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Golden Age of Radio

Golden Age of Radio

Golden Age of Radio 1935-50

1935 - Radio became the "central medium" of Depression America; 2 of 3 homes had radio sets, the 4 national and 20 regional networks provided programs everywhere in America 24 hours a day, advertising agencies shifted money from newspapers to radio as public trust in print media declined but grew stronger in radio.

1936 - CBS began the "Columbia Workshop" series. In the November election, FDR used radio more effectively than Alf Landon, with both parties spending a record $2 million on radio. Father Coughlin formed a Union Party and used radio to attack FDR. March of Time story on "Royal Oak, Michigan" 8/16/35.

1937 - Archibald MacLeish produced an allegory on the growing threat of war in Europe with his radio play "The Fall of the City" on CBS, Arch Oboler produced "Lights Out" on NBC, Orson Welles began his "Mercury Theatre" series on CBS. When the Hindenburg exploded at Lakehurst NJ May 15, 1937, WLS announcer Herb Morrison and engineer Charles Nehlsen were making a disc recording and thus were able to capture the event "live" as it happened. This recording was so unique and dramatic that NBC decided to break its own rule banning records on the radio and allowed this recording to be broadcast on the network.

1938 - two radio programs in October exposed the growing national fear of war "Air Raid" by Archibald MacLeish; "War of the Worlds" by Orson Wells. "The Plot to Overthrow Christmas" by Norman Corwin was heard by Edward R. Murrow in New York, at home briefly from his European post, and began the long and close friendship of the two radio pioneers.

1939 - The earlier bombing of Guernica inspired Norman Corwin's hatred of fascism, and he decided to write "They Fly through the Air with the Greatest of Ease" for his "Words Without Music" radio series; it premiered 2/19/1939, caused a thousand favorable letters sent to CBS; "it was, in truth, bold radio at a time when growing isolationism made even the mention of war a matter of controversy. Broadcasting, in particular, tried to maintain a balance between the two factions of public sentiment. The fact that CBS made no attempt to censor the broadcast was evidence again of the network's liberal leaning. Still, seven months later, the network decided it best to cancel a repeat of the program upon the news that England and France had declared war." (Bannerman p. 43) The program won award from the Ohio State Institute for Education by Radio as best individual dramatic program of 1938-39. NBC broadcast a concert by Marian Anderson from the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday, Apr. 9, before a live audience of 75,000 and a radio audience of millions.

1940 - Radio News reached maturity with regular reports of the bombing of London by Edward R. Murrow, his "London After Dark" series broadcast by shortwave; William L. Shirer reported the fall of France and the dramatic surrender at Compaigne. In the November election, FDR's radio skill helped him defeat Wendell Willkie and win an unprecedented third term as President. Music remained the dominant content of redio, occupying 50% of all programming. A federal court had allowed radio stations to play records without the prior consent of artists or music companies, and ASCAP raised its rates. When some radio stations refused, and signed contracts with the new BMI, ASCAP arranged for compromise rates.

1941 - The FCC Mayflower rule prohibited stations from editorializing only one point of view, later to become known as the Fairness Doctrine. In New York, Maritin Block started the first disc jockey show called "The Make Believe Ballroom" on WNEW when he pretended to be talking about live bands and performers, but was actually only playing records. No recording was made of the first news bulletin announcing the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941. The famous recording by John Daly saying "We interrupt this program to bring you a special news bulletin. The Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii by air" was actually spliced together in 1948 for the Murrow record album I Can Hear It Now by Fred Friendly of CBS. The splice was made from two other later recordings, according to veteran radio announcer Robert Trout, and no news bulletin interrupted any network program on Dec. 7.

1942 - Irving Berlin wrote and recorded "God Bless America" and Norman Corwin produced "This Is War" on CBS. The Voice of America was created by the government to broadcast propaganda abroad. The Armed Forces Radio created a world-wide network of radio stations for service personnel, and became the Armed Forces Radio Network (AFRS) with 306 stations. James Petrillo of the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) began a 2-year strike against radio stations who refused to pay new ASCAP-like fees to muscians, and eventually won a victory over the networks.

1943 - Only 700,000 radio sets were sold due to the wartime ban on non-essential electronic manufacturing, down from the 13 million sets sold in 1941. Shellac was also deemed a strategic war material, causing a decline in the production of phonograph records. The AFRS began using vinyl to make records for distribution to its military radio stations. The Army used wire recorders and developed the hand-held walkie-talkie radio set.

1944 - The percentage of radio time devoted to news increased to 20%, up from 7% in 1939, but music still dominated programming. In the November election, FDR defeated Thomas Dewey to win a 4th term, and 50% of the nation's radio homes listened to the election eve reports on November 7. The ratings system of Clark Hooper using random telephone calls replaced the old Crossley polls.

1945 - Edward R. Murrow reported the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp on April 15. Norman Corwin produced "On a Note of Triumph" on CBS. The Blue Network that had been sold by NBC in 1943 to Edward J. Noble became ABC. "Meet the Press" began on NBC, and would become the longest running radio show in history. Fiorella LaGuardia read the Sunday comics over the radio during a newspaper strike, Universal 18-414 newsreel, 7/9/45, on Newsreel DVD57.

1946 - The post-war radio business exploded as controls were removed, manufacturing of sets resumed, the number of AM stations on the air would increase from 961 in 1946 to 2006 in 1949, and 6 millions autos had sets. A poll found that 63% of the American people regarded radio as their primary source of news. Edward R. Murrow produced radio documentaries at CBS such as "Who Killed Michael Farmer?"

1947 - Bing Crosby adopted magnetic recording for his new radio program on ABC.

1948 - The Democratic and Republican National Conventions were held in Philadelphia to take advantage of the city's central location on the East Coast coaxial cable and microwave relay network. Television remained an infant medium during the FCC freeze 1948-52, with only 107 TV stations competing with 2000 AM stations. The FCC canceled the low-band FM frequency of 40 MHz favored by Edwin Armstrong, allocating instead all FM transmission to the higher 88-108 MHz band, and contributing to the decline of FM broadcasting until the mid-1950s.

1949 - Radio income from advertising reached a high of $203 million, but an increasing proportion of this was earned by local stations, and the national networks lost an increasing proportion. Radio was victim of its phenomenal growth; the more stations, the greater division of advertising revenue. Only half of the 2000 AM stations on-air were affiliated with a network.

1950 - 40 million American homes owned radio sets (94% of all households), up from the 30 million in 1942 (84%) and the 20 million in 1934 (65%).

Sources:

  • Bannerman, R. LeRoy. Norman Corwin and Radio: the Golden Years. University, Ala. : University of Alabama Press, 1986.
  • Sterling, Christopher H. and John M. Kittross. Stay Tuned: a Concise History of American Broadcasting. 2nd ed. Belmont, Calif. : Wadsworth Pub. Co., 1990.
  • Stott, William. Documentary Expression and Thirties America. New York, Oxford University Press, 1973.

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- 1999-2005 by Steven E. Schoenherr. All rights reserved.

Return to Recording Technology History Notes | this page revised 11/15/05
 
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