Radio Show Goes on the Air Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Amos ’n’ Andy, a pioneering radio network comedy show, greatly influenced the direction of national commercial radio and became a controversial yet integral part of American popular culture.

Summary of Event

At ten o’clock on the evening of March 19, 1928, radio station WMAQ, broadcasting from its studio in Chicago’s Merchandise Mart, aired the first episode of the Amos ’n’ Andy comedy series, primarily for Chicago-area listeners but also for a number of smaller stations elsewhere by means of recordings. The show immediately proved to be successful and was quickly bought by the National Broadcasting Company’s National Broadcasting Company;Amos ’n’ Andy[Amos n Andy] (NBC) Blue Network. NBC began broadcasting the show nationwide beginning on August 19, 1929. Thereafter, Amos ’n’ Andy was destined to become a radio legend. [kw]Amos ’n’ Andy Radio Show Goes on the Air (Mar. 19, 1928)[Amos n Andy Radio Show Goes on the Air (Mar. 19, 1928)] [kw]Radio Show Goes on the Air, Amos ’n’ Andy (Mar. 19, 1928) Amos ’n’ Andy (radio program)[Amos n Andy] Radio programs;Amos ’n’ Andy[Amos n Andy] [g]United States;Mar. 19, 1928: Amos ’n’ Andy Radio Show Goes on the Air[07010] [c]Radio and television;Mar. 19, 1928: Amos ’n’ Andy Radio Show Goes on the Air[07010] [c]Entertainment;Mar. 19, 1928: Amos ’n’ Andy Radio Show Goes on the Air[07010] Correll, Charles Gosden, Freeman Fisher White, Walter

The program’s share of the radio audience has probably never been equaled by any other serial broadcast. It became a national mania. Estimates made between 1931 and 1932 placed the fifteen-minute show’s audience at forty million, or one-third of the American population. Officials of all ranks, including presidents, made it known that they were listeners, work schedules were altered so that employers and their employees could tune in, and national conventions and local gatherings alike characteristically interrupted their proceedings so that followers among the attendees would not miss a single episode. Although the show’s character and content increasingly provoked racial controversy, especially after the television adaptation began airing in 1951, its audience appeal was nearly universal, cutting across political, regional, social, ethnic, and color lines. By the time Amos ’n’ Andy left the air on November 20, 1960, after 4,090 broadcasts, it had become an integral part of American popular culture as well as an abiding reminder of unresolved conflicts in national life.

Amos ’n’ Andy was the creation of Freeman Fisher Gosden and Charles Correll. They not only conceived the comedy but also through most of the show’s history wrote each of its scripts themselves and, unrehearsed, furnished the voices of its principal characters. Both men had southern backgrounds. Gosden was born in Richmond, Virginia, the son of a man who had served with the famed Confederate raider Colonel John Singleton Mosby. He was reared with African Americans as members of his household. Correll, although born the son of a skilled stonemason and construction foreman in Peoria, Illinois, also shared a strong southern heritage through his maternal grandmother. Both men pursued careers as performers, chiefly in minstrel shows and blackface comedy—entertainment traditions that predated the Civil War—before and after joining Joe Bren’s Chicago theatrical company, where they met. Gosden and Correll’s southern antecedents and their blackface comedy careers were vital to the creation of Amos ’n’ Andy, for its featured characters, as well as nearly all others, were black.

Amos ’n’ Andy sprang from an earlier comedy broadcast, Sam ’n’ Henry, Sam ’n’ Henry (radio program)[Sam n Henry] Radio programs;Sam ’n’ Henry[Sam n Henry] that also was the brainchild of Gosden and Correll. Aired initially on January 12, 1926, by the Chicago Tribune’s station, WGN, Sam ’n’ Henry was radio’s first serialized situation comedy. Its name derived from its two main characters, two African Americans who left Birmingham, Alabama, for Chicago. Like millions of real black migrants, they had joined what historians have since labeled the Great Migration to northern cities that began in the 1920’s, seeking opportunity denied them in the South. Because WGN owned Sam ’n’ Henry, Gosden and Correll were obliged to change the show’s name to Amos ’n’ Andy when, after 586 episodes of Sam ’n’ Henry, their services were purchased by station WMAQ and NBC in 1928. Other changes were minor. Instead of having left Birmingham, for example, Amos Jones and Andy Brown had left Atlanta for Chicago’s increasingly black, and generally poor, South Side.

Although their speech was identifiably a southern black dialect, replete with mispronunciations and other linguistic distortions, the characters of the Amos ’n’ Andy show depended less for appeal on their blackness—and the humor attending their speech—than they did on their manifest humanity. Amos was recognizably a decent, hardworking, amiable, and lovable, if uneducated, poor man surviving in a depression-ridden and altogether strange urban environment, thus resembling millions of his fellow Americans of all colors. Ostensibly more intelligent than Amos, Andy was pretentious, pompous, lazy, equally uneducated, and invariably engaged in using and abusing his long-suffering companion as the two tried their hands at enterprise, running their shoestring Fresh-Air Taxicab Company. In dramatic contrast to this pair, the real villain (such as anyone was) was the Kingfish (George Stevens), who slyly and crookedly presided over a fraternal lodge known as the Mystic Knights of the Sea and continually sought to exploit everyone.

The show’s characters, in short, were not intended overtly to be racially demeaning. Rather, they reflected Gosden and Correll’s prior show business experience with and mastery of a plausible black dialect. Otherwise, their characters and story lines could equally well have been applied (as they were by other writers and performers) to immigrant Poles, Italians, or Germans, or for that matter to any befuddled and unlettered country bumpkins. Similar stories and characters were common in earlier American comedy and vaudeville productions and in other comedy shows during the early days of radio. Gosden and Correll’s version put the elements together in a way the public particularly enjoyed, and after two decades of effectively uncontroverted success, Amos ’n’ Andy became a part of national folklore and an identifiable contribution to American culture.

Significance

Amid the initial chaos of radio’s early development, with more than six hundred stations vying for both audiences and sponsors, and without guidelines or precedents to indicate to broadcasters what either group wanted, the Amos ’n’ Andy show was, in many significant ways, a pioneering experiment. As much as any other single nontechnical factor, the show was responsible for the explosive success of commercial radio. The broad human appeal of Amos, Andy, and Gosden and Correll’s other characters, along with the common denominator of the easily understood troubles they encountered, drew audiences of unimagined magnitude. Sponsors previously had been reluctant to trust the repute of their products to the relatively untried advertising forum of radio. After noting Pepsodent’s ballooning sales, attributable in part to its sponsorship of Amos ’n’ Andy, they scrambled to identify themselves with any of the host of subsequent radio comedies and dramas that the show helped spawn.

The Great Depression virtually mandated that entertainment be provided at low cost, preferably within the home. Sales of radio sets increased by geometric leaps, as they provided virtually unlimited free entertainment after the initial purchase of a set. With a mass market beckoning, cheaper radios (the earlier models had been expensive console sets) were soon on the market. By 1933, one authority estimated that three-fourths of all radio sales were inexpensive table models that cost between twelve and twenty dollars. Amos ’n’ Andy was a major contributor to this aberrant prosperity for an industry.

Amos ’n’ Andy provided powerful impetus to the success of commercial radio, and also, in less quantifiable but doubtless equally significant ways, steadied the morale of millions of its listeners by supplying nightly laughter in the face of adversity. Audiences could easily identify with the plight of the show’s principals. The common sense and down-home candor of the two struggling urban African Americans cut through the welter of official nostrums, pontifications, predictions, exhortations, and superficial idealism about the state of the economy, the stock market, unemployment, and the trials of disadvantaged rural folk seeking a living in an urban environment. Even their additions to the American vernacular were unpretentious, to the point, and funny. The show offered bits of wisdom, as in this remark by Andy to the members of the Mystic Knights of the Sea: “I might talk about de repression an’ good times bein’ around de corneh, soon as I check up wid somebody an’ find out whut corneh ’tis.” Although Amos and Andy sometimes voiced dour expectations about the length and seriousness of the Depression, they, as marginal entrepreneurs, exuded optimism and by implication reaffirmed the cult of individual success and the work ethic—for which both President Herbert Hoover and President Franklin D. Roosevelt thanked the show’s creators.

Although Amos ’n’ Andy’s immense audience was drawn from all classes and races, protests against the show were raised by African Americans almost from its inception. Theresa Kennedy of St. Louis was among the first to voice complaints publicly. She admitted that she and her black neighbors were entertained by Amos ’n’ Andy and that the show’s characterizations were true to life, but, she complained, the obvious ignorance and shiftlessness of many of its characters gave a false impression of African Americans. Black newspapers during the early years of the show were divided, a majority praising it enthusiastically, as did most of the black organizations contacted by Gosden and Correll. A few were ambivalent about the show or were frankly hostile. A Chicago bishop, W. J. Walls, fell into the former category, whereas editor Robert L. Vann Vann, Robert L. of the Pittsburgh Courier from the show’s start denounced Gosden and Correll’s “exploitation” of certain types of American blacks for their own gain, with a result of undermining black self-respect. In support of his position, Vann claimed to have 740,000 signatures on petitions against the show by the fall of 1931. Some black trade unionists and business organizations likewise protested that Amos, Andy, and their cohorts reflected adversely on the integrity of African American enterprise.

Over ensuing years, divisions in opinions of the show within black communities mirrored varying degrees of African American security, self-respect, and personal identity. Concerns over long-standing racial injustices and a resurgent national Civil Rights movement came to the fore in national life during the later years of the show. Amos ’n’ Andy was launched as a television comedy in 1951, its major roles played by black actors. Leaders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People National Association for the Advancement of Colored People;opposition to Amos ’n’ Andy (NAACP), some of whom, such as Roy Wilkins, had earlier either enjoyed the radio show or tolerated it, became more vigorously opposed to it, in company with some white liberals. During Walter White’s tenure as executive secretary of the NAACP, the organization made strenuous efforts first to alter the show’s characters and content, and then to abolish it as a continuing harm to African Americans and a caricature of their race. No one ever accused Gosden or Correll, however, of stooping to pointed racial language, and many critics conceded that the race of the show’s characters was largely incidental to their unfolding stories.

The radio show left the air in 1960. The television version was broadcast in first-run episodes from 1951 to 1953, then rerun widely on local stations. The television show remained popular in reruns and even was sold to broadcasters in Kenya and western Nigeria. After an official of Kenya’s government announced that the program would be banned in his country, controversy over the show reemerged. The program was withdrawn from sale in 1966. Gosden and Correll also created an animated television show with animal characters, titled Calvin and the Colonel, that aired in 1961 and 1962. The animal characters had origins in the Deep South and had migrated to a large northern city; the show had obvious similarities to Amos ’n’ Andy but avoided racial controversy through its use of animated animal characters.

Amos ’n’ Andy left legacies of several types. It is remembered as the most popular radio serial of its time, and as such it was important in the development of radio as an entertainment medium. It was a pioneering effort in the emergence of serialized stories that were broadcast, both on radio and on television. More important, it indicated the effects that entertainment presentations can have on the popular consciousness and showed that art and entertainment often reflect reality and can bring attention to existing problems and conflicts. The controversy about racial presentations endured past the end of Amos ’n’ Andy, and creators of the television shows that followed learned to evaluate their plots and characters carefully to avoid obvious insults or slurs against any group. This contributed to what some observers have called the relatively homogenized entertainment fare of the late twentieth century. Amos ’n’ Andy (radio program)[Amos n Andy] Radio programs;Amos ’n’ Andy[Amos n Andy]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barnouw, Erik. A Tower in Babel. Vol. 1 in A History of Broadcasting in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1966. The finest history of its kind—comprehensive, authoritative, detailed, and well written. Gives great credit to Amos ’n’ Andy for launching successful commercial radio, but is more critical of the show’s racial content than many other analyses. Includes photographs, superb bibliography, detailed chronology, appendix of relevant laws, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Douglas, George H. The Early Days of Radio Broadcasting. 1987. Reprint. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2001. Provides a good summary of Amos ’n’ Andy’s influence as well as useful background and context. Includes photographs, splendid bibliography, notes, and excellent index.
  • 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. The definitive study of the show, its context, and its influences. Detailed and scholarly, but accessible to lay readers as well as specialists. Several chapters deal with the show’s racial content, problems of race, and racial opposition. Includes notes, bibliographical essay, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Harmon, Jim. The Great Radio Comedians. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1970. Breezy, knowledgeable survey of forty prominent radio comedy programs, including Amos ’n’ Andy. Deals with the content of the shows rather than their place in the radio industry or history. Allows comparison of Gosden and Correll’s comedy with the work of other writers. Ably researched, with humorous excerpts that afford the reader a feel for these programs. Includes photographs and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McLeod, Elizabeth. The Original Amos ’n’ Andy: Freeman Gosden, Charles Correll and the 1928-1943 Radio Serial. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2005. Presents the history of the radio program in balanced fashion, discussing the innovations of its creators as well as the charges of racism against it. Examines scripts from the show’s earliest version. Includes script excerpts, cast and crew information, photographs, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wertheim, Arthur Frank. Radio Comedy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979. Authoritatively traces the evolution of radio comedy (Sam ’n’ Henry and Amos ’n’ Andy included) and its impact on American values and society through the Great Depression and World War II. Also ties the content and character of comedy shows to traditional vernacular humor manifested earlier in vaudeville and stage comedy, highlighting radio comedy’s innovations. Features many funny quotations from shows’ scripts. Includes excellent photos, ample source notes, and index.

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