When Radio Ruled

The history of broadcast programming in 10 words: Everything done on television has already been done on radio.

From the late 1920s, when Amos ‘n Andy began its network run on NBC, to the mid-1950s, when television had penetrated over half the homes in America, radio was the dominant entertainment form in the nation. In this 25-year span, radio established the models for virtually every programming type we see on TV today. By the start of World War II, the radio schedule was filled with sitcoms, game shows, cops, detectives, Westerns, science fiction and a whole catalog of generic mainstays that would be exported to television.

You thought E!’s re-enactments of the Michael Jackson trial was an idea that could only have come in the apocalyptic days of the new millennium? CBS’ The March of Time began using actors to portray the day’s news in 1931: For a while, Franklin Roosevelt was played by Art Carney (yes, that Art Carney). The soap opera was born, raised and matured on radio. The Guiding Light, in fact, started in 1937 and was already in its 15th season when it moved to television in 1952. (It’s still on the air, making it human history’s longest story ever told.) Queen for a Day and Candid Microphone played with the idea that eventually became reality TV. And, of course, product placement was the order of the day, as stars bantered about the sponsors’ wares right within the show itself.

American Idol is a good case in point. As this show plows over the Olympics and everything else in its way, we might forget that it’s all been done before. Amateur nights go back to the age of vaudeville and burlesque, and even then much pleasure was had by rowdy audiences calling for the hook to accelerate a particularly bad act’s exit from the stage. Then, in 1935, Major Bowes’ Original Amateur Hour debuted on NBC, moving to CBS the following year. As the name suggests, the show featured nonprofessionals. Audience members voted by calling in or sending postcards in support of their favorite performers. The winners were invited to return, and if they made it back three times, they could compete in the finals. There was no Simon Cowell to humiliate a bad act, but there was a gong, an audio version of the old hook that could stop a performer in his tracks.

Within months of its debut, The Original Amateur Hour was the top show in radio, earning a 47 rating (that’s rating, not share). Like American Idol, it spawned live concert tours and a monthly magazine. Like the American Idol karaoke machine, kids could purchase an official Major Bowes microphone that allowed them to sing through the speaker of a common radio. There were Amateur Hour board games, drinking glasses and school supplies, and the gong was featured on alarm clocks, jewelry and key chains.

And forget Kelly and Ruben, Fantasia and Carrie. Radio’s Original Amateur Hour introduced the nation to a trio of future operatic superstars: Beverly Sills, Robert Merrill and Maria Callas. It also provided our first listen to Frank Sinatra, who performed as one of the Hoboken Four.

When sound was added to pictures in the late 1920s, the silent movie quickly disappeared. When pictures were added to sound in the late 1940s, radio didn’t go away, but it did give up much of its cultural territory. By the mid-1950s, the generic diversity of radio was gone. The comedies, dramas, soaps and quizzes had all migrated to television, leaving radio with formatted programming consisting of music, talk, sports or news. For radio, prime time became drive time, the inside of a car being the only place a radio could feel safe anymore.

There’s no hope for a return of the silent movie, but maybe it’s time for radio to consider reclaiming some of the programming diversity that it enjoyed back in the first half of the last century. After all, satellite radio needs something new to attract subscribers and to compete with downloads, and broadcast stations need something to compete with satellite radio. There is no reason to believe that some of the old genres couldn’t rise again on radio. Public radio has already provided a few models. Ongoing series like A Prairie Home Companion, This American Life, Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me! and even Car Talk have a following of dedicated listeners who actually make a point of tuning in to these shows even if they’re not in an automobile.

Some genres, of course, would be tougher sells than others. The CBS Radio Mystery Theater, an hour-long daily drama that debuted in 1974, met with some success, but not enough to spawn any imitations. The 15-minute daily soap, however, which was a mainstay of early radio, has great possibilities if executed correctly. Howard Stern and others have had much success with loosely structured, mostly unscripted comedies; it’s not out of the question to think that a scripted comedy could work again on radio.

As radio is poised at the edge of the chasm of a new era, perhaps there are important lessons to be learned from the medium’s past. Most people working in radio today came of age long after the transition to TV. Perhaps they should go back and hear what the medium was doing back when everybody was still listening. Logging in a few hours with Stan Freberg, Fred Allen, and Bob and Ray might stimulate some good ideas. Most of the old stuff was atrocious, of course, but some of it wasn’t.

Television has ripped off a lot of good ideas from radio; now, it seems, radio may need a few of them back.

Robert Thompson is a regular ‘Adweek’ columnist and trustee professor of popular culture at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communication. He can be reached at rthompo@syr.edu.