Commercial radio arrived in America in the 1920’s. It didn’t come with much of a business plan. Like many of the digital and Internet startups that came 80 years or so later, the first goal of radio stations was to build an audience. Then they had to figure out how to monetize it. Advertising was not the first option. In the 20’s the idea of broadcasting ads was considered offensive if not downright unethical. Herbert Hoover, who would later become the president associated with the onset of the Depression, was Secretary of Commerce for most of the 20’s. He is quoted as saying it was “inconceivable that we should allow so great a possibility for service and for news to be drowned in advertising chatter.”
Not everybody saw things that way. In fact, from the very beginning, there was those who saw the opportunity to sell stuff. Amongst the early radio stations were some owned by department stores and by manufacturers of radio equipment. KDKA Pittsburgh, one of if not the first commercial station, was owned by a manufacturer, Westinghouse. The first New York station, WJZ, was owned by RCA which envisioned an advertising free operation that would promote sales of their equipment. WOR in Newark, N.J., was owned by Bambergers and in Philadelphia, WIP was a product of Gimbels. Both of those stations outlived the retailers that started them.
The early years of radio were chaotic with hundreds of stations all presenting local programming based on local talent. Talent might not be the right word for some of the hucksters who worked their way onto the airwaves. In his book The Great American Broadcast, Leonard Maltin described one such character, Dr. Maurice B. Jarvis, who convinced the owners of KMPC in Los Angeles to put him on the air. “He had a formidable gift of gab; he greeted his listeners in five languages, then said, ‘I’m your cousin Maurice; I’m related to everybody in the world..’ People were mesmerized, so much so that when he started pitching things – from a memory course to a red liquid you could pour in your bathtub to cure a variety of ailments, people bought what he had to sell.”
The honor, or dishonor, of broadcasting the first commercial goes to another New York station, WEAF, which was owned by AT&T. The station sold 10 minutes of airtime to the Queensboro Corporation for a promotional message about an apartment complex. It was delicately referred to as a “toll message.”
More common, however, were different forms of indirect advertising. The Cliquot Club Eskimos, a banjo orchestra that played on a radio variety show, was named after the soft drink manufacturer. The radio vocal duo, the Happiness Boys took their name from Happiness Candy.
Advertising messages were also embedded into the programming. Radio announcers delivered commercial messages and comedians worked plugs into their routines. Newscasters were not immune either, although there were some who insisted on separating the duties of reading the news and being pitchmen. Gabriel Heatter was a popular newscaster with WOR, the flagship station of the Mutual Broadcasting Network. In between covering breaking news items he could be heard extolling the virtues of Kreml hair tonic or Peter Paul candy bars.
Sports fans remember Red Barber as the legendary radio voice of the Brooklyn Dodgers and later the New York Yankees. His contemporaries may remember him as the voice of Old Gold cigarettes.
By the 30’s much had changed in the radio world. Most American homes now owned devices and radio had become the nation’s primary form of home entertainment. Two large radio networks, NBC and CBS, controlled a large portion of the programming which became national in scope and featured stars from the worlds of music, cinema and vaudeville. The cost of the programming was rising, the cost of radio sets was declining and radio was free for its listeners. So who paid the bills? Advertisers.
Both the networks themselves and the FCC tried to police the growing commercialism. In 1932, CBS adopted a rule that commercials would be limited to 90 seconds for every 15 minutes of programming. At the time, the move was hailed by Radio Guide as the “most drastic step thus far in cutting down the sometimes tedious blurbs which clutter the air.” The Federal Communications Commission, which was created in 1934 as a replacement for the Federal Radio Commission, tried to take on the issue of truth in advertising. One of their targets was “radio doctors” who offered any number of snake-oil based cures to be sold over the airwaves.
Before the decade of the 30’s was over, advertisers had pretty much taken control of network programming, and that is what most Americans were listening to. Networks would lease airtime to sponsors and the sponsors would produce the programming, hire the talent and often be involved in managing the content of the shows. Thus many of the most popular ones had names like the Chase and Sanborn Hour, Philip Morris Playhouse and Philco Radio Time.
Shows had one sponsor. Even the baseball broadcasts of Red Barber and other sports events had a single sponsor. By the 50’s thee might have been two, often a beer and a cigarette brand. Today a live sports broadcast might feature as many as 50 different sponsors.
Maltin notes that “shamelessness reached its zenith on the adventure shows for children that aired in the afternoons and early evenings. Here impressionable listeners were wheedled, cajoled and bamboozled into buying Ovaltine, Quakers Puffed Wheat, Hot Ralston cereal and other products because they were enthusiastically endorsed by the show’s darling hero and it was necessary to buy the stuff in order to send away for some swell premium.” That recalls a scene from the movie A Christmas Story during which Ralphie anxiously awaits the decoder offered on the Little Orphan Annie radio show. Ecstatic when it finally arrives in the mail he heads straight for his radio only to be deflated when he learns the super secret message is something on the order of ‘drink more Ovaltine.’
The single-sponsor network show format began to break down in the late 40’s as the networks themselves turned their attention to television and radio once again became more local. Programming came to consist predominately of recorded music and advertising time was sold in smaller chunks to multiple sponsors.
Susan J. Douglas, author of the radio history Listening In, notes, “Radio has been the mass medium through which the struggles between rampant commercialism and the loathing of that commercialism have been fought over and over again.”
Rampant was in fact the word for it. But no one was turning on the radio to hear the commercials. Since you can’t install an ad blocker on your radio what many listeners did in the 60’s was switch the button to FM. At the time FM did indeed offer an alternative, both in the type and diversity of music available and in a format that didn’t revolve around commercials. But as it became popular it fell victim to the same type of commercialism that plagued the AM dial. In Douglas’ words the difference between the 60s and the 70s on FM radio was “ads for record stores that gave away free rolling papers were replaced by ads for Michelob.”