The Great Depression: Radio 1929-1941

Historic Events for Students: The Great Depression. Editor: Richard C Hanes & Sharon M Hanes. Volume 1. Detroit: Gale, 2002.

Introduction

The stock market crash and following Great Depression brought economic hard times to many Americans. By 1933, 25 percent of the workforce, or over 12 million people, were out of work. Millions of others saw their paychecks reduced or lived in constant fear that they, too, would finally be hit with economic hardship. Many had more leisure time on their hands, but less money to spend. As the Great Depression deepened in the United States and around the world in the early 1930s, reliance on radio increased. More people owned radios, were listening to radio in increasing numbers, and were listening to radios for an increasing amount of time each day. Radio was an inexpensive way to keep up with news events of the Great Depression and farming news, and provided a ready means for escape from the economic hard times through sports broadcasts and entertainment programs.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (served 1933-1945) immediately seized on the popularity of radio with his series of Fireside Chats that he conducted beginning in the second week of his presidency. Roosevelt would use radio to not only lobby for public support of his programs, but also to inform the public of important events and perhaps most importantly reassure the public through his unique personal character that faith in the future was warranted. Though only relatively wealthy Americans owned radios a decade earlier, in the 1930s radios became a common appliance owned by the majority of Americans and by a large number of people in other areas of the Western world. Radio was fast becoming a way of life.

Radio became the primary media for entertainment and, increasingly, for information. The number of programs and types of programming for radio grew astonishingly quickly. Old genres of entertainment, such as vaudeville, which was a form of live entertainment consisting of various short acts including songs and comedy routines, were adapted for radio, and new genres were developed for the emerging media. Stars of the stage, including theater stars and musical groups, became the stars of radio, with performers such as Edgar Bergen, Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Kate Smith, Guy Lombardo, Orson Welles, Barbara Stanwyck, Cary Grant, and Humphrey Bogart gracing the airwaves. New stars were also created, as performers discovered the medium and created unique shows. As radio became more sophisticated, new areas of skill and talent emerged, such as sound effects. It was a time of rapid, exciting growth for radio, much like the 1990s were for the growth of the Internet.

Beyond the proliferation of entertainment, radio addressed some more serious issues. The 1930s were a time of profound and lasting changes at home and abroad. Major shifts in the United States’ political and policy priorities were happening under President Roosevelt as he sought to lead the nation out of the Depression, and the radio played a key role in reporting these changes. The radio also became a forum for discussion—and promotion—of all aspects of the policy changes. Politicians and critics used the media to comment as well as to convince.

Outside of the United States, the world was in a state of flux. Germany was mobilizing to occupy a large portion of Europe and much of the world was moving towards what would come to be known as World War II (1939-1945). As the world faced changes and challenges, radio was an integral part not only in reporting and commenting on the changes, but in some cases, in instigating them.

Radio of the 1930s provided a blueprint for the understanding and expectations of media for the rest of the century. The genres and stars of the 1930s became the genres and stars of television in the 1950s. Approaches to news, commentary, and political persuasion were established during the early days of radio and were adapted to later media.

1930s radio created an environment for new expressions of cultural identity and cultural criticism. Not only news shows, but also entertainment shows, frequently provided perspective and gentle criticism, helping to break down barriers between communities. Comedies took on issues of race relations, poverty, and cultural misunderstandings, providing a framework to help people make sense of their rapidly changing country and world. Many radio shows were broadcast all over the country, and served to create a community of shared experience for a diverse and widespread world.

Issue Summary

The Golden Age of Radio

Following the stock market crash in 1929 life in America changed dramatically. The deepening Depression impacted every aspect of American life and Americans looked for new avenues to escape the dreariness of unemployment, homelessness, and hunger. Besides escape, the radio also brought the news and President Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats. With the growth of broadcast news organizations at this time, the public could be informed as never before. Regional differences further melted as national programs brought the same information and advice to everyone with a radio. One bright spot was the exciting explosion of radio programming. Radio itself was not brand new in the 1930s, but it is during this time that it became an integral part of the lives of Americans.

As increasing poverty made many other forms of entertainment prohibitively expensive, America’s reliance on radio grew. In the early 1930s the phonographic record player was a standard appliance in many middle class American households, but as the Depression continued fewer people could afford the steep price of $.75 per record, resulting in the decline of record sales. Attendance at the movie theaters remained strong through the first few years of the Depression, but that also would eventually decline substantially. About $75 could buy a Marconi console, a common reference to a popular type of radio in a wooden cabinet and named after the inventor of radio, Guglielmo Marconi of Italy, who remained active until his death in 1937. The price was a steep, but often worthwhile, investment for families that were foregoing most other forms of paid entertainment. In 1933 alone 3.6 million radio sets were sold.

By the mid-1930s two-thirds of American homes had radio sets, and by 1939 about 80 percent of Americans—about 25 million people—owned radios. Radios were in almost every house and some Americans even had radios in their cars. Americans were buying radios at a rate of 28 per minute. They were a good investment—after the initial expense, the family was able to enjoy drama, comedy, quiz shows, the news, and more for free in the comfort of their homes.

Studies showed that Americans were listening to radio for an average of five hours a day. Americans were spending so much time listening to radio that some child development specialists worried that children would be harmed from the activity. They warned that children should be running and playing outside, not sitting inside being entertained by a box. Radio use was not confined to economic class. In fact lower income families were most likely to listen to it on a daily basis. Radio became the central communication vehicle of the Depression especially including Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats. Radio was how America got its news and how it was entertained. Radio was how America escaped the harsh world outside—as four national and 20 regional networks and hundreds of smaller stations piped programming directly to the listening public.

Programming was innovative and daring, with pioneers exploring new ways of making the medium of radio captivating. Daily soap operas, mysteries, science fiction, and fantasy programs were performed alongside radio productions of classic plays and live musical performances. The public found these programs a welcomed escape from worries of the Depression and the demand grew for more. News shows and commentary kept everyone informed of the dire situation at home and the deteriorating situation in Europe. Radio provided a shared national experience of entertainment and information. It was “The Golden Age of Radio.”

The Rise of the Networks

The economic situation during the Depression directly impacted radio. Radio stations consolidated during the Depression, as smaller stations went out of business. In the mid-to late-1920s, networks were formed as companies bought stations all over the country, forming a “network” of radio stations. In 1926 NBC (National Broadcasting Company) went on the air nationally, using telephone lines to carry the signal to nineteen stations and ten million listeners. The formation of NBC was followed by the formation of CBS (Columbia Broadcasting System). In 1934 four powerful stations—WOR New York, WGN Chicago, WLW Cincinnati, and WXYZ Detroit—banded together to form “The Quality Group,” which later became the Mutual Broadcasting System. The networks encouraged the companies to develop programming to attract more and more listeners. Advertisement, now nationwide with the networks, brought in much more money to support program development, improve production facilities, afford more talented writers and performers, and develop more compelling stories and programs.

Even during the Depression, major radio stations turned a profit. In 1932 NBC posted a profit of $1 million and CBS posted a profit of $1.6 million. As at the start of the twenty-first century advertising paid for most radio programming. In the 1930s advertising agencies shifted their advertising dollars from newspapers to radio as public trust and interest in radio increased. Singing commercials became popular. Programs during the Golden Age of Radio frequently took the name of their sponsors. The A&P Gypsies, an orchestra conducted by Harry Horlick, was sponsored by A&P grocery stores. Live musical groups that played on the radio during the late 1920s and early 1930s included The Sylvania (light bulbs) Foresters, The Champion (spark plugs) Sparkers, and The Planters (peanuts) Pickers. “The Fleischmann’s Yeast Hour” became the first radio variety show. Variety shows included a range of entertainment including music, singing, dancing, and comedy. “The Maxwell House Show Boat” was a variety show that evoked nostalgia for the old-time South, making listeners forget the griminess of Depression-wracked urban America. “The Chevrolet Chronicles” were one of many “transcription shows”—shows produced for the distribution simply of scripts to stations around the country to be performed locally—and an example of how radio programming was inseparable from its advertisers.

With the consolidation of radios into networks, the configuration of the radio industry began to look like the major television networks of the late twentieth century. In addition newspapers owned many early radio stations including WGN (named after the “World’s Greatest Newspaper,” the Chicago Tribune). The U.S. Congress became concerned that one company would control too much of the media in any one town. They felt that if a single company owned all of the radio stations and newspapers in one town, they would not express a variety of views. They feared that the exchange of ideas and clash of opinions essential to democracy would be compromised. Congress soon passed legislation that required diversity of ownership.

As radio blossomed during the 1930s, network censorship did too. The Great Depression had established a fertile bed for radical politics as many were disillusioned with the capitalist economic system of the United States. In addition the rise of communism and fascism (dictatorships) in Europe was increasingly causing alarm in the United States. As a result there was vigilance to keep off the air anything that might be interpreted as supportive of these politics or in opposition to government efforts to bring about economic recovery. Censorship involved a radio network official reviewing the program material and determining what might be morally or politically objectionable to the public. Some comedians liked to tell what at the time were considered risqué jokes, meaning the jokes were on the edge of being considered indecent. For example Fred Allen sometimes told jokes about the “Full Moon Nudist Colony.” As censorship became stricter toward the end of the 1930s, the networks ruled that there could be no more jokes about nudity.

Regulating Radio

Early efforts to regulate the radio industry were not very effective. The Radio Act of 1927 created a confusing array of federal agencies to oversee the growing industry. President Roosevelt in early 1934 was concerned about service to rural areas, competition in the communications industry, and recent technological advances. In response the Communications Act of 1934, one of the regulatory foundations of Roosevelt’s New Deal, which was a group of policies focused on relief and reform, provided for the establishment of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The FCC took the place of the Federal Radio Commission and oversaw the telecommunications industry as well as broadcasting. The FCC was created to regulate communication services and rates and license radio stations. Part of its responsibilities was to assign specific radio frequencies and call letters to radio stations. The FCC consisted of seven members appointed by the president and confirmed by the senate.

Some of the key provisions established by the Communications Act of 1934 are still familiar at the first of the twenty-first century. For example candidates for public office must be treated equally and sponsors must be identified. The “public interest” will determine whether the FCC should provide a license to broadcast. The New Deal’s Communications Act of 1934 survives largely intact.

There were moves towards self-regulation in the 1930s also. The National Association of Broadcasters created standards of performance and objectivity that spawned discussion and that evolved throughout the rest of the twentieth century. Broadcasting had become a profession in the 1930s and was experiencing the growing pains of becoming an established and accepted part of society.

A World of Listeners

Radio offered Americans a shared common entertainment experience, right in their living rooms. Regional differences in the United States began to diminish as radio, hand-in-hand with mass production and mass consumerism, grew through the decade. Not only would Americans share in the hardship caused by the Depression and in the solutions offered by the New Deal, but also in fads which themselves provided further escape from the Depression. Music led the way onto radio, with the broadcasting of swing and big band music in the 1920s. Music programming was the most prevalent throughout the decade, and despite the growth in news, dramas, and comedies, by 1940 music still provided 50 percent of radio programming. Music was performed live during the early days of radio, so studios were built large enough to accommodate full orchestras. Later recorded music was regularly broadcast, and radio stations had a series of continuing battles with ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers) over how to charge fees for playing recorded music that had copyrights.

In the 1930s music was the foundation of radio and America’s favorite escape from the Depression. Audiences were able to hear performances by entertainers that they would never be able to see in person. Networks competed to hire famous conductors, orchestras, and soloists. While classical music was important to the success of early radio, not everyone liked the side effects. Composer Irving Berlin complained that Americans were becoming listeners rather than singers.

The orchestra of Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians were made famous by radio, as was jazz musician Count Basie. Radio provided a huge and attentive audience, but it also provided unique demands. Songwriters were under incredible pressure to produce new material, and many collapsed as a result. The explosion of radio was both exhilarating and exhausting. Music publishing companies hired song pluggers to “place” their songs with singers and musicians. The plugger would sell songs, to which the publisher held the recording rights, to popular musicians who would hopefully make the songs famous, which would increase a song’s sales and the publisher’s profit. Pluggers were named for “plugging” or aggressively selling the idea of recording a publisher’s music.

Given the impacts of the Great Depression on the average citizen’s entertainment budget, it seemed that everyone in America turned to radio for entertainment in the 1930s. Radio was the best buy for escape and information during hard times. Jack Benny was one of the foremost radio stars of The Golden Age of Radio. The former vaudevillian actor mastered the unique art of radio and created a variety show of immense popularity. The character he created was complex and his characterization was well known and funny. For example he was tight with money, which many in the Depression could relate to. Everyone in America knew Jack Benny and his foibles. At the time it was said that so many households listened to Jack Benny that you could walk the streets of small towns and not miss a word, as the sound of the program drifted through the open windows of each house.

Vaudeville performers had a challenge in translating their talent to radio. The performers would have a set of gags—jokes—that they could perform night after night in venues all over the world. As they moved to radio and their show was broadcast all over the world they had the awesome task of creating new material for each show. Jokes could not be reused as they could in live stage acts. Some radio performers had teams of writers preparing jokes for them.

Many of the premier entertainers of the twentieth century got their start first on stage and later in radio. Comedian Bob Hope was an exceptional radio performer who went on to an extraordinary career in television and film. The husband and wife comedy team of George Burns and Gracie Allen became representatives of the desired everyday world in American culture. Singer Bing Crosby provided audiences with decades of entertainment. Bandleader Ozzie Nelson, who later married his vocalist Harriet Hilliard, became a radio phenomenon in the 1930s and went on to become a television phenomenon in “Ozzie and Harriet.”

Radio Drama

Soap operas were another area of significant growth in radio programming during the Depression. Eighty-five percent of network daytime programming was soap operas—serial dramas portraying the lives of a varied cast of characters. The dramas were called soap operas because manufacturers of the major brands of soap, including Proctor and Gamble and Lever Brothers, sponsored them. Women were the key listeners during the daytime, so household products such as soap were eager advertisers for those time slots. Since most radio soap operas were only fifteen minutes long, many could run in one day. There were 61 soap operas on the radio in 1939 alone, and some of the soap operas on television today got their start on radio.

Many people—especially women—looked to soap operas for advice on how to deal with the situations life presented to them. The Great Depression especially brought new and troubling problems. Men were often out of work, stressed by their situation, and maybe even on the road for long periods looking for job opportunities. American women considered how their favorite characters dealt with the challenges of life. Popular soap operas received thousands of letters from women asking for help with real-life problems. Many of the production companies employed correspondents who wrote back with suggestions. This constituted yet another form of escape from the daily problems of the Great Depression by becoming temporarily absorbed in the problems of others, and maybe in even gaining some comfort that others besides themselves were facing difficult times.

“One Man’s Family” was a typical radio drama—the story of a multigenerational family, with ongoing stories that weren’t too complicated for listeners just joining the show to understand. “Against the Storm,” “Brighter Day,” “City Hospital,” “Tale of Today,” and “We Love and Learn” were all popular soap operas. “Guiding Light” first aired on radio in 1937 and continued on television into the twenty-first century. Women followed the various sagas as if the characters were their neighbors.

Comic strips had long provided a shared form of entertainment in America. Children and adults followed the adventures of their favorite characters and waited for the next installment. Comic strips were transformed into popular radio programs with the debut of shows based on “Little Orphan Annie,” “Buck Rogers in the Twenty-Fifth Century,” “Flash Gordon,” and “Dick Tracy.” While some programs were more adult, some programs were specifically designed to appeal to children, such as “Jack Armstrong, All American Boy.” Similarly crime dramas were also popular, with shows like “Sherlock Holmes” and “The Green Hornet.”

Many advertisers formed long-term bonds with these shows, especially as they tried to reach the young audience. The hot drink Ovaltine and “Little Orphan Annie” were partners for many years. Advertisers were creative in positioning products. For example they created the character of Dick Tracy, Jr. who encouraged listeners to become Dick Tracy Junior Detectives by sending in box tops from certain cereals.

There was so much competition for listeners that children’s shows offered premiums such as decoder rings and badges to lure their young audience. Decoder rings enabled listeners to decipher messages given in code language during episodes of the program. Mail-in premium offers were very successful on youth shows, and one of the most successful was the decoder ring offered by “Little Orphan Annie.” Children would mail in a label and a modest amount of money for the ring. In the 1983 movie A Christmas Story, the advertising partnership with “Little Orphan Annie” was lampooned as the message in the long-awaited decoder ring turns out to be “Be sure to drink your Ovaltine.” Such fads were a good buy for entertainment during the Depression when budgets were tight.

Many of the comic-strip-based programs that became popular radio shows during the Golden Age of Radio are still part of American culture at the start of the twenty-first century. “Blondie,” “Gasoline Alley,” and “Li’l Abner” were closely followed by both children and adults. The “Adventures of Superman” went on to both television and film success. The amount of listening leisure time during the Depression and popularity of radios in this pre-television period provided a golden opportunity for many programs to capture America’s imagination.

Theater on the Air

Theater emerged as a popular genre on radio. Onair performances of works by playwrights William Shakespeare and Henrik Ibsen, and author Leo Tolstoy were produced, as well as radio adaptations of some of Hollywood’s best films. Many of Hollywood’s most glamorous stars appeared on radio. William Powell and Myrna Loy performed “The Thin Man” and Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert performed “It Happened One Night.” Barbara Stanwyck, Lucille Ball, and Bette Davis were just some of the stars that appeared on radio during the Depression. Radio and film star George Burns claimed that radio was an easier medium than others since the performers could read their lines rather than having to memorize them.

There were several great radio theater companies during the 1930s including Orson Welles’s Mercury Theatre on the Air, the Lux Radio Theatre, Screen Guide Theatre, and Studio One, later known as the Ford Theater. These well-funded productions were high quality with a great deal of planning, classic scripts, and major stars and they attracted large audiences. Productions were often broadcast during “prime time” evening hours so families could enjoy the shows together.

One of Hollywood’s greatest celebrities was columnist Louella Parsons. In 1934 Parsons launched a variety hour, “Hollywood Hotel” that included interviews with actors and celebrity news. Actors would appear on the show to plug their movies, and sometimes would appear in brief versions of their movies on “Hollywood Hotel.” This program provided a key opportunity during the Depression when many could not afford to go to movie theaters. Movie attendance was down in the Depression and this was a popular way for the family to be entertained. Eventually, the Radio Guild protested the actors appearing on “Hollywood Hotel” without pay and in 1938 the show was cancelled.

Orson Welles would prove to be one of the more influential performers of theatrical works on the radio. On October 30, 1938 a radio musical performance was interrupted by a reporter. As the reporter broke into the performance several times over the next few minutes, he described strange flying vehicles landing in various parts of the United States and strange creatures emerging from them. Soon the reports made clear that the entire world had been invaded by Martians who planned on taking over the planet.

Millions of radio listeners believed the report of the invasion, which was actually an adaptation of H.G. Wells’s novel The War of the Worlds by Orson Welles’s Mercury Theatre on the Air. Though an explanation had preceded the performance, many listeners didn’t hear it, and thousands panicked. Hysterical people hid in basements, and listeners called the police to volunteer in the fight against evil invaders.

The performance of “The War of the Worlds” became one of the most notorious radio performances ever. The radio had become such an integral part of the lives of Americans that it instigated panic throughout the country. In 1983 a television movie, “Special Bulletin” used the broadcast format to tell the fictional story of a nuclear explosion in South Carolina, and, despite regular disclaimers, caused some concern and panic.

With the plays and movies represented on the radio many engaged with U.S. developments in the arts through the Great Depression. Alienation from American traditions was minimized and a foundation for a later boon in such interests following World War II was established.

“Good Evening Mr. and Mrs. America”

Radio was a primary vehicle for the exchange of information and news during the Depression. President Roosevelt used the radio for regular “fireside chats” with the American people, explaining the major events of the time and his response to them in a calm and reassuring voice. Having delivered such addresses to the citizens of New York as governor, he delivered 28 fireside chats to the nation during his presidency. The first, delivered on March 12, 1933, only eight days after Roosevelt took office, attracted more 17 million families. All other chats were similarly big draws among the public. A 1939 poll indicated almost one-fourth of the population usually listened to the chats while almost 40 percent sometimes listened, adding up to almost 65 percent of the population. The fireside chats allowed Americans to feel an intimacy with their president that few had felt before—President Roosevelt was in their living room, expressing his concerns, empathizing with their situation. The fireside chats were crucial to unifying the country during a difficult time and set a standard for communications by future presidents.

With his comfortable style, Roosevelt had the uncanny knack of speaking to the people through the radio as if he was sitting in their living room. The chats were highly popular and pioneered a means for future presidents to communicate directly with the public outside the normal news channels. Even in the 1990s and early twenty-first century presidents Bill Clinton (served 1993-2001) and George W. Bush (served 2001-) used weekly radio broadcasts to remain connected to the public. Other politicians and political pundits, regardless of their agreement or disagreement with what Roosevelt had to say, were generally in awe of his natural ability to make great use of the mass media. The open discussions with the public had a major impact on Roosevelt’s presidency, building a high level of trust. Roosevelt believed he needed to keep close contact with the American people given the severe hardships many were suffering through the Great Depression and ensuring as much support as possible for his New Deal programs.

Radio emerged as an important method of disseminating news during the 1930s. Many of the major newscasters of the century got their start in radio during the Depression—including H.V. Kaltenborn, Edward R. Murrow, William L. Shirer, and Eric Severeid. Radio producers experimented with different ways to deliver the news. Sometimes the days’ news events were dramatized over the radio, with actors playing the roles of major participants. Radios provided an avenue for information that supplemented local newspaper. National stories including those of the Depression and progress of New Deal programs let people see the problems and success stories unfolding elsewhere by communities experiencing the same Depression-spawned problems as theirs.

Radio not only widened the scope of Americans past their own communities, it brought the events of the world into their homes. The Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) is considered the first radio war. In February of 1936 the Popular Front, a left wing group, opposed by the military, had been elected. In response to the election, the Spanish military formed a military government, exiled the leaders of the group, and attempted to isolate the various local groups that supported the Popular Front. In the past this approach had been successful—the military had been able to convince the people that the rebellion was local and that it was futile to fight against the military, thereby discouraging action.

In 1936, however, radio transmitters reached most of the population of Spain. There were eight major transmitters and as many as sixty smaller transmitters. The military tried to convince the people of Spain that the insurgency was under control, but was soon countered by broadcasts calling for a general strike. Radio stations in nearby Morocco and the Canary Islands broadcasted in support of the rebels, and rebel resistance grew. The military government tried to capture the main radio stations with little success. The failure of the government to suppress the rebel broadcasts appeared to signal the collapse of the military government. Throughout the war, broadcasts in many languages and sponsored by many groups rallied support and impacted the outcome of the war.

By the end of the Depression events in Europe as a whole were deteriorating. Germany was invading its neighbors. As the world moved closer to world war, Kaltenborn reported on the invasion of Austria and Czechoslovakia. Murrow provided regular reports on the bombing of London in his “London After Dark” series broadcast by shortwave radio. Shirer reported on the dramatic surrender of France to Germany at Compaigne. Americans listened to the radio and heard bombs exploding in background as a reporter explained that London was being attacked. The world was suddenly smaller and as a result, more frightening for many Americans.

Other news events also came into the homes of many Americans. By the time the infant son of national hero Charles Lindbergh was kidnapped and murdered, the role of communication in radio had become so important that the 1935 verdict in the Lindbergh kidnapping trial was broadcast over radio. In 1937 a reporter captured his reaction to the crash of the Hindenburg. On site to report on the Hindenburg’s voyage, instead the reporter’s response to the tragedy was recorded and later broadcast, bringing the horror into thousands of living rooms. Later when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the tragedy of the attack and the President’s response to it was quickly broadcast to Americans around the country. Radio news had reached its maturity.

Another example of the growth of radio news was the presence of tabloid reporting, which emphasized sensationalized topics. Walter Winchell specialized in publishing gossip and other information that some critics deemed inappropriate. He hosted a celebrity gossip show during much of the Depression that became both very popular and highly criticized.

Sports commentary was popular on radio and play-by-play commentary on baseball and other games was popular, though not always what it seemed. The future president Ronald Reagan, a sports announcer at WHO in Des Moines, Iowa during much of the Depression, called play-by-play for the Chicago Cubs. The studio, however, was three hundred miles from the actual game. Skillful sports commentators were able to imagine the details of a game and pass them along to listeners using play-by-play provided in type across the wires. Sports played a major role in the escapism from the Great Depression. Prominent sports figures became larger than life. This also represented the golden age of sportscasters who eloquently described the sporting events and created colorful images of the sports stars. The Depression listening public followed the exploits of “Babe” Ruth, Lou Gehrig (“The Iron Horse”), the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame football players, female track star Mildred “Babe” Didrikson Zaharias, the boxer Joe Louis (“The Brown Bomber”), and others.

Radio in the 1930s often contrived events to encourage people to listen. Given the hard times of the Depression they had an eager listening public. Stunt broadcasts were a regular part of programming. KSTP in St. Paul Minnesota covered a wedding in a hot air balloon for its listeners. Radio was a burgeoning and competitive field. Listeners couldn’t get enough of it, and innovation flourished. Many of the 1930s programs would set the standard for programming in all media for the rest of the century.

“Liberty at the Crossroads”

Radio played an important role in politics during the Depression. Radio was used to communicate political positions, and to show support of, and against, politicians. In the November 1936 election President Roosevelt used the radio much more effectively than opponent Alf Landon, which partially contributed to Roosevelt’s victory. In 1940 President Roosevelt’s radio skill helped him defeat Wendell Willkie and win an unprecedented third term as President.

Political parties made great use of radio during the 1930s, much as they did television later in the century. In 1936 the Republican Party’s radio dramatization, “Liberty at the Crossroads,” played an important role in the campaign. Critics complained that the use of radio deterred thoughtful analysis of political issues. They also complained that political conventions were organized for the benefit of radio, rather than to facilitate substantive political discussion.

The power of radio was being exploited in the international arena, also. German Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels was reportedly very sensitive to the enormous impact that radio could have. Two types of music were banned when Adolph Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933: swing and jazz. Swing represented decadent America, and jazz was seen as antithetical to the purity of the Aryan race, which was a term for the non-Jewish white population. Jazz was largely derived by black American musicians and frequently played by Jewish musicians. Such creativity by non-whites and non-Protestants did not mesh well with the racist doctrines of the Nazis who preached the dominance of white society. Later in the 1930s as Spain descended into civil war, radio became pivotal in rallying the forces opposing the military government. As in the United States with Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats, other governments in the 1930s clearly recognized the power and potential of radio. Goebbels and other German leaders knew it was the most effective way available to reach the greatest number of people with propaganda and other information.

One master of the use of radio was Father Charles Edward Coughlin. The Roman Catholic priest from the Detroit, Michigan area was broadcast throughout much of the 1930s. Coughlin was highly popular in the early 1930s with his radio program attracting an estimated 30 to 45 million listeners each week. At first his program was primarily inspirational and welcomed by the Depression-weary public but became increasingly political. Initially a supporter of President Roosevelt and his New Deal programs, Coughlin became disillusioned and turned into a fierce critic. Coughlin was extraordinarily popular, with millions of listeners each Sunday. As his comments became increasingly political, his anti-Semitic (Jewish), pro-Hitler views became clear, and CBS dropped his program when his comments became too inflammatory. As Germany’s aggression in Europe became increasingly evident, Coughlin lost some of his popularity, however, for much of the Depression he was a significant voice in American radio.

The growing war in Europe produced some of the most creative and thoughtful programming on radio. When German planes bombed the Basque town of Guernica in Spain in 1937, it solidified writer and director Norman Corwin’s hatred of fascism. In 1939 he wrote “They Fly through the Air with the Greatest of Ease” for his “Words Without Music” radio series. The program lamented the German military planes flying at will over his native country and wreaking havoc with their bombs. Its premiere was lauded as exceptional, bold radio. Isolationist beliefs, opposition to the United States entering the war, made even the mention of the possibility of war controversial, but the airing of the program resulted in a thousand favorable letters being sent to CBS.

Writer Archibald MacLeish produced “The Fall of the City,” which symbolically represented the growing threat of war in 1937. Arch Oboler produced “Lights Out” on NBC, and “Air Raid” by Archibald MacLeish and “War of the Worlds” by writer and performer Orson Welles, which depicted the growing fear of war. Radio had given a voice to Americans’ fears about the coming world war.

Contributing Forces

In 1895 Guglielmo Marconi became the first person to communicate by sending radio signals through the air. Radio was born. Radio, however, had a rocky start in America. During World War I, most private U.S. radio stations were either shut down or taken over by the government under order of President Woodrow Wilson, and it was illegal for U.S. citizens to possess an operational transmitter or receiver.

It wasn’t until 1920 that radio stations were regularly making commercial broadcasts, beginning with KDKA of Pittsburgh and WWJ of Detroit. Programming began to grow despite the fact that radios were still too pricey for most Americans.

In 1922, David Sarnoff introduced the Radiola console, which sold for $75—not an insignificant amount but still within the reach of middle class citizens in the 1920s. His plan was to make radios affordable and to bring music into the home by way of wireless technology. His company, RCA—the Radio Corporation of America—grew from $11 million in sales the first year to $60 million three years later. The less expensive radio model made radios a household item.

The 1920s saw a steady growth in radio ownership and programming, and radios were becoming increasingly popular. The stock market crash of 1929 and the Depression that followed, however, really spurred the growth of radio. Despite an initial decline in radio ownership in the early part of the Depression, children and others started becoming avid radio listeners. Other forms of paid entertainment had become prohibitively expensive in the lean times, and so Americans turned to radio. Eventually, as social workers reported, families would rather part with their icebox or other necessary appliances than with their radio.

Radio technology was still evolving as the country entered the Depression. The conventional, amplitude modulation (AM) form of radio signal proved limiting in broadcasting, producing much static at times. Frequency modulation (FM) was introduced in which static interference was much less. In 1933 Edwin Howard Armstrong produced the first FM transmitter and receiver, although it was six years before an FM station would air. FM was clearly superior in the quality of the broadcast.

Perspectives

Public Perspectives

The public found radio to be the most accessible form of entertainment and information available. After the initial expense of purchasing a radio, it was rather cheap to enjoy the programs. Also radio programming could be enjoyed by the entire family who gathered in front of the radio in the comfort of their own home. Radio entertainment played on the imagination of the listeners by creating visions of the action and characters portrayed. In this way radio was an excellent form of escapism during the particularly tough period when the public was greatly affected by the Great Depression. The effects of the Depression—poverty, joblessness, homelessness, and hunger—took a mental toll on Americans. Radio, with its thrillers and mysteries, classical theater and musical performances, and slapstick and silliness, provided a means of escaping the dreariness of life. Not everyone approved of the escapism of radio. Some critics called it “bread and circuses,” a narcotic for the masses to keep them from fully comprehending the situation in which they found themselves.

Radio became so popular during the Depression that some psychologists grew concerned over the increasing amount of time and attention spent listening to radio. Child development specialists expressed concern that children were foregoing more wholesome activities, such as studying, reading, playing sports, and outdoor activities in favor of sitting passively inside, next to the radio, listening. These concerns were later mirrored by similar concerns expressed over the effects television and personal computers posed on child development. Some became concerned that America was becoming a land of spectators, rather than a land of participants.

For artists radio opened up a whole new medium to pursue their craft. Rather than performing on stage in vaudeville or nightclubs requiring steady travel, they could reach the entire nation from a small studio, week after week. They could also employ elaborate sound effects and various other techniques that would play on the listeners’ imaginations. Very quickly programs became fairly sophisticated in these techniques. Advertisers also found a new medium for promoting their goods nationwide. Nationally distributed magazines had been the key medium before the rise of radio and national broadcasting networks. Now the mass produced goods could be promoted through the mass media for mass consumption. The fabric of American life would be changed forever. In the age of the Depression with limited expense budgets, radio provided an economical way of reaching millions of people.

National Perspectives

It was during the Great Depression that America became a more unified nation and regional differences significantly declined. People in the cities, farms, and suburbs listened to the same programs at the same time. Certainly one factor was the loss of jobs and search for new employment opportunities that led to a great deal of population shifts and movement. The expansion of radio also played a key role in this change of national character. Radio offered a unique communal experience not so readily available in America before. No other media of the time was as pervasive. For example, newspapers were still more a local and regional form of information sharing. Individuals all over America laughed together at Jack Benny and worried together over alien invasion orchestrated in a studio by Orson Welles. There was a new profound sense of community, both in the homes, in which families and friends grouped around the radio, and in the discussion of the programs at work and school. At a time when many could feel isolated in their struggle against the effects of the Depression, radio provided a community of experience.

There were also concerns during the 1930s, and later, that radio—and indeed all mass media—would be misused. The wide dissemination of incorrect or selectively chosen information could invite or reinforce opinions. President Roosevelt used the radio to communicate his views and interpretations of the events of the day. His critics charged that he was able to use his unique position and access to mass media to support his views. His Fireside Chats have been considered some of the first forms of managed news. Similarly Father Coughlin promoted anti-Semitic and pro-Hitler positions on the radio. As the country came increasingly close to war, his diocese, in Detroit, chose to review his statements prior to broadcast.

International Perspectives

Throughout the 1930s, as the world careened toward war, America debated the appropriate response to the emerging conflict. In the beginning of the 1930s most Americans—including President Roosevelt—shared the view that the conflict was someone else’s. They believed that America should not get involved. As the 1930s progressed, and as reporters such as Edward R. Murrow, H.V. Kaltenborn, and William Shirer broadcast reports of the bombing of London and the German occupation of continental Europe, the view of many Americans began to change. The world seemed to be a smaller place. Czechoslovakia didn’t seem so far away, and the invasion of Poland didn’t seem so insignificant to the United States. Isolationism seemed less tenable.

All over the world the potential of radio was quickly realized. Adolf Hitler in Germany used radio to further his goals. In reaction some countries occupied by German forces in the late 1930s surreptitiously broadcast opposing viewpoints. Radio had become a powerful and influential media for the expression of opinion on an international basis. As more world leaders and their opposition realized that, they were able, increasingly, to take advantage of it to reach millions of prospective supporters for their programs and causes.

Impact

The Golden Age of Radio created a new media environment. At the beginning of the explosion of radio in the 1930s, radio advertising increased while newspaper advertising decreased, though newspapers eventually bounced back. The amazing growth of radio programming during the Depression established all of the major genres in television: dramas, comedies, variety shows, soap operas, talk shows, news commentary, and more. Radio in the 1930s established the framework for broadcasting for the rest of the twentieth century.

The exceptional use of radio news broadcasting in the 1930s created the future expectation of immediacy of information. Americans expected to learn about events quickly, and as television gained momentum later in the century, this expectation was carried into television broadcasting: viewers expected to see events virtually as they happened. The immediacy of information had the added impact of making the entire world feel like one’s neighborhood. Nothing seemed too far away, and other cultures that once seemed exotic and strange were more familiar.

The growth in radio provided a large audience for various voices in cultural and political criticism. News programs and commentary provided direct challenges to long-held views, likewise many “entertainment” programs provided cultural criticism. Variety shows lampooned racial preconceptions, theater on the air challenged ideas of war and peace, and comedies provided a humorous critique of Middle American values. While not all radio programs reflected the values in tension during the Great Depression, radio was a forum for exploring the many aspects of America that were being challenged by poverty and decay.

The 1930s were also the genesis of some of the major broadcasting industry conflicts that would continue to be played out throughout the remainder of the twentieth century. Radio companies fought with ASCAP over blanket recording agreements—basically they wanted to be able to play a recording whenever they wanted for a set price. The radio industry wrestled with the government over issues of diversifying ownership and over licensing of AM and FM frequencies. As radio came into its own, it discovered the major issues that would continue to challenge it into the future.

Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats set the standard for future presidents to not only use radio to communicate with the public, but the growing mass media of television in the future as well. His successor Harry Truman suffered from his abrupt Midwest behavior before the microphone, which contrasted sharply with Roosevelt’s warm wit and charm. The era of television influence came forward in the 1960 presidential campaign between future presidents John F. Kennedy (served 1961-1963) and Richard Nixon (served 1969-1974). Kennedy’s good looks and calm demeanor won over many supporters following a live televised debate. Ronald Reagan (served 1981-1989) became another president skilled at using mass media to charm the public and press while seeking to gain support for his programs.

Use of the radio for political purposes by presidents continued into the twenty-first century as President George W. Bush conducted weekly Saturday radio addresses, both in English and Spanish. The shift to television in the 1950s, however, had a major impact on radio. Radio programming shifted away from drama, comedy, and variety shows to other formats including music, talk shows, and news. With these changes radio remained a highly popular medium of entertainment and information for the American public.

Notable People

Jack Benny (1894-1974)

Born Benjamin Kubelsky, comedian and musician Jack Benny became an American phenomenon. His career started in vaudeville, and he debuted in 1931 on radio on the Ed Sullivan show, getting his own radio show in 1932. Among the many running jokes on his show were his stinginess, his “feud” with Fred Allen, his ancient Maxwell automobile, and the vault in his basement where he kept his money. His character was particularly appealing to the Great Depression audience that was coping with economic hard times. His special comedic style allowed the joke to be at his expense, instead of at the expense of others. His last radio show was in 1955.

George Burns (1896-1996)

Born Nathan Birnbaum, comedian George Burns and his wife and comedic partner Gracie Allen, starred in the Burns and Allen Show on radio beginning in 1933. An outstanding comedic duo, the show was a huge success providing many laughs to the American audiences during the Great Depression and later made the transition to television. Though they married in 1926, Burns and Allen did not tell their radio audience for many years. Later a film and television star, Burns contributed greatly to the development of the early sitcom.

Jean Colbert (?-1995)

Colbert was one of radio’s earliest and most prolific soap opera performers, appearing in “Stella Dallas,” “Life Can be Beautiful,” “Young Dr. Malone,” “Portia Faces Life,” and “Aunt Jenny,” among others. Colbert provided an escape for the women of the nation toiling under difficult economic conditions. She also appeared in prime-time programs including the “Lux Radio Theater.”

Father Charles Edward Coughlin (1891-1979)

Called the “Radio Priest,” Father Coughlin began broadcasting weekly sermons in 1926. By the early 1930s Coughlin’s broadcasts shifted to economic and political commentary. He began as a supporter of President Roosevelt and the New Deal social and economic programs, but he eventually changed into a harsh critic. Father Coughlin exerted enormous influence on America during the Great Depression. Millions of Americans listened to his weekly radio broadcast. One study showed that more than 15 million Americans listened to Coughlin each month, and more than half of them approved of what he said. While much of his message regarded a type of economic populism, which emphasized the common person, he regularly attacked prominent Jewish people. These attacks that were so strong that he was sometimes called the father of hate speech.

Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll (1899-1982) (1890-1972)

Freeman Fisher Gosden and Charles James Correll created and starred in the popular radio show “Amos ‘n’ Andy.” Originally broadcast as “Sam ‘n’ Henry” in 1926, the show was renamed when it changed networks. Gosden and Correll—both white men—appeared in black face and portrayed two Southern men forced to move to a Northern city. The program played on the increased racism related to the hard times of the Great Depression. The show has subsequently been criticized as racially insensitive and insulting, but some critics contend that it humanized black people.

Have von (H.V.) Kaltenborn (1878-1965)

A pioneer in radio, Kaltenborn was first on the air in 1921 and by the 1930s he was a regular newscaster reporting on the Spanish Civil War in 1936. Kaltenborn was close enough to the conflict that listeners could hear gunfire in the background. Kaltenborn also covered the Munich appeasement talks in 1938, reporting—correctly—that Munich was a “complete victory for Hitler.” His broadcasts helped lead a shift in public concern away from Great Depression economic problems to foreign policy issues.

Edward R. Murrow (1908-1965)

Murrow set the standard for American journalism providing descriptive reports of many of the 1930s and 1940s important events. Murrow reported from Vienna, Austria, in 1938 as the Nazis entered the Austrian capital.

CBS sent Murrow to London in the 1930s and it was from there that he began a series of memorable broadcasts. When war between Germany and the United Kingdom was declared, Murrow reported firsthand. Murrow’s broadcasts during the Battle of Britain were often accompanied by air raid sirens or bomb explosions. While in London Murrow brought together several exceptionally talented newsmen, known as “Murrow’s Boys.”

William S. Paley (1901-1990)

Paley developed and ran the CBS radio and television networks. He bought CBS in 1929, building it from a failing network of 22 radio stations into a broadcast empire. Paley and his network worked with many of the major stars of the decade, including Jack Benny, Al Jolson, Kate Smith and Bing Crosby. Paley was responsible for bringing substantial entertainment to the Great Depression audience who could little afford to pursue other forms of entertainment.

David Sarnoff (1891-1971)

Former wireless operator Sarnoff rose to president of the Radio Corporation of America. As early as 1916, Sarnoff envisioned a radio that would be as standard in homes as a piano or a phonograph. In 1922 he introduced the Radiola, for $75, and made radio a household appliance. These developments proved timely as the radio provided much entertainment and a source of information for the Depression public.

Orson Welles (1915-1985)

Between 1936 and 1941 Orson Welles participated in over one hundred radio drama productions as writer, actor, and director. Welles’s Mercury Theatre produced Shakespeare and other classic literature, as well as more popular fare such as “The League of Terror” and “Dracula.” In 1937 Welles became the voice of “The Shadow.” Welles’s work with radio is best remembered for the show on October 30, 1938, when he aired “The War of the Worlds,” a story depicting an alien invasion, which caused widespread panic around the United States. Actor John Houseman said of Welles and “The War of the Worlds:” “The reason that show worked as well as it did was… nerve… the slowness of the show in the beginning.” The show, which began slowly and calmly at first, steadily built to a frantic pace, giving the impression of hours passing in minutes. Welles went on to a legendary career in film; in his film directing debut, the classic Citizen Kane, he used many of the techniques—and people—he knew from radio. Welles also took part in the New Deal’s Federal Theater Project that provided work for many unemployed actors and stagehands.

Walter Winchell (1897-1972)

Winchell is sometimes considered the father of tabloid reporting. After tackling various pursuits in his young life, including time as a vaudevillian dancer, Winchell became a famous news commentator and gossipmonger, drawing millions of listeners during the Great Depression. Winchell had many critics of his approach of publicizing activities that many considered inappropriate for public comment.

Primary Sources

“Amos ‘n’ Andy”

Hardships of the Great Depression increased hatred toward racial minorities by society in general. This was particularly true of the white unemployed who believed jobs, including those created by New Deal work relief programs, should first go to whites before black Americans. Radio programs capitalized on these emotions that were heightened by the Depression. “Amos ‘n’ Andy” creators Freeman Gosden and Charles Corell developed a complex world for their characters—two black, Southern men newly transplanted to a Northern city. This reflected the migration of black Americans from Southern rural areas to Northern industrial centers. Listeners waited impatiently for each new episode to discover what troubles would befall the mishap-prone twosome. The complex drama was both criticized for its racial insensitivity and lauded for showing a humanistic portrait of a particular subset of society (from Charles J. Correll and Freeman F. Gosden. Here They Are—Amos ‘n’ Andy. New York: Richard R. Smith, Inc., 1931).

Amos: I wuz sittin’ yere dreamin’ ’bout Chicago an’ ‘stead o’ puttin’ de milk in de bucket, I put half of it on de ground.

Andy: Dat’s whut you git fur not tendin’ to yore bizness. If I’d been milin’ dat cow, son, I wouldn’t of wasted a drop o’ milk.

Amos: When I tell Mister Hopkins dat I lost half de milk, he goin’ git mad wid me.

Andy: Let him git mad wid you. You ain’t got no bizness shootin’ de milk on de ground.

Amos: I got tell him though ’cause he known I ought to have mo’ milk dan dis.

Andy: Instead o’ payin’ ‘tention to whut you was doin’, you was sittin’ here dreamin’.

Amos: Yeah—if I hadn’t been thinkin’ ’bout goin’ to Chicago den, I’d of got de mil in de buck a’ right.

Andy: Well, it’s yore own fault—dat’s all I got say.

Amos: You know, YOU wuz de one he tol’ to milk de COW.

Andy: Dat IS right, ain’t it?

Amos: He tol’ you to milk de cow—he didn’t tell me to do it. You is de one dat’s got take de milk in to him.

Andy: On second thought, yere, we better not tell him nothin’ ’bout losin’ part o’ de milk ’cause I don’ want him jumpin’ all over me.

Amos: Well, whut you goin’ do ’bout it? We ought to tell him. Dat’s de right thing to do.

Andy: Wait a minute, yere, son. I got a idea.

Amos: Whut you goin’ to do now?

Andy: Come on over yere wid me. Han’ me dat bucket.

Amos: Where you goin’? Whut you goin’ do wid it?

Andy: Yere’s de well right yere. We’ll fill dat up wid water.

Amos: : Wait a minute—you can’t do dat wid de stuff. Dat’s goin’ make Mister Hopkins mad if he ever find dat out.

Andy: How he goin’ find it out?

Amos: He’s li’ble to find it out though. We ain’t for no bizness puttin’ water in de milk.

Andy: Now, lissen yere, Amos—don’t never try to tell me whut to do or whut not to do. I know whut I’se doin’.

Amos: I know, but if Mister Hopkins ever see you goin’ dat, he’s li’ble to fire both of us.

Andy: Hol’ dat bucket o’ milk dere while I pour some water in it.

Amos: I don’ wants to git mixed up in dis. I ain’t goin’ do it. De man don’ want no water in his milk.”

Fireside Chats

On March 9, 1937, President Franklin Roosevelt gave his ninth “fireside chat” over the airwaves to the public. Though his topic on this occasion was his proposed reorganization of the Supreme Court, the speech was notable in that he began by reviewing his first fireside chat he made four years earlier. The chat demonstrates Roosevelt’s friendly style that many found comforting. Almost one-fourth of the nation normally listened to his fireside chats. They set a new standard for communications between the president and the public (from Franklin Roosevelt. The Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt: 1937 Volume. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1941, pp. 122-123).

Tonight, sitting at my desk in the White House, I make my first radio report to the people in my second term of office.

I am reminded of that evening in March, four years ago, when I made my first radio report to you. We were then in the midst of the great banking crisis.

Soon after, with the authority of the Congress, we asked the Nation to turn over all of its privately held gold, dollar for dollar, to the Government of the United States.

Today’s recovery proves how right that policy was.

But when, almost two years later, it came before the Supreme Court its constitutionality was upheld only by a five-to-four vote. The change of one vote would have thrown all the affairs of this great Nation back into hopeless chaos. In effect, four Justices ruled that the right under a private contract to exact a pound of flesh was more sacred than the main objectives of the Constitution to establish an enduring Nation.

In 1933 you and I knew that we must never let our economic system get completely out of joint again—that we could not afford to take the risk of another great depression.

We also became convinced that the only way to avoid a repetition of those dark days was to have a government with power to prevent and to cure the abuses and the inequalities which had thrown that system out of joint.

We then began a program of remedying those abuses and inequalities—to give balance and stability to our economic system—to make it bomb-proof against the causes of 1929.

Today we are only part-way through that program—and recovery is speeding up to a point where the dangers of 1929 are gain becoming possible, not this week or month perhaps, but within a year or two.

National laws are needed to complete that program. Individual or local or state effort alone cannot protect us in 1937 any better than ten years ago.

It will take time—and plenty of time—to work out our remedies administratively even after legislation is passed. To complete our program of protection in time, therefore, we cannot delay one moment in making certain that our National Government has power to carry through.

Four yeas ago action did not come until the eleventh hour. It was almost too late …

I want to talk with you very simply about the need for present action in this crisis—the need to meet the unanswered challenge of one-third of a Nation ill-nourished, ill clad, ill-housed.

Suggested Research Topics

  1. Compare the growth in and uses of radio during the 1930s with the growth and use of the Internet during the 1990s.
  2. Discuss how radio changed America’s response to the war in Europe—the war that would eventually become World War II. How did radio change American’s understanding of the people “over there?” How was radio used to try to change Americans view of the conflict?
  3. Listen to the radio news, watch television news, and read a newspaper all on the same day. Compare coverage of news events in the three media.