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History of Radio's Golden Age

Radio's Early Days

It is easy to see parallels between the growth of the Internet and the development of what would come to be known as the Golden Age of Radio.

WWI RadioThe electronic computer was developed during WWII, mostly for use in cryptography, but even then there were obvious applications in ballistics targeting and scientific endeavors (including the Manhattan Project). After the War business adopted computers, as well as continuing in their military and scientific uses. Amateur tinkerers made some of the most significant developments and in many cases those amateur tinkerers were kids.

Radio began as a form of point to point communication, with applications in ship to shore transmission, intercontinental communication and others. During WWI, the electronic technology of radio developed to a state of ruggedness that it could be used and serviced on the battlefield. The knowledge to build and develop radio receivers spread, and soon there were a number of hobbyists building radio equipment, in many cases kids.

After WWI, radio continued to be developed both commercially and by hobbyists. Voice transmission soon became relatively commonplace, and soon there came a realization that radio transmitted from a single location could carry news and entertainment to a number of receivers. On Mar 10, 1922, Variety carried the headline "Radio Sweeping Country: 1,000,000 Sets In Use". The 1923 Rose Bowl game broadcast from Pasadena. At the time, no one had any idea how big Broadcasting would grow, or if there was even a way to make money from it.

Similarly, in the 1970s and 1980s the early forms of the Internet were developed, allowing computers at scientific institutions to communicate with one another. Computer hobbyists quickly tapped into the 'net and soon became the driving force in developing the Internet's potential. At the time, no one had any idea of how big the Internet would grow, or if there was even a way to make money from it.

william plaey

The networks themselves grew from the need to sell radio receivers. Many of the patents and technology required to  manufacture radio sets commercially had been developed during WWI, and became the property of the Radio Company of America (RCA). However, there was no market to sell radios to if there was nothing to hear, so RCA became a driving force in developing the National Broadcasting Company, along with Westinghouse, AT&T, and Western Electric.

A few years later, the Columbia Phonographic Broadcasting System went on the air to advance Columbia Records. Operating costs were high, and the record company wanted out, so the operation sold to a consortium led by a young William Paley. Paley had enormous faith that radio could turn a profit as he had seen his family's cigar business increase dramatically after a radio marketing campaign. With the record company no longer directly involved, the corporate name became the Columbia Broadcasting System, and soon became known as the "Tiffany Network" because of the high standards Paley demanded.

Great radio shows were the fuel that helped the radio networks to survive the onslaught of the Great Depression. The most popular formats were music and "minstrelsy", comedy and music combined. Music was the dominant content from the number of programs. In these early days, recorded music was rarely played on the air. Instead, the performers would assemble in the studio, and they would go on the air live. Sometimes the act would be popular enough to draw an audience on its own merit, but usually the sponsor's name would go on the program, the act, or both. Examples from the early 1930's include the Cliquot Eskimos, The Chase and Sanborn Choral, and the Palmolive Hour.

The variety show was fully developed by the 1929 debut of The Fleischmann's Yeast Program starring Rudy Vallee. Vallee's value was verified in 1930, when program ratings were first used. Drama began to be a vital part of network offerings in 1930,with the premier of shows like The Empire Builders.

1930 - 1932

NBC Red/Blue NetworkBy 1930, Radio had become a lucrative and thriving industry. There were many independent broadcasters throughout the country, each of which found their own material to broadcast. The real action was with the three Networks which covered most of the country.

NBC divided itself into the Red and Blue Networks in 1927. The Red Network,  which received most of its programming from WEAF New York, carried the more popular and big budget programs. The Blue, associated with WJZ Newark, had the newer, untried programs. Both networks were part of NBC (until 1943), but essentially independent of one another, although a particularly successful show may have been promoted from Blue to Red. The engineers at NBC marked the affiliates of WEAF with Red Push pins and WJZ affiliates with Blue  Pins, thus Red and Blue Networks.

CBS began broadcasting in 1927 for the Columbia Record Company. William Paley took over the company in 1928 and developed what would be known as the "Tiffany Network" for its high quality programming.

During this period, the networks leased airtime to their sponsors who were responsible for their own programing. The network would also rent studio time to the advertising agencies who produced the programing; the only programs produced by the networks were unsponsored "filler" shows to fill empty air time.

The year 1930 saw the beginnings of Radio Ratings. The Cooperative Analysis of Broadcasting generated the numbers. Telephone surveys were the basis of the ratings. Listeners were asked to recall which Radio programs they had listened to during the past week. High CAB Numbers were crucial to the sponsors because they showed the success of the programs for which they paid.

The most popular programming in 1930 was music programs. The networks avoid broadcasting recorded programming, so the bands would assemble in the studio to perform live on the air. Either the orchestra or the show would take the name of the sponsor, such as Cliquot Club Eskimos, the Chase and Sanborn Choral, the A&P Gypsies or the Palmolive Hour. Variety shows were also popular, especially Rudy Vallee's The Fleischman's Yeast Hour.

Amos n AndyThe 1930 the comic offerings of Amos 'n' Andy topped the ratings. The program was radio's first sensation. Restaurants tuned their radios to the show to help attract business, movie theaters played the program over the house speakers so that patrons would still come in to see the picture, and telephone operators noted that people quit talking to each other when Amos 'n' Andy were on the air. Several radio manufacturers credit Amos 'n' Andy for making their product a "need to have" item, even in the face of the Great Depression.

As the Radio industry matured a greater selection of programing became available. Amos 'n' Andy held its spot at the top of the ratings, but several new shows had joined the mix. One of the biggest twists was the 1931 introduction of Mystery programs. One of the earliest Radio Whodunits was none other than Sherlock Holmes, soon joined by The Shadow of Fu Manchu, and Charlie Chan. The mysteries seemed like a quick hit that quickly faded because of market oversaturation, but crime drama would remain an important part of the line up for the remainder of the Golden Age.

1931 also saw a number of "homey dramas" with serious love interests to draw in a specifically female audience, and after-school serials for the kids. The Goldbergs was based on a Jewish family, but featured situations with which any Mother could identify. Little Orphan Annie helped to show that an audience would return to see what happened to their favorite characters. Together these programs helped to set the stage for day time Soap Operas.

1933 - 1937

Fred AllenBy 1933, Radio had established itself as a major industry, much to the delight of investors who had little else to celebrate at the time. The Great Depression would finally reach its lowest point in 1933, although the economy would not recover to 1929 levels until the end of the decade.

Even in these hard times, radio proved to be an excellent value for its audience. A good receiver was an expense, but once purchased radio was essentially free for the listener. There were no subscription fees; the sharecropper heard the same radio as the millionaire living on the other side of the county. There was no need to buy tickets to the radio, and you didn't have to buy a new edition of radio every day.

The quality programming that listeners demanded cost money, however, and short of government subsidy the only way to pay for it was through commercial sponsorship. Businessmen were not about to put their money into radio unless they were reasonably certain of return on investment, and that return was quantified by paying close attention to each show's ratings.

The advertising agencies who produced the programs for the sponsors discovered that audiences would follow a Personality in sizable numbers. The agencies seemed to fear that the stars would gain too much personal power, and some radio personalities continually butted heads with Ad Men and sponsors. Fred Allen, whose Linit Bath Club Review premiered in 1932, managed to enjoy more success than many of his sponsors.

Former vaudeville performers like Allen often had a built in following when they came to radio, but more often they had an instinct for showmanship that radio could barely contain. Other personality driven programs from this period starred Jack Benny, Ed Wynn, Burns and Allen, and Joe Penner. Bing Crosby was more closely related to music and the recording industry than vaudeville before he came to radio, but few radio personalities had "Der Bingle's" appreciation of radio's potential to interact with the audience on a personal level.

Lux Radio Ad

The way radio ratings were measured changed in 1934. The former CAB numbers were collected by calling listeners and asking what they listened to during the week. The newer Hooper numbers also used telephone connections to listeners, but the calls came while the shows were on the air, and listeners were asked what they were listening to at the moment. This more accurate methodology made the pursuit of high ratings even more critical for producers and actors.

During the 1934 season, perennial favorite Rudy Vallee topped the ratings, followed by Jack Benny and Fred Allen, but by 1935, it was becoming apparent that just a powerful personality was not enough to hold an audience. The "Star Plus" era featured Jack Benny pushing the antics of his ensemble cast while Fred Allen discovered and perfected his Town Hall. Fibber McGee and Molly premiered in 1935, and managed to combine mediocre comic acting with a magnificent ensemble cast and phenomenal writing into a formula that would keep them on the air until 1959.

Lux Radio Theater premiered rather quietly in 1934, and for the first two seasons presented adaptations of Broadway plays. The series became a true hit in the summer of 1936 when Cecil B. DeMille took over as host, and the program began adapting Hollywood Movies. Rather than focusing the series on a single personality, Lux brought a different Hollywood star into the listener's living room every week. It also brought movies to many who may not have the time or opportunity to see the actual films, and helped to promote some movies.

Crime drama became grittier and more violent as exemplified by shows like Gang Busters and Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons, although not as dark and personality driven as the Hard Boiled Detectives that would appeal to post War audiences

Perhaps in reaction to the Personality driven shows, novelty programs like Major Bowes Amateur Hour took the ratings by storm in 1936. The novelty craze quickly wore out, in part in reaction to War Clouds growing over Europe.

1938 through Pearl Harbor

Orson Welles

The national jitters of the pre-War years are reflected in the supposed reaction to Orson Welles "Halloween Prank" broadcast of the War Of The Worlds in 1938. Welles had adapted the classic science fiction tale for his Mercury Theater of the Air, and in a fit of what has been called "creativity runs amok" he chose to move the tail from turn of the century Great Britain to modern rural New Jersey. He also used the dramatic device of telling the story through a series of news bulletins.

For a number of reasons, some listeners became convinced that the show was not a dramatic presentation, but an actual invasion from the Red Planet. Welles took advantage of the fact that Mercury Theater was a sustained program- there was no sponsor, so there were no commercial interruptions. Another factor adding to the confusion was that Mercury Theater shared a time slot with The Chase and Sanborn Hour variety program. Welles knew that the first comedy routine would end, and a musical number would begin twelve minutes into the broadcast, and Welles timed his first report from Grover's Mill to coincide with the time that listeners would be searching the dial.

American listeners may have been somewhat primed to fall for the supposed prank. The month prior to the broadcast coincided with the Munich Crisis. Every evening, listeners would tune their radios to hear the events in Europe as the world seemed to be moving towards an inevitable War. The aftermath of the War Of The Worlds broadcast is largely what we would expect from someone who has been the victim of a practical joke. Both Welles and CBS received a good deal of criticism, but the young director was able to ride the wave of fame (or notoriety) into an extraordinarily successful career.

Elmer Davis

Adolph Hitler would cite the panic as evidence of the weakness and corruption in American Democracy. Perhaps der Fuhrer should have recognized it as commercial radio's potential as a tool to inform and unite the will of the American People.

The pre-War years saw the rise of the radio News Correspondent. Some historians credit Walter Winchell and his combination of showmanship and information with popularizing radio news, although many dismiss Winchell as a sensationalist. In the months after the War began, but before Pearl Harbor, Elmer Davis took the microphone at CBS for a nightly 5 minute report which did much to inform and calm Americans; Davis' success with the reports would lead to his appointment as head of the Office or War Information. Gabriel Heatter's report "There's good News Tonight" also gave reassurance before and during the War.

Edward R. Murrow became one of the most authoritative voices speaking to the American people before Pearl Harbor. Murrow was sent to Europe in 1937 to handle CBS's European operations. He became the "man on the scene" when the Nazi's annexed Austria, and was effective in getting uncensored reports out of Europe. Murrow remained at his London base of operations, and became the American news voice when the US military began operating in Europe.

Jack Benny - Fred Allen Feud

On the entertainment front, many of the old standards continued to be strong in the ratings, especially Jack Benny, Rudy Vallee, Fred Allen, Burns and Allen, and Lux Radio Theater. NBC tightened its hold on the Comedy ratings thanks, in part, to an ad-libbed comment from Fred Allen concerning his friend Jack Benny's violin playing. The ensuing "feud" created months of material for both programs. Some of the national nervousness fell into perspective when Gracie Allen announced that she was running for President of the United States. The Campaign went beyond the confines of the Burns and Allen Show and spawned its own Political Convention.

The novelty programs of the previous years were largely replaced by Quiz and Panel shows like Information Please and Vox Pop. In 1939, writer Don Quinn and the Johnson Wax Company began retooling Fibber McGee and Molly which not only raised the show's ratings, but prepared it to become a valuable Homefront weapon after Pearl Harbor.

As powerful as the radio industry had become, there was no way to predict how vital it would become. That importance began to be demonstrated in the early morning hours of Dec 7, 1941.

1941 - 1945, the War Years

Pearl Harbor PostersWorld War Two stands in many ways as America's finest hour. The final victory was the result of more than the culmination of the military and industrial machine. Victory was assured because the American People, not just their military or their political and business leaders, the People came together as they never had before or since, and made the Victory happen.

There were a number of factors besides radio that helped to focus American will, but few were as universal. Interestingly, no post-War media, whether print, broadcast or cable television, or even the Internet, has the power to focus and influence public opinion as radio did in the early 1940's. Consider that the Fascists solidified their power using a propaganda machine which depended upon a tightly controlled state run media, yet they were defeated by a commercial media built on the principles of a Free Press.

More than 16,000,000 Americans, at least 200,000 of them women, were in the service at some point during the War, and of those who stayed behind, War related industries employed significant numbers. Nearly all of them got their news and entertainment every night by radio. The message from radio was uniform because, although there were local stations in many markets, the majority of listeners tuned into one of the major networks, and those networks shared the message that America had to come together to win the War.

Before December of 1941, the Hawaiian Islands could have been on a different planet, but the Mutual Network cut into coverage of a Sunday afternoon football game less than 63 minutes after the first bombs fell on Pearl Harbor. Seemingly everything in America changed after the attack. Radio became an even more relevant news source, not only because of its immediacy, but because wartime shortages and rationing would take a toll on print media.

The War was phenomenally expensive to prosecute, and the treasury turned to the same power of radio as a money-maker that had worked so well for the networks and their sponsors. War Bond drives were universal in all media, but radio brought the efforts to everyone. The Treasury Department sponsored a number of programs whose sole purpose was to sell Bonds, and many mainstream shows made a bond pitch part of their regular format.

War Bonds PostersOne of the most popular formats in the late 1930s was the Personality Driven variety program. Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Burns and Allen, and Bing Crosby were enjoying terrific success with this format, and several of them took their shows "on the road" to perform and broadcast from various military installations around the country. These same stars and others were enthusiastic participants in shows like Command Performance for the Armed Forces Radio Network. Usually, performances for AFRN were given free of charge, but publicists generally acknowledged that careers never suffered from doing something nice for the troops.

Radio Situation Comedies were as affected by the War as anyone. The Life Of Riley followed the adventures of a lovable-oaf Dad who worked in an aircraft plant. Water commissioner Throckmorton Gildersleeve worked on a number of Bond, rubber, and metal drives while his niece was always ready to do something nice for the troops stationed in the area. Amos 'n' Andy had a few run ins with what they thought were Nazi spies.

FibberFew shows fought the War on the Home Front as successfully as Fibber McGee and Molly. The program's consistently high ratings would have been enough to make it a darling of the Office of War Information, but writer Don Quinn was as successful at making the OWI's message a part of the show's comedy as he was with his sponsor. Fibber would constantly complain or find a way around the rationing of sugar, rubber, or meat, only to learn that his neighbors were happy to make the sacrifices. As the War progressed, some cast members went into the service, and when they went they were usually given an emotional send off (and when possible, an even more emotional welcome home).

Action and Crime series, both for kids and grown-ups, grew in popularity during WWII. The Lone Ranger was in the midst of a story arc fighting a "despotic empire", the Legion of the Black Arrow, when the War broke out. Superman, Dick Tracy and Hop Harrigan faced a number of German and Japanese villains during the War, as did the heroes on Suspense, Inner Sanctum, and The FBI in Peace and War. In the post war era, these same villains would show up as Communists, often attempting to gain Atomic Secrets.

1945+ The Post War Years

Old Time RadioMost Radio Historians focus on the Post War Years as the period when Radio battled the dominance of Television, and lost. This discounts the fact that the decade and a half after the Second World War was the most captivating and creative of the Radio Era in terms of content, as well as preserved programs.

Radio emerged from WWII as a technologically mature entertainment medium, although some writers have noted that the conflict's greatest contribution to the medium was to delay the onset of television. We have previously discussed the importance of Radio to the War Effort. The technical limitations of early Network Television, even as the art was practiced as late as 1962, would not have allowed the younger medium to carry the impact that radio had during WWII. Although Television had effectively killed Radio by 1962, it is intriguing to suppose how the Cold War would have progressed if TV would have had the impact and influence of WWII commercial radio.

The veterans demobilization after WWII turned their dials to many of the same shows they were listening to when they reported for service. In the first years after the War, Fibber McGee and Molly, Bergen and McCarthy, Jack Benny, Bob Hope and Lux Radio Theater dominated the ratings. Newer and retooled genres began to grow as new listener markets developed.

Ma PerkinsThe Daytime Serial, aka Soap Operas, became an even more lucrative money-maker for the networks as post-War prosperity afforded housewives even more spending power. Several of the soaps that were popular before and during the War continued production, some even making the transition to TV. These include Amanda of Honeymoon Hill, Big Sister, David Harum, Front Page Farrell, The Goldbergs, The Guiding LightHilltop House, Life Can Be Beautiful, Lorenzo Jones, Mary Noble Backstage Wife, Masquerade, Our Gal Sunday, Pepper Young's Family, Road of Life, Today's Children, Women in White, and Young Widder Brown. It is amusing to note that of the competing Soap Pioneers, the Hummert Factory was more prolific before and after the War, but Irna Philips was more successful making the transition to the Small Screen.

A youth market also gained importance after the War, with a number of Daytime Thrillers directed at School age kids hitting the air. Along with pre-war classics like The Adventures of Superman, Sgt. Preston of the Yukon, Little Orphan Annie, and The Lone Ranger, shows like Sky King, Planet Man, Big Jon and Sparkie, and Space Patrol soon joined the lineup. Both new and old Kids shows moved to television, but none seem to have the cultural significance of the Kid's Westerns like Bobby Benson and the B Bar B Riders, Straight Arrow, The Lone Ranger, Red Ryder and The Cisco Kid.

Jimmy StewartWesterns were for more than kids. The Western had been an important element in film, more for their relatively low production costs than their universal American Themes. Production costs and familiarity may have been a factor in Western's popularity on early Network Television, but it is the attractiveness of the Western Themes which appealed to Post War Radio audiences. These were people tested by War and wishing for the Freedom and Opportunity that the Western Frontier represented. Little wonder that shows like Have Gun, Will Travel, Frontier Gentleman, Doctor Six Gun and Fort Laramie became popular. Although Western Movies and TV shows were popular with studios for low production cost, Radio Westerns accounted for some of the medium's best produced shows, notably Gunsmoke and The Six Shooter. The Six Shooter, a short lived series about an eternal Drifter was a radio showcase for its star, James Stewart.

Another showcase program was Bold Venture starring Hollywood A-list couple Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. The show, a shameless money maker for the couple's son's trust fund, played on the desire for escapism in the Postwar audience. The show had the exotic locale of old Havana, which was also the setting of the film where the couple met, To Have and Have Not. The program showcased a set of character types, which were hugely popular in the Postwar, the Softhearted Tough Guy and his Dedicated Girl.

The Softhearted Tough Guy became a staple of the Noir-ish Hard boiled Detectives. These fiercely independent heroes (and sometimes anti-heroes) grew from the pulp fiction of the 1920's and 30's, but took on a new slant for the Post war and Cold War Era. The Soft Hearted Tough Guy lived by a personal code of Loyalty to those he trusted, just as the Veterans had been loyal to their Service buddies, and by extension their Nation. Although the loyalty was still there in essence, in most cases the code had relaxed enough that the Tough Guy work for his personal satisfaction.

Bold VentureThe satisfaction of Bogie's Slade Shannon in Bold Venture was built upon keeping his boat running and his girlfriend, Sailor Duvall, at least moderately happy. Philip Marlowe in his many incarnations was happiest when situations proved him to be right. Sgt Friday of Dragnet was happy to see criminals put away while Mike Hammer and Pat Novak found satisfaction by proving their inherent toughness. Johnny Dollar was happy to serve justice in the name of his corporate masters, but even more satisfied when that justice brought him profit.

As prolific as the Postwar period was for Radio Drama, the Radio Era was inevitable in the face of the growing domination of Television. It was not a matter of TV being a superior means to Radio for distributing information and entertainment. Especially in the early days of the Television era, it was not, and arguably still is not. However, Television was shiny and new in a time when in order to be seen as profitable, things had to be shiny and new.

Radio had been the only broadcast medium for nearly four decades, but sponsors quickly cast it aside in favor of television. Radio and information passed with the spoken word is still with us, even if its importance seems diminished in comparison to video. Its value as a storytelling medium in comparison to its production costs help to ensure that it will remain with us.

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