It Was a Dark and Stormy Night…
No, wait! That’s a different story. This one is about the wonderfully informative program delivered at our July Meeting by Maury Cagle of the Metropolitan Washington Old Time Radio Club. I’ve broken Maury’s talk down into several segments because he had an awful lot of great information about a subject that we all grew up with and which helped shape our lives then and still has a lasting impact on our culture to this day.
Car Nut: Before even telling us about radios, Maury established that he was one of us – a true, bona fide car nut. He told us that at three years old he could indentify cars as they passed by and soon had memorized all the Indy 500 information from the Floyd-Clymer scrapbooks. His first car was a 1934 Ford five window coupe that he purchased in 1950 for $75. This was a huge investment since, at the time, you could buy a running Model A Ford for $25 or a non-running one for $15! Maury still owns a piece of that first car – a blown piston that let loose one night about a mile from his home in 10 degree weather. Not properly dressed for the freezing weather, Maury decided he’d continue on in spite of the unhappy noises emanating from under the hood. Maury led a charmed life that evening because he made it all the way home and the only damage to the engine was the blown piston – the cylinder wall hadn’t been scored. After parting with the Ford, Maury owned a variety of interesting cars and currently has a 1959 Triumph TR2.
Love Affair: Maury’s love affair with radios goes back as far as his affinity to automobiles. His earliest radio recollection is being three years old and listening to Santa on the radio with his family. He really became hooked on his sixth birthday. His father came home from work for lunch that day (an unusual event) and gave Maury his present, a beautiful 5-pushbutton radio. Dad then tuned the radio to a local station where the local station band played Happy Birthday to Maury. That was all it took – he’s never stopped loving everything about the radio media: its history, the sociology, the equipment, the personalities and the great programs.
History: We think of radios as entertainment but just as the Internet has morphed from a small network of computers strung together for research into today’s every-expanding entity, the radio (originally known as “wireless telegraph”) began its life with a practical, utilitarian business application: it was developed as a way to communicate with ships at sea. In fact, the Bureau of Commerce issued the first licenses years before the FCC came along. At the beginning of the 20th Century wireless telegraph transmissions could be sent across the Atlantic, but Fessenden’s first successful voice radio transmission travelled only a mile in1900. One early pioneer of radio was actually arrested for selling stock for an invention that could send voices through the air – an obvious impossibility!!! However, the early adapters pressed on. The first station was 8MK (now WMMK) and by 1920 KEKA was broadcasting the results of the Presidential election. Growth was explosive; from 30 stations in the early ’20s to 556 in 1923 to 3,250 in 1928. Commercials first hit the airwaves in 1922 on WEAF with an ad for apartments for rent. Stations initially relied on local talent and local programming in the years before the advent of radio networks.
Radios: To help illustrate his presentation Maury brought in his own beautifully restored 1926 Atwater Kent radio. We tend to think of battery-powered radio as being a rather recent invention but we’re wrong. The 1926 Atwater Kent radio was battery-operated; it required five batteries with three different voltages to operate. For many years radios came in both electrical and battery models and there was a practical reason for this. In 1940, fully 25% of American homes still did not have electrical power and it wasn’t until 1956 that the country was fully electrified. NVRG members also brought in vintages radios and many described the story behind them, including John Girman who displayed a crystal set his father had built, the Blue Ribbon awarded to John’s father and a newspaper clipping about his father and the radio. In 1930, radio hit the road when Bill Lear (of Learjet fame) invented the first automobile radio for Motorola. And by 1932 even Ford was offering a dealer installed radio option.
Golden Age of Radio – 1932-1956 – Programs: As radio began to mature as a commercial enterprise local stations were being consolidated into some of the radio networks that are still with us today. We found out that “Super Stations” aren’t a new phenomena that sprung up with cable and satellite TV. Back in the formative years of radio there were Clear Channel Stations broadcasting with 50,000 watts of power. Because of ground wave propagation after sunset, these powerful stations would drown out the smaller local stations and virtually force them to sign off at sunset. You can still identify the direct descendants of these early super stations by their three letter call signs. The rise of networks and powerful stations marked a shift away from local programming and led to the development of such classic programs as the Ranger, Fibber McGee and Molly, The Shadow, Johnny Dollar and the Cisco Kid. Perhaps the most popular program of all time was the Amos and Andy Show. Its audience was so loyal and devoted that movie theaters were forced to stop their film at 7 pm, turn on Amos and Andy in the theater, and then resume the feature once the radio show was over. If they didn’t do this very, very few people would purchase a movie ticket for that time slot. The common wisdom of the day was that you could walk down any Main Street and be able to listen to the entire broadcast of Amos and Andy because everyone would have it on and you would be able to hear it through the open windows as you walked along. To help illustrate the programs of the era, Maury played audio clips from numerous programs that many of us remember from our youth. World War II ushered in profound changes in musical entertainment on the radio. As part of the war effort program content changed and there was a two year ban on producing band recordings. This ban led to a shift away from big band music and to the rise of popular recording artists in their own right. Words we use commonly today were coined during the Golden Age of Radio – for example, serial drama programs were sponsored by companies such as Proctor & Gamble, hence they came to be known as “soap operas.”
Impact: Radio was a very powerful social force in its heyday. A survey of 1,000 women in 1934 asked them to list their favorite appliances in order: iron, radio, washing machine, and the refrigerator. Humorist James Thurber memorably described the fifteen-minute radio serial formula: Radio soap opera has been defined as: Between thick slices of advertising, spread twelve minutes of dialogue, add predicament, villainy, and female suffering in equal measure, throw in a dash of nobility, sprinkle with tears, season with organ music, cover with a rich announcer sauce, and serve five times a week. Radio provided many of the early programs and early stars for the post WW II media boom known as TV. Soap operas, game shows and westerns and their stars easily made the transition in the early days of TV. Maury told us that Bing Crosby wanted to play golf instead of repeating his show for the West Coast. His program was so popular that technology was developed to meet the demand – recording equipment was vastly improved with the invention of magnetic tape recording and Bing’s programs could be recorded and then played back at a later hour – a practice still in use today with many syndicated TV programs – just wait until football season and listen for “will be brought to you in its entirety. For those of you on the West Coast, this program will be seen at its normally scheduled time.”
Personal Sacrifice: Like many of us, Maury wasn’t too keen about Ovaltine, in fact, he hated it. But like many of us he also desperately wanted that secret decoder ring so he could decode the weekly secret message from his favorite show. The obstacle here was that in order to get the ring you had to send in the label from a jar of Ovaltine. Poor Maury was caught in a quandary – Mom had purchased the Ovaltine, but he had to finish the jar before he could remove the label and send it in. My secret weapon was my grandfather who never drank coffee but had a big steaming mug of Ovaltine with breakfast every morning. A little sweet talking on my part and Grandma carefully removed and save the label for her grandson!
By Ken Burns