Early Radio Reflected Both the Good and Bad of America.

January 13, 2016

The birth of radio broadcasting (Christmas Eve 1906) ran parallel with many other innovations – electric lights, running water, automobiles, telephones, refrigerators, and more. The difference, however, was that radio had the power to influence and shape attitudes, and it crossed all lines of social class. Newspapers and books cultivated the minds of the literate, but the average American only had a fourth grade education. Radio’s appeal to the public was immediate, and it quickly became a mirror of both the good and the bad in the nation. It touched and moved the American psyche in many ways, and expanded the imaginations of its listeners. It opened our minds to culture, patriotism, and the virtues of being law-abiding citizens. Radio reflected all the ambitions of a new and exciting century. Despite all the hopes and incredible possibilities of radio, the old baggage of racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, all rooted from centuries before, found a powerful platform on which to flourish and to expand bigoted stereotypes.

In the early 20th century radios began appearing in a number of homes in America. By 1910 there were approximately 500 radio stations in the nation. Many of them were owned by large manufacturers, newspapers and hotels. An even bigger portion of the radio market was owned by churches, colleges, civic groups, and government agencies, including military agencies. The stations existed solely from the financial support of their owners, and any advertising would be about the company that owned it. That changed once investors realized that they could operate radio stations and profit off advertising dollars. The catch was that the programming had to bring in the listeners. It needed to be informative, interesting and most importantly, entertaining. What the public wanted was news, comedy, suspense and drama. Above all there was a desire to identify with the subject and the characters. The winners of huge audiences were shows that denigrated a group of individuals. Whether it was women, African Americans, Jewish Americans, or others, depicting groups of people in unflattering ways, was good for business, and for nearly half a century no one seemed to mind.

Advertisers jumped at the opportunity to grow their markets through the media of radio. Manufacturers peddling soap and cleaning products quickly became sponsors, but it was the tobacco companies who dominated the market with their ads. Cigarette smoking, especially by women, had grown by mid-century by 1000 %, and smoking-related diseases were also on the rise. With the expansion of radio stations the development of programming took off, and suddenly America was a different world.

A live radio play being broadcast at NBC studios in New York. Since recording technology was primitive and costly during the 20s, most programs were broadcast live.
A live radio play being broadcast at NBC studios in New York. Since recording technology was primitive and costly during the 20s, most programs were broadcast live.

In 1930 over 60% of American households had radios. In his book “Raised on Radio” Gerald Nachman summed up the feelings of an entire generation saying, “From this small box I learned much of what I knew about honor, romance, justice, evil, humor, manhood, motherhood, marriage, women, law and order, history, sports and families.” Like the automobile, the radio was a cultural equalizer, because nearly everyone had one or access to one. In a society of “haves and have nots” the radio allowed listeners to hear the sounds of the orchestra and theater, delights that had previously been limited to those who could pay the price of admission into a concert hall. The radio was the town hall to America, and everyone was invited.

The different variety and comedy radio shows lifted the spirits of an entire nation during the bleak years of the Great Depression. The radio bonded Americans together during World War II. Many families gathered around to listen to the news flashes about the war. The radio is where Americans learned about Pearl Harbor, D-Day, V-Day and FDR’s death. Super Heroes and comedians alike all joined the war effort in some way (Baby Snooks, Superman, Fiber McGee) and advised listeners to plant victory gardens, buy war bonds and conserve tinfoil and cooking fat.

Jim and Marian Jordan as Fibber McGee and Molly" Life Magazine ad 1937
Jim and Marian Jordan as Fibber McGee and Molly” Life Magazine ad 1937

All the biases and prejudices of that generation became part of the natural culture of radio. Initially, women were absent on radio shows, but when cast they were depicted as dependable homemakers. In fact, much of radio’s advertising counted on the fact that women were at home listening to the radio, while their children were at school and their husbands at work. Between 1900 and 1950, however, nearly 40% of women had moved into employment outside of the house. Along with this transition radio stereotyping changed and women were seen as silly, unintelligent, loud, bossy, or just ridiculous. The Fiber McGee show was about the comical lives of a married couple (they actually were married to each other). In one episode Fiber is teaching his wife Molly how to drive and he said, “You are just a woman and after I teach you to drive you will still be a woman, and a woman driver.” The audience, made up of both men and women, laughed loudly. This seemingly innocent comment was one of millions over decades of radio, and it formed the core of just how society viewed women as second class citizens. The attitude of women being subordinate to men existed long before radio came on the scene. Radio just reinforced it.

Father Coughlin speaking 1934
Father Coughlin speaking 1934

In the early 1930s a Roman Catholic priest, Father Charles Coughlin, of Detroit started a weekly radio broadcast. He initially supported and commented about Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal policy, but by the mid-1930’s Coughlin turned against Roosevelt and his policies claiming the President was too friendly with bankers. The priest blamed the Jews for the Great Depression. Coughlin’s broadcast transitioned into a platform to promote anti-Semitism, and by the late 1930s Father Coughlin had aligned his support with Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini. In one evening broadcast Father Coughlin said to his listeners “When we get through with the Jews in America, they’ll think the treatment they received in Germany was nothing.” His weekly radio show was heard by 30 million listeners. The show was canceled in 1939.

The most popular radio show of all time was clearly an instrument of racism. Amos ‘n’ Andy (1928-1955) had a nightly listening audience of over 40 million, which was one third of the nation. A comedy sitcom that was about African Americans living in Harlem, blacks were depicted as lazy, unintelligent, and irresponsible. Despite a number of attempts by various groups, including the NAACP, the show stayed on the air for nearly 30 years. Despite its controversial attitudes towards African Americans the show was widely heard by both white and black audiences. Amos ‘n’ Andy was created, directed, and acted by two white men, Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll.

By 1950 radio was in decline and television had taken its place in American media. Radio’s half century rule, however, had created a new world for many in entertainment, sports, music, news, and more. It also pushed forward the old notions, the false beliefs, about different people that still exist today. 

Here are a few of the popular shows of that time:

Mystery:

The Shadow (1930 to 1954) It was one of the most popular radio shows of all time. The principal character Lamont Cranston was a type of super hero, who had the ability to “cloud men’s minds”. Cranston used that skill to foil criminals and solve difficult cases. “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The shadow knows.” A young Orson Welles got his start as the voice of Lamont Cranston.

Comedy:

The Jack Benny Show (1932-1955) His shows usually included music, sometimes dancing and a large amount of comical banter between Benny and someone else in the cast. Many of his shows turned into domestic sitcom about some routine chore that Benny turns into a ridiculous misadventure. His show included the character Rochester, an African American, who played Benny’s valet and driver. Unlike the characters in Amos ‘n’ Andy, Rochester was treated as Benny’s equal.

Music and Dance:

National Barn Dance (1924) later to become the Grand Ole Opry

The Voice of Firestone (1928 to 1949)

The NBC Symphony Orchestra (1937-1954)