Americans Embrace Radio Entertainment Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In the 1930’s, radio broadcasts of music, comedy, drama, news, and sports came to pervade Americans’ daily lives.

Summary of Event

The inauguration of radio networking and broadcasting after 1926 and the increasing sale of airtime for advertisements by the close of the 1920’s further opened the door for the radio industry’s exploration of entertainments capable of attracting and holding mass audiences. The remarkable profits earned from such efforts were a powerful underpinning to radio’s phenomenally successful insertion of its messages, programs, and personalities into American life. Radio held sway as the reigning entertainment medium until the 1950’s, when its regency was in some respects usurped by the dissemination and public embrace of television. [kw]Americans Embrace Radio Entertainment (1930’s) [kw]Radio Entertainment, Americans Embrace (1930’s) [kw]Entertainment, Americans Embrace Radio (1930’s) Radio;programming Great Depression;radio programming [g]United States;1930’s: Americans Embrace Radio Entertainment[07390] [c]Radio and television;1930’s: Americans Embrace Radio Entertainment[07390] [c]Entertainment;1930’s: Americans Embrace Radio Entertainment[07390] Roosevelt, Franklin D. [p]Roosevelt, Franklin D.;fireside chats Vallee, Rudy Allen, Fred Burns, George Cantor, Eddie Hope, Bob Crosby, Bing

The first U.S. president to understand the power of radio communication, Franklin D. Roosevelt won public support for his New Deal programs through a series of “fireside chats” broadcast over the radio networks.

(FDR Library)

The “golden age” of radio was a result of outside events as much as it was a bonus from the scramble for profits. The onslaught of the Great Depression, the most massive peacetime crisis in American history, forced the leisure of tens of millions of ordinary folk, through economic necessity, back into the home. The manifestations of the Depression, including unemployment, debt, evaporating profits, a collapse of effective government, folk migrations, labor strife, and, by the late 1930’s, the awareness of a distintegrating international order and impending war, created a popular hunger for morale boosting, optimism, diversion, escapism, and a sense of brotherhood and belonging. Confirmation of the extent to which radio met these wants and needs came in many ways. Social workers noted in the mid-1930’s that needy families surrendered nearly all of their possessions when necessary but insisted on retaining their radios, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the first chief executive to use radio effectively, tried to encourage optimism and weld the nation together, beginning in March, 1933, with his series of broadcast “fireside chats.” Fireside chats (Roosevelt)

The vastness of radio’s potential audience was revealed by the reception of Freeman Fisher Gosden and Charles Correll’s series Amos ’n’ Andy, Amos ’n’ Andy (radio program)[Amos n Andy] eventually a claimant to having been the most popular show ever presented by any of the media. Lesser, but still substantial, success attended broadcast of The Rudy Vallee Show. Rudy Vallee Show, The (radio program) The program, hosted by crooner Vallee, established a format for variety shows and introduced dozens of vaudeville’s greatest talents, including Eddie Cantor, Alice Faye, Milton Berle, Joe Penner, Bob Burns, and Bing Crosby, among others who were soon to host their own shows.

Programming hours were filled quickly. Morning broadcasts continued, as they had in the 1920’s, with “wake-up” shows and home, health, and happiness presentations aimed primarily at female audiences. In rural areas, morning shows were sometimes augmented with livestock prices. Soap operas Soap operas —so named because soap companies were early sponsors—appeared by 1932. Some of these had been “evening light” romances of the late 1920’s, including The Smith Family, The Rise of the Goldbergs, and True Story Hour. To these were added Ma Perkins, The Romance of Helen Trent, and Myrt and Marge, all serials that aired for years and had audiences so caught up that some newspapers printed synopses of each day’s adventures so that listeners forced to miss a show could keep up. More serious, novel, and educational were the spontaneous interviews of notable personalities offered eventually by The Mary Margaret McBride Show on the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS).

Early afternoons posed difficulties for network broadcasters, who aired a few soap operas during those hours. A number of what proved to be long-running “kids’ shows” successfully blocked out late afternoons. WOR-New York’s Uncle Don, one of the most beloved of these shows, featured original stories, personal announcements, words of caution and advice, and piano tunes and songs. Other shows that became household favorites were The Singing Story Lady, Let’s Pretend, and, especially for school-age boys, Jack Armstrong, All-American Boy. For younger children, there were numerous “uncle and aunt” broadcasts such as WLS-Chicago’s Lullaby Twins. Also important but hardly central to network broadcasting were educational shows such as conductor Walter Damrosch’s Music Appreciation Hour, a precursor of Leonard Bernstein’s later, similar, and justly famed television music series for children that reportedly reached millions of schoolchildren.

By the mid-1930’s, the evening hours had become “prime time.” Sponsors discovered the large potential audiences available during these hours and competed for these audiences with shows featuring constellations of stars, many of whom survived as household names into the television era. Radio’s stellar personalities, who included Eddie Cantor, Fred Allen, Ed Wynn, Edgar Bergen (and Charlie McCarthy), Bing Crosby, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Jim and Marion Jordan (Fibber McGee and Molly), Will Rogers, Major Edward Bowes, Fanny Brice, Bob Hope, and Al Jolson, often accompanied by almost equally notable announcers and bandleaders, preempted Americans’ prime leisure time with their own buoyant styles of music, wisecracks, nonsense, silliness, humor, and wit. Radio personalities became the intimates of nearly every family in the country, with popularity matching that of Hollywood’s film stars.

Although serious drama played a modest role in the broadcast day and was almost nonexistent in prime time, a niche for it was carved out after the mid-1930’s. Writers, poets, and dramatists such as Archibald MacLeish, Arthur Miller, Norman Rosten, Norman Corwin, Arch Obler, and Orson Welles, in company with notable actors such as John Houseman, Agnes Moorehead, Maurice Evans, John Barrymore, and Welles, created stirring dramas. Welles became famous for his terrifying adaptation of H. G. Wells’s 1898 novel The War of the Worlds in 1938. Another niche was found for news, despite a dearth of sponsors and low ratings. News programs gained popularity after the mid-1930’s, as dictatorial regimes in Europe and Asia dismantled the peace. American listeners wanted current news of these events. CBS’s William S. Paley Paley, William S. pioneered radio news, building a superior cadre of newsmen, among them Edward R. Murrow, William L. Shirer, David Schoenbrun, Richard Hottelet, and, a bit later, Charles Collingwood and Howard K. Smith. Several of them gained fame as news reporters in their own right.

Significance

During the 1930’s, radio network broadcasting dominated the leisure and preempted the daily attention of Americans as no other communications medium ever had. Its myriad sounds, music, and voices, heard in homes, factories, shops, and cars, became an integral part of the daily environment. Franklin D. Roosevelt, along with lesser politicians, embraced radio as a prime instrument of communication. New York’s mayor, Fiorello Henry La Guardia, read the newspaper comics pages to his constituents over the radio; demagogues such as Huey Long and Father Charles Coughlin used radio’s power to broadcast their values. Leaders in all types of fields, including the arts, politics, education, and religion, were dazzled by radio’s possibilities and dismayed by the purported abuses of the medium.

The pervasive influences of radio on daily life during the 1930’s were measurable in a narrow sense; audience samplings produced estimates of programs’ comparative popularity. The radio industry’s influence on the business world could be measured by profits, which were almost invariably high. The losses that occurred usually were on a relatively small scale, pertaining to specific sponsorships, shows, or stations.

Radio’s more massive and profound influences, although certain, remain less precisely calculable. One of these, ephemeral as it may have been, was radio’s provision of solace, diversion, escape, and the perceived companionship of a vast audible support group to those who were the actual or prospective economic casualties of the Great Depression. Radio thus helped keep a healthy edge on national morale and made valuable contributions to a sense of national unity, a fact on which political, business, and military leaders were able to capitalize. Leaders from all fields, but particularly politicians, quickly discovered that radio had the dual capacity to exalt and enhance them, as it did with Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, or to leave the public disenchanted, as it did with the twangings of President Calvin Coolidge and the nervous deliveries of President Herbert Hoover.

For more ordinary folk, the medium, by virtue of announcers and performers whose American English was soon divested of regionalisms and dialects, set new standards of clarity for speech, a judgment already being made by educators by the mid-1930’s. Coast-to-coast broadcasting, while doing little to banish dialects within their home territories, further eroded the country’s historic localism and sectionalism, something that the automobile and films were also accomplishing along other lines. Americans were becoming aware of wider worlds through their exposure to film and radio, and they could more readily travel to those worlds with automobiles. Radio reinforced the power of the spoken word. It likewise introduced a measure of intimacy unmatched by any other medium either in its availability or in its pervasiveness. Radio invited performers directly into listeners’ homes and lives, and radio listeners worldwide learned to be entertained by outsiders on a daily basis rather than finding pastimes that were more active and in their own communities.

Radio helped create a unified national culture in the United States. This was particularly true for music. Radio could introduce new music and songs to the nation as a whole. Jazz Jazz and “race music” became available to the general public in the 1930’s through radio. Presentations of jazz musicians, most of them black, as well as the songs of black singers, such as the legendary Bessie Smith, were still confined largely to nightclubs in large cities and to controlled recordings and sales by record companies. Radio, far more than the more timid motion-picture industry, changed that, making jazz respectable and giving it a wider audience. The same effect occurred with transmission of traditional country music. Country music Because of the immediacy of radio, with programming decisions made on a daily basis, innovations could be disseminated far more swiftly and flexibly than in other media. Although radio created a national culture, it also allowed cultural elements to spread more quickly from local roots.

Before the close of the 1930’s, radio broadcasting had become one of the most formidable informal educational forces in American life. The uniquely intimate medium of broadcast radio influenced American speech, manners, forms of humor, and opinions on virtually every topic. The accessibility of educational programs, popular culture, discussions of personal problems, and, increasingly by the end of the decade, floods of hard information on an unprecedented scale about the state of the country and the world helped move Americans into a more urbane, cosmopolitan, and sophisticated state. Radio programming continued its strong influence on American culture throughout the 1940’s before beginning to wane with the advent of television. Radio;programming Great Depression;radio programming

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barnouw, Erik. The Golden Web: 1933 to 1953. Vol. 2 in A History of Broadcasting in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968. Part of one of the most comprehensive and authoritative scholarly histories of American broadcasting; clearly written, spare, and fascinating. Covers network battles as well as shows and radio personalities. Includes photographs, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Buxton, Frank, and Bill Owen. Radio’s Golden Age: The Programs and the Personalities. Ansonia Station, N.Y.: Easton Valley Press, 1966. Presents many anecdotes about radio shows and personalities and provides glimpses of the early transitions of vaudevillians to radio. Includes photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Douglas, George H. The Early Days of Radio Broadcasting. 1987. Reprint. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2001. Provides excellent coverage of the start of networking and the rise of announcers, news, and sportscasting. An admiring and sympathetic although not uncritical view of the subjects. Includes photographs, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Douglas, Susan J. Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination. New York: Crown, 1999. Focuses on the effects of radio listening on Americans’ social, political, and economic attitudes and beliefs. Covers the period from radio’s golden age in the 1930’s to the end of the twentieth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ely, Melvin Patrick. The Adventures of Amos ’n’ Andy: A Social History of an American Phenomenon. 10th anniversary ed. New York: Free Press, 2001. Scholarly, readable detailed account of the radio show that was at one time the nation’s most popular. Discusses the program’s racial content and impact. Includes many photographs, bibliographical essay, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Harmon, Jim. The Great Radio Comedians. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1970. Insider’s view of 1930’s comedians provides interesting insights and anecdotes. Includes photographs and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sterling, Christopher H., and John Michael Kittross. Stay Tuned: A History of American Broadcasting. 3d ed. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2001. The standard one-volume history of radio and television in the United States. A good beginning point.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wertheim, Arthur Frank. Radio Comedy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979. Authoritative work, written with obvious joy, provides excellent coverage of radio’s “golden age.” Chapters on the war years and on radio comics’ sometimes sad transition to television are particularly interesting. Includes many photographs and index.

Radio Develops as a Mass Broadcast Medium

Radio Broadcasting Begins

WSM Launches The Grand Ole Opry

National Broadcasting Company Is Founded

British Broadcasting Corporation Is Chartered

Amos ’N’ Andy Radio Show Goes on the Air

Goodman Begins His Let’s Dance Broadcasts

Welles Broadcasts The War of the Worlds

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