Radio History -

The 1930's




If you were listening to radio in 1931, you probably had a lot on your mind besides music. Sixteen percent of the country was unemployed, and the Great Depression was showing no signs of letting up. President Herbert Hoover was being blamed with increasing frequency, which may be one reason why Alka Seltzer was invented that year... 1931 was the year that the great inventor Thomas Edison died. It was also the year that the Empire State Building was formally opened, and organized crime figure Al Capone was sentenced to 11 years in prison for income tax evasion. RCA's Victor Talking Machine Company picked the wrong year to introduce 33 1/3 rpm plastic records. Unfortunately, they were of poor quality and few people could afford the new record players necessary to play them; the plan to popularize them could not be implemented. The same problem beset experimental television-- there were 15 stations on the air, but few Americans had the money for a TV receiver, especially when programming was so limited. CBS did begin doing some television broadcasting in mid-1931 (their station was W2XAB), but by and large, the nation's loyalty still belonged mainly to radio..

1931 saw a new magazine make its debut-- on October 15, Broadcasting appeared; it came out twice a month in its early days. At the time of Broadcasting's first issue, there were 608 radio stations on the air in the U.S. The census of 1930 said that 12 million of the country's 30 million homes owned at least one radio. In 1931, newspapers reported a loss of advertising revenue, while despite the Depression, radio showed an increase. One study by a New York advertising agency claimed that radio had pulled in $36 million in by the end of 1931. NBC, which in November of 1931 celebrated its fifth anniversary, was profitable, as was CBS; and if you lived in New England, John Shepard III was expanding his Yankee Network. But the President-Elect of the National Association of Broadcasters, Harry Shaw (owner of WMT in Cedar Rapids) warned the Federal Radio Commission that while number of large stations were making good profits, more than half of the stations in the U.S. were either barely scraping by or losing money, the result, he said, of "increased music license fees, the necessity for ... new equipment, and ... increased demands from local musicians unions."

A newspaper poll held in late 1931 showed that Guy Lombardo and Paul Whiteman had the most popular dance orchestras (although fans of Vincent Lopez or Joe Rines or Leo Reisman might disagree). Winners in the vocalist category included Rudy Vallee, Kate Smith, and a new singer who had made his debut over CBS in September-- Bing Crosby.

And Radio Digest named the Mills Brothers the "vocal find of 1931"-- these four young men, who would become stars on CBS, were perhaps the first black group to win what was the equivalent of today's "best new group" Grammy. And speaking of awards, NBC's John Holbrook not only won a "best announcer" award but was given the gold medal for good diction by the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

If you listened to radio in 1931, you could hear two great news commentators-- Lowell Thomas and H.V. Kaltenborn. In addition, as of March, a new and unique news show had appeared-- "The March of Time" , which every Friday night re-created and dramatized stories from Time Magazine; the show's signature line "time... marches on" became a catch-phrase of the early 30s. And of course, there was also Walter Winchell for celebrity news and gossip.

Among the female vocalists you might have heard in 1931 were soprano Jessica Dragonette and "The First Lady of Radio", contralto Vaughn DeLeath (whose career included singing for Lee DeForest's experimental station circa 1920, and being one of the few women program directors in New York in the early 20s with WDT). The Boswell Sisters got their first network show, and their first sponsor-- Baker chocolate. Among the male vocalists, one of the most popular was comedian and vaudeville star Eddie Cantor; he began doing a show for NBC in 1931, having done numerous guest performances on radio as early as 1923. Some of the big hit songs of 1931 were "As Time Goes By", "I Surrender Dear", "Love Letters in the Sand" and "Dancing in the Dark."

1931 was the year when controversial and bigoted radio priest Father Charles Coughlin had a parting of the ways with CBS, which tried to place restrictions on his network programs. This prompted Father Coughlin to buy time on a number of independent stations so that he could continue broadcasting. Another controversy involved the popular show "Amos 'n' Andy"-- an irate black journalist Robert L. Vann of the Pittsburgh Courier started a petition drive to get the show cancelled on the grounds that it was racist; his efforts failed, but an estimated 750,000 signatures nation-wide were gathered before the drive ended...

Meanwhile, radio dramas were increasingly popular-- perhaps you heard Richard Gordon portraying Sherlock Holmes on NBC. For kids, "Little Orphan Annie" began in 1931, one of many shows to use the characters to sell the sponsor's products. (By 1931, the majority of the network shows were controlled by powerful advertising agencies, which helped to write the shows and book the talent for them, as well as assuring lots of product plugs...) And 1931 was the year when "Myrt and Marge" debuted-- you may recall the show's theme song, "Poor Butterfly." 1931 was also the last year that Samuel L. Rothafel, better known as Roxy, presented his popular variety show, "Roxy and His Gang" on NBC-Blue-- he had first broadcast from the Capitol Theatre in New York in 1923...

If you had the money, a new car cost about $700, and a gallon of gas was 10 cents. But for all too many people, trapped in a horrendous economy, their favorite station provided them their only escape. It was an era that would come to be known as radio's Golden Age, when so many stars were born and it seemed an entire country was depending on radio...

It was quite a year, 1934. The Great Depression was still a fact of life, and people continued to depend on radio for escape and companionship in those difficult times. Broadcasting Magazine wrote that 60% of U.S. homes had at least one radio; there were even 1.5 million car radios. Despite the poor economy, radio had continued to grow. Its growth was so dramatic that a new federal agency became necessary, one that had more authority than its predecessor. As a result of a piece of legislation called the Communications Act of 1934, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was created; it replaced the Federal Radio Commission (FRC) as of July 1st.

In 1933, the country had elected a new president, and because he frequently spoke to the nation via radio, Franklin D. Roosevelt became known as the first "Radio President". His use of radio was so impressive that the editor of "Radio Guide" wrote a full-page editorial in the May 26, 1934 issue, praising Roosevelt and praising radio: "...Radio has given to the president a weapon such as no ruler has ever known. It enables him instantaneously to answer, overthrow and defeat any false statement concerning himself, his government or his plans... Radio [is] a servant of justice...taking knowledge everywhere." With the president so accessible thanks to his popular "Fireside Chats", you trusted radio to bring you information as well as encouragement. Encouragement was very much needed in 1934: the average income was only $1,601 (Roosevelt devalued the dollar to 60 cents), while a new car cost $625. But FDR had a plan-- his "New Deal" was being implemented, and despite some setbacks (the midwest was hit hard by droughts), the public seemed reassured. Meanwhile, overseas, Hitler was predicting that the Reich would last for 1000 years, while Mussolini was ordering all schoolteachers to wear uniforms. But the big news story for most Americans was that there was a suspect (Bruno Hauptmann) in the Lindbergh baby kidnapping-- the fascination (and near-obsession) the public had with this case parallels the overkill on coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial.

In 1934, you would have opened up your latest issue of "Popular Songs" Magazine-- perhaps the one with Dick Powell on the cover (you were very happy that he was doing the "Hollywood Hotel" show on CBS), to learn the words to your favourite songs. That year, some of the hits included "I Get a Kick Out of You", "Blue Moon", "I Only Have Eyes for You", and "Santa Claus is Coming To Town".) Radio was definitely the place to hear those great songs, performed by the biggest and the best stars. Even composer George Gershwin had his own show-- it started in February on WJZ/NBC and was called "Music by Gershwin" (Feenamint was the sponsor). Also in February, you had heard comedienne Talullah Bankhead make her network debut on Rudy Vallee's show on NBC.

"Amos and Andy" were still on the air, while their show remained a source of controversy in the black community. Black newspapers had been editorializing against this show since it first appeared on NBC in the mid 1920s, but its popularity with the majority of listeners continued-- to give one example, Broadcasting magazine noted that a survey of farmers in 42 states showed "Amos and Andy" as their #1 choice (Eddie Cantor was their second favourite program.) Ethnic humour was a fact of life on radio-- another popular show with a long history was "The Goldbergs", starring Gertrude Berg. In 1934, you would have heard Benny Goodman and his orchestra on NBC for the first time; you could also still hear such famous bandleaders as Abe Lyman, Paul Whiteman and Fred Waring.

If you lived in New England, you were part of news history. John Shepard 3rd, the president of the Yankee Network (and WNAC Radio in Boston), began the first local news network for radio, the Yankee News Service, in March of 1934; it competed directly with the newspapers, and the competition for stories was quite intense. And speaking of local networks, out on the west coast, the founder of the Don Lee network, who had expanded his ownership of KHJ in Los Angeles into a 12-station web, died suddenly. Don Lee was only 53. Also dying far too young in 1934 was the talented vocalist Russ Columbo-- he was only 26.

On a happier note, radio drama fans rejoiced when a new network, Mutual, was founded in the summer of 1934. Mutual would become famous for such shows as "The Lone Ranger". Cincinnati's WLW briefly became a superstation, operating with 500,000 watts. Edwin Howard Armstrong had begun to demonstrate something new-- FM, which promised an end to static and noise in radio reception.

If you lived in 1934, it cost 3 cents to mail a letter (six cents for air mail). The launderette was invented, as was freeze-dried coffee. Fluorescent lamps were almost ready to be mass marketed. If you could afford a movie, you saw Clark Gable in "It Happened One Night", for which he won an Oscar for Best Actor; Claudette Colbert, his co-star, won Best Actress. Comedian Joe Penner (whose catch-phrase "Wanna buy a duck?" swept the country) won the award for Outstanding Radio Comedian. And while experiments in television continued, for most Americans it was radio that helped them through the day; few Americans could imagine being without it.

1937 was a very good year for radio. It was estimated that over 80% of the population had at least one radio, and millions now had radios in their cars. There was a lot going on in 1937, and often, radio was a major part of it. Sometimes, radio's participation was accidental-- such as at the time of the tragic crash of the German airship, the Hindenberg. WLS and NBC announcer Herb Morrison had come to New Jersey to do a routine voice-over for a newsreel; suddenly, before his eyes, the airship exploded and burst into flames-- Morrison ended up reporting something that was far from routine-- an emotional on-the-scene description of a calamity nobody had expected. (In a foreshadowing of modern events, the newspapers immediately rushed to the conclusion that sabotage was the cause, and the tabloids printed numerous unfounded rumours for days...)

Radio was on the scene more and more by 1937, as technology improved and stations gradually were able to cover more news. The networks covered the coronation of the new king of England, George VI, and the disappearance of aviatrix Amelia Earhart was as big a story for radio as it was for the newspapers. Perhaps you listened to Lowell Thomas on NBC to get his opinion about the latest events. (On the other hand, if your preference was gossip, you could always count on Walter Winchell, who was also on NBC...) CBS had its share of news too (Edward R. Murrow, who had joined CBS in 1935, was now the director of the network's European bureau, and the legendary H.V. Kaltenborn still did news commentary); and 1937 was the first year CBS brought you newspaperwoman and magazine writer Mary Margaret McBride, who did a highly respected talk show. And one other word about news-- 1937 was the year Guglielmo Marconi died. In his honour, radio stations all across the country observed several minutes of silence.

1937 was quite a year for hearing some performers who would soon become stars, as well as some who had been stars in film or vaudeville and were now on the air. W.C. Fields made his radio debut in 1937 on the Chase and Sanborn Hour, and Red Skelton moved over to radio with guest appearances on the Rudy Vallee Show. Making their debut in 1937 on NBC were Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy-- although at first, the dummy rather than the ventriloquist got top billing-- it was first called the Charlie McCarthy Show. Arturo Toscanini became the conductor of the NBC Symphony Orchestra in 1937.

As for stars who were still on the air and doing well, you were very happy to hear beloved soprano Jessica Dragonette, who was on CBS in 1937 and sponsored by Palmolive Soap. Don Ameche, who had appeared in soap operas for a while, was now the MC of the Chase and Sanborn Hour. (Mae West made an appearance on the show in December and her risque dialog prompted hundreds of complaints.) A young man named Orson Welles took over as the voice of "The Shadow" in 1937. And if you lived in New York, you were especially grateful to radio and to Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia who read the daily comics over the air and also read some news reports during the newspaper strike. And speaking of New York, the Lincoln Tunnel opened in 1937.

In 1937, you were among the many who were impressed by the new Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco-- approximately 200,000 people crossed it the first day it opened. And speaking of modern marvels, several companies were now offering push-button radios; Motorola even offered this feature for the car radio-- no more turning the dials while trying to concentrate on the road.

Spencer Tracy won a well-deserved Academy Award for Best Actor in Captains Courageous. The Andrews Sisters had a huge hit with "Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen". Other hits in 1937 included "Muskrat Ramble", "In the Still of the Night", and "Pennies from Heaven." Walt Disney was having great success with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs-- and it was in colour! Margaret Mitchell won a Pulitzer Prize for her novel Gone With the Wind. The Yankees won the World Series.

1937 was the year when Robert Redford was born, as were Bill Cosby and Mary Tyler Moore. FDR was still president and still doing radio talks. The average annual income was now $1,788; a new car cost $760, a loaf of bread was 9 cents, a gallon of milk was 50 cents. Nylon was invented in 1937, and some rudimentary binary calculators were being marketed. Chester Carlson invented a method of photocopying, and in France, the first anti-histamines were developed.

Among the popular soap operas you might have heard in 1937 were The Romance of Helen Trent on CBS and The Guiding Light on NBC. Still popular (and in some quarters still controversial), Amos and Andy continued to get good ratings; also popular and far less controversial were Lum and Abner and Fibber McGee and Molly. If you wanted culture, CBS was offering Claude Rains in Julius Caesar while NBC brought you John Barrymore in Taming of the Shrew. And if crime drama was your preference, Phil Lord was on the air with Gangbusters. And there were westerns too-- perhaps you listened on Mutual to The Lone Ranger.

Although war was on the horizon in Europe, most Americans were feeling positive that the economy had improved. Radio seemed to offer endless variety (although few were aware of a man named Edwin Howard Armstrong who was busily perfecting his latest invention-- FM) and new experiments with television were beginning to show some promise. But in 1937, there wasn't much talk yet about TV-- it was another very good year to be a radio fan, and as you read magazines like Radio Guide or Radio Stars, you were glad to be a part of radio's Golden Age...

Dinah ShoreThe final year of the 1930s was still part of the "Golden Age of Radio." According to Radio Today magazine, there were now 44 million radios in use in the United States. As for the talent scene, critics were singing the praises of an up and coming vocalist named Dinah Shore. A new male vocalist named Dennis Day was doing quite well on the Jack Benny show on NBC. And speaking of NBC, perhaps you recall Fred Waring and his orchestra, which joined that network in 1939, sponsored by Chesterfield. Perhaps you had your copy of White's Radio Log handy, so that you could check out the call letters and frequencies of distant stations-- late night dx'ing was a popular hobby for radio fans. As for radios, perhaps you owned an Emerson portable (you could get a nice 5-tube superheterodyne for only $19.95)-- and the popular battery portables continued to get smaller and lighter: Majestic offered one that only weighed four pounds!

John Shepard IIIThere were plenty of radio dramas and soap operas on the air-- you were enjoying Ezra Stone in The Aldrich Family on NBC-Blue, while The Guiding Light was on NBC-Red, as were Phil Spitalny's All-Girl Orchestra starring in the Hour of Charm. Life Can be Beautiful was on CBS, and The Lone Ranger was on the Mutual Network. Also, 1939 was a significant year for FM-- in late May, Yankee network owner John Shepard III teamed up with inventor Edwin Howard Armstrong to bring the new technology to New England-- W1XOJ was the first FM station in Massachusetts, soon to be followed by W1XER in New Hampshire.

World's FairIf you were alive in 1939, you know what a great year for entertainment it was-- undoubtedly, you went to New York for the opening of the World's Fair. RCA's David Sarnoff was there, announcing that television was here to stay, and demonstrating his company's first TV station, W2XBS-- soon to be known as WNBT. And that was one of many amazing events; your 75 cents admission transported you to the "World of Tomorrow", with its vision of a future without crime or unemployment or litter, where cars that looked a bit like space ships sped along the superhighways which joined even the most distant cities. In the World of Tomorrow, every home was filled with labour-saving devices to make housework easier, and the ultimate in servants was a robot named Electro. Over 40 million people would visit the Fair before it ended, including such luminaries as President Roosevelt, the King and Queen of England and Albert Einstein.

Having endured so much suffering during the Depression, the country was eager for a hopeful vision of the future. Perhaps that is why the movie "The Wizard of Oz" touched so many hearts, along with Judy Garland's beautiful song, "Over the Rainbow". And another big movie in 1939 was the somewhat controversial "Gone With the Wind"-- to us today, the idea that the word "damn" would cause any consternation seems odd, but in the 1930s, there was a very strict code of conduct for all movies, and it included a list of 'banned words', the presence of which could cause a director problems. Luckily, "Gone With the Wind" managed to avoid being censored, Rhett did in fact say "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn", and audiences didn't seem especially shocked. The movie was a huge success and it went on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, with Vivian Leigh also winning Best Actress.

1939 was a good year for new inventions-- DDT, for example, and a wonderful new fabric called "nylon". Pan American began commercial flights across the Atlantic in 1939, and for those who preferred to drive, the first cars with an automatic clutch were available. A loaf of bread cost 8 cents, and you could get a new car for $700; the average person made $1,729 a year.

Some of the music in 1939 was patriotic-- Kate Smith was constantly asked to sing "God Bless America" on her radio show-- but other songs were just silly and fun-- "Beer Barrel Polka" was a big hit in 1939, as was "Three Little Fishes". And a new trend was developping: several radio stations now featured personable announcers who played records and talked to the audience. Among the most popular of these new "disc jockeys" was New York's Martin Block with his popular show The Make-Believe Ballroom. In Chicago, the first African-American disc jockey, Jack Cooper, had been on the air throughout the 1930s, and he still was playing the hits in 1939. Although radio stations in 1939 had few black announcers, more and more songs by black performers were being heard on a regular basis-- Duke Ellington's Orchestra was especially popular, as was female vocalist extraordinaire Ella Fitzgerald. And while most major pro sports were still segregated, boxing was not; one athlete who kept right on winning was Joe Louis, whose matches were always heard on radio. In an interesting news note, one of the country's largest and most respected black newspapers, the Pittsburgh Courier, had already sent a reporter to Europe to cover the growing tension there-- and since he spoke French, he was able to scoop several of his white colleagues when hostilities broke out in France...

As for America's most famous woman, the First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt was a frequent guest on the networks-- she gave several talks in 1939, including one around Mother's Day about the contributions women made to the founding of the United States. Dorothy Thompson Women's shows (cooking, homemaking, fashion, etc) were still a fixture of many stations, but several stations also had women news announcers and even a woman commentator or two. Probably the best known was former newspaper columnist Dorothy Thompson, who became the NBC network's first woman correspondent-- she even made the cover of Time Magazine for being one of the few network newswomen.

Americans in 1939 didn't want to think about a war in Europe; most preferred to stay neutral. But reporters like H.V. Kaltenborn and Edward R. Murrow knew what was happening and tried to keep the listeners informed. It was a very ambivalent time in America-- while many people were outraged by what Hitler was doing, in New York, 22,000 pro-Nazi sympathisers held a large and noisy rally. Meanwhile, in Canada, the government banned Father Coughlin's newspaper Social Justice for being excessively racist and prejudiced, but in the USA, he was still on a large number of stations and still causing controversy. When Germany was invading Poland and Czechoslovakia, all the major radio networks sent reporters to do live coverageRA. President Roosevelt was still insisting the United States would stay out of the war, and most of us had no reason to doubt him. He remained a very popular president, and his Fireside ChatsRA were an essential element of how he reached out to the average person. FDR had been doing these talks since 1933, but even six years later, people still looked forward to them. Few Americans could foresee that we would be unable to remain outside the hostilities indefinitely. As 1939 ended, radio was still king, dance bands were still the rage, and the future looked reasonably bright. A large part of the decade had been very difficult for many Americans, but now it seemed things were continuing to improve.





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