- In the Beginning Was the Word — Radio:
“I like doing radio because it’s so intimate. The moment people hear your voice, you’re inside their heads, not only that, you’re in there laying eggs”.
We can watch TV — or movies, YouTube videos, play videogames, exchange video phone calls — from anywhere and everywhere: on line at McD’s, from our seat on our commuter bus or train (usually annoying the hell out of the napping business professional next to us), even from a toilet stall (crass, I grant, but I’ve seen — , well, ahem, I mean, I’ve heard it done). It’s nearly impossible for a generation growing up immersed, submerged, and buried in portable visual media to imagine the magnetic hold radio had on its audiences back in its early days. Think about it, all you smartphone and ipad users, wi-fiers and Hopper subscribers: there was a day when the peak of electronic home entertainment consisted of the family sitting together in the living room in the evening staring at a wooden cabinet whose sole visual attraction was a glowing dial (check out Woody Allen’s Radio Days  to get some idea of the pop culture role radio had at its peak).
Emmy-winning writer/producer/director Bill Persky recalls for us what it was like growing up during the Golden Age of Radio:
The magic of radio, the miracle of radio, mostly because it was so amazing that such a thing could exist: this was at a time when everyone stopped to look up every time an airplane flew over. If you were lucky, there was one telephone in the house — or else you had to run down to the candy store when they sent someone up to tell you you had a call on their pay phone. Hard to believe it has all come so far and I have lived it.
The radio was like an electronic fireplace where the family gathered together to share the comfort of the after-dinner shows: “Fibber Magee and Molly” with its hall closet that used every sound effect known to man when it was opened, a moment you knew was coming but still delighted in anew; dramas like “Lux Radio Theater,” “Mr. First Nighter,” “Grand Central Station,” all featuring big Hollywood stars, right in your living room. It was a time when we expected less, and appreciated more.
Then there were the afternoon serials, fifteen minutes of adventure with “Terry and the Pirates”, “Captain Midnight,” “Buck Rogers,” “The Green Hornet,” and all the magical stuff you could send away for: decoder rings, belt buckles with secret compartments, silver bullets from the Lone Ranger, all for ten cents and a Silver Cup bread wrapper.
But mostly there was the part imagination got to play: it wasn’t all there in front of you, so you created your own pictures and that made it all more personal. We played those characters in our games, and since no one knew what they looked like, any one of them could be me.
Radio was personal.
Let’s see the Hopper top that.
* * * * *
Whether you talk about what the networks put on the air, how they did it, or even how the business end of their business worked, network television was, essentially — at least in its early years — just an extension of network radio.
RCA had created the first broadcast network — for radio — in 1926. This was a smart move for RCA since one of the things they built was radios. Creating a broadcast network gave people who bought their radios something to listen to, and having something to listen to gave people a reason to buy RCA’s radios. So, the National Broadcasting Company was formed ultimately producing two networks — the Red and the Blue — to distribute radio programming (NBC would later sell the Blue Network to Edward J. Noble in 1943 who used it as the foundation for ABC).
RCA had a competitor in the radio business; a phonograph and record manufacturer by the name of Columbia which was not about to allow RCA free sway over the new medium. Similarly to RCA, Columbia wanted a radio network to interest people in their products. A Columbia radio network would allow people to hear the music on Columbia records which gave them a reason to run out and buy those records along with Columbia phonographs on which to play them. Consequently, Columbia formed the Columbia Phonograph Broadcasting System which debuted in 1927 (the “Phonograph” part was soon dropped).
The radio business was supposed to cultivate a growing customer demand for radios and records and record players which meant revenue for RCA and Columbia. As for the nets themselves, their income came from advertising.
It worked like this. The nets would solicit a “sponsor” for each program they aired. Each sponsor would put up a certain amount of money in order to advertise its product during the show. In many ways, the show became the property of the sponsor.
Radio back then didn’t even remotely resemble what we get today, whether we’re subscribing to Sirius channels, using our IHeartRadio app, or trying to find a decent tune on our car set. Radio of the 1930s and ’40s was not only as popular as TV is today, but was programmed a lot like it as well. There was, naturally enough, recorded music, but there were also variety shows, game shows, news, talk shows, children’s programs, soap operas, cop shows, Westerns, dramas, and situation comedies (sitcoms).
Now if all of this looks a little familiar, it’s because television networks were launched by radio networks who lifted the TV network system directly from radio. As a matter of fact, the networks not only produced the same kinds of shows for TV that they’d produced for radio, they often took those very same shows from radio and put them on TV.
Sometimes the radio show went to TV in one piece, such as with The Jack Benny Show and Dragnet which made it to The Tube with their entire casts intact. Other times, as with Gunsmoke, certain “considerations” had to be made in the change in mediums such as having the muscular James Arness play Marshall Dillon instead of the radio program’s roly-poly William Conrad. All told, approximately 200 radio shows wound up making the trip to television (even Candid Camera — the great-great grandfather to shows like Punk’d — started out on radio as Candid Microphone!). In fact, a number of these programs survived as both radio and TV series for a period of time until the popularity of radio fell too low to justify keeping the radio version on the air.
One of the major reasons the DuMont network died was because it didn’t have a radio network. The TV nets’ radio counterparts helped pay the bills until their TV siblings could stand on their own legs (1949 was the last year of red ink for the TV nets; the following year they grossed over $90 million in ad revenue — close to $300 million in today’s dollars without accounting for changes in ad rates — and income would grow steadily into the 1980s), provided them with already in-place sponsors, talent and affiliate relationships, as well as a technological base. Not having a radio net also deprived DuMont of launching TV shows which had already developed solid audiences as radio programs. Lacking all these assets, having to start from scratch when the other nets had a head start going back to radio in the 1920s, DuMont could never catch up.
New York City became the hub of TV network broadcasting. Since the radio networks had been based out of New York, the new TV networks could easily piggy-back their transmission requirements onto the radio technology already in place. The New York locale also gave the networks access to the city’s stage community. Stage-trained performers — with their by-necessity strong vocal talents — suited the needs of live television better than the West Coast’s screen talents.
The sponsorship system made the trip to TV, too. With the present format of TV advertising, another hard-to-imagine task for us is picturing how close the tie between sponsor and program was in those days.
The cast of a show were, in practice, spokespersons for the product, and the show itself was as much a vehicle for product promotion as it was for entertainment (for those of you who bridle at the practice of “product placement”; gang, you don’t know what product placement was until you look at sponsored TV). In fact, some shows were actually created not by the networks, but by the advertising agencies representing a particular sponsor. Individual programs were identified with specific products i.e. Death Valley Days with “twenty mule team” Borax detergent, and The U.S. Steel Hour with — can you guess? — U.S. Steel.
This buddy-buddy arrangement proved a headache in the re-run market. By way of example, an enormous banner for De Soto cars (one of those cars you — and even your parents — are too young to remember, like the Nash and Studebaker) used to hang over the stage — and well within camera range — of Groucho Marx’s game show, You Bet Your Life. Years later, when the program was syndicated, the banner had to be optically cropped out of every program in deference to the new advertisers (as well as the fact that De Sotos had gone the way of the dodo).
The close arrangement between sponsor and program could also create headaches for the creative team behind a show. The sponsors held veto power over casting, the hiring of writers, directors, etc., and even over content. One of the apocryphal stories about the early days of TV concerns a drama about the Holocaust which featured Jews going to the Nazi gas chambers. According to the tale, the sponsor of the drama happened to be a gas company and objected to the use of gas chambers in the program and the writer was forced to change it to firing squads (you can see this story dramatized in Martin Ritt’s 1976 film about ’50s TV, The Front).
The power of the sponsor was such that it could even keep a show on the air that had a limited audience. In those days of McCarthyite paranoia, I Led Three Lives was the only TV series dedicated to the super-patriotic endeavor of exposing alleged Communist conspiracy and infiltration. Unable to find a network slot, the series lived only in syndication but was kept in re-runs well into the 1960s because the companies sponsoring the show — the kind of outfits that had the most to be paranoid about re: anti-capitalist thinking i.e. utility companies, banks, oil and steel companies — thought keeping it on the air was a “public service.”
This system of TV advertising eventually evolved into what we have today thanks to Sylvester “Pat” Weaver. Pat Weaver was the head of NBC in the late 1950s and he noticed that magazines made their money not by selling sponsorships, but by selling advertising space. From their example, Weaver got the idea of a network selling its own kind of advertising space and that’s pretty much what we have today.
The way it now works is that the advertiser rarely buys the time directly from the network at all. Ad agencies buy network time in bulk, then they sell the time as part of the advertising strategy they’re forming for their clients. Rather than sponsor an entire show, individual 60-second spots (this used to be the standard, but 30-second and 15-second spots are par now) are bought at strategic locations throughout the day and week.
Now this topic of TV advertising brings up the very interesting subject of ratings. You can’t discuss TV and not talk about ratings. Ratings deserve their own little discussion because they are to commercial television what air is to people. The same thing happens to a TV show that doesn’t get enough of a rating that happens to a person that doesn’t get enough air; it dies.
Next Week: The Numbers Racket