sheet metal created the sound of thunder.

Many of these artificially created effects sounded "more real" than the sound of real thing.   

Regulations and Ruses

Despite the depression, as radio moved through the decade of the 30s it was riding high on popularity. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, using an informal radio approach and bringing to bear his paternal, reassuring style, helped maintain confidence in conditions in the United States with his "fireside chats" from the White House.

  This was the first time radio had been used in this way. Roosevelt contributed something else to the history of broadcasting: the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). 

By 1934, radio and the electronic media were developing too rapidly for the original Federal Radio Commission's 1927 mandate. To solve this problem, Roosevelt spurred Congress to pass the Communications Act of 1934, which set up a new governing body, Its purpose was to incorporate the powers of the FRC while expanding its mandate to regulate all of interstate electronic communications.

The "War of the Worlds" Broadcast

No history of radio would be complete without mentioning the famous (some would say "infamous") "War of the Worlds" broadcast in October, 1938.   

Orson Welles was a young, controversial genius of radio, stage and film. He wrote, directed, and starred in Citizen Cane, considered by many to be this country's most notable film.  Among the many things he was involved in was a weekly network radio show called "The Mercury Theater on the Air", which normally ran a distant second in the ratings against the "Charlie McCarthy Show" on another network.

Together with John Houseman (later to become a well-known actor), Welles had come up with a radio drama for Halloween night involving an invasion from Mars.  The show was in the form of a mock radio newscast featuring supposedly live reports from various parts of the United States tracing the destructive advance of the Martians across the country.  It was clearly stated at the beginning of the show that it was only a drama (a Halloween spoof). However, people who tuned in after the show had started (during the time when "Charlie McCarthy" went into commercials), didn't hear the disclaimer.  

  Keep in mind that this was during the time when "radio was king"; people were hearing about various international crises on the radio, and everyone was already a bit nervous about things in the country.

Welles, who had showed up (as usual) just minutes before the live, coast-to-coast broadcast, modified the script as he went along. He was working with a crack radio team used to his "flexible" style, so they adapted accordingly.  The show included various realistic sound effects — all done "live," of course — that added believability. This included one that was created with the help of a nearby toilet. (If it worked, no one questioned it!)  Some people who were listening were smart enough to tune to other radio stations, and finding no similar doomsday coverage, concluded that it was only a drama.  However, many people didn't, and the show caused panic across the country.  People barricaded themselves in their homes with guns loaded; some people jumped in their cars and tried to flee the areas where the Martians were supposedly advancing; and many people rushed to churches to settle things before it was too late.  When these people later found out that the whole thing was a spoof, they were upset to the point of demanding legislative action. Cooler heads eventually prevailed. But, as a result, the name Orson Welles became famous and people became a bit more discerning about the content of broadcast programming.

       During radio’s Golden Age, much of the programming heard by listeners was controlled by advertising agencies, which conceived the shows, hired the talent and staff (sometimes drawing performers directly from the old vaudeville theatre circuit), and leased airtime and studio facilities from the radio networks. Programs became fixed in quarter-hour and half-hour blocks and featured a wide variety of formats.

This was the "Golden Age of Radio"