Radio: A Consumer Product and a
Producer of Consumption


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Congress passed the first Radio Act in 1912 but it was not until the Radio Act of 1927 that the new medium was brought under federal control. During the 1920s, Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover convened a series of conferences intended to deal with the extraordinary growth of radio as an industry and a fledgling advertising medium.

In 1925, the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) released statistics indicating that of the 26,000,000 homes in the United States, 5,000,000, or 19.2 percent, had radio receivers, though the number of broadcast listeners was estimated at 20,000,000. In his Historical Dictionary of the 1920s (1988), James S. Olson notes that sales of radio went from $60 million in 1922 to $843 million in 1929. It is estimated that by 1929, approximately 35 to 40 percent of American families owned radios, and the number ran considerably higher, in some cases up to 75 percent, in both wealthy suburban and larger metropolitan areas.

The Merchandising of Radio (1925) outlines the appeal of radio ownership to the farm population, immigrants, and women -- as well as to the companies that owned radio stations and sponsored radio programs.

Calvin Coolidge was the first president to use radio to campaign (his address on the night before the 1924 election was believed to have reached more than twenty million people), and the first to broadcast presidential addresses, for example, his annual message to Congress, or the speeches he delivered at the Business Organization of the Government meetings(DETAIL NOTE Business Organization of the Government).

A number of items in the Coolidge Papers case file Radio - General 1923-29 show that political campaigning by radio was based on the same advertising psychology assumed to work for consumers, namely, that the ability of the medium to bring the voice of a stranger right into the listener's home was thought to create greater receptivity and trust (and therefore willingness to vote favorably -- or to buy) than simply reading about the person. The National Photo Company selections include a photograph of President Coolidge campaigning via radio.

The radio and the automobile, the two major consumer products of the 1920s, were both of paramount importance in helping rural dwellers overcome their sense of isolation from each other and from other parts of the country. (INTRO NOTE Automobiles) Farm wives, for example, alone for long hours in the kitchen or doing housework, far removed from other farmhouses, were able to tune in to radio programs and lighten both monotony and loneliness.

In addition, radio kept the farmer posted on current market prices, farm-related news from Washington and elsewhere, crop conditions, weather forecasts, and everything affecting his pocketbook. Agricultural extension programs, broadcast daily on the radio, brought the farmer and his wife the most up-to-date agricultural information via lectures by agricultural authorities on soils, fertilizers, cattle economy, poultry raising, and egg production. "Tuning in Pays Kansas," in the February 1926 issue of The Country Gentleman, discusses the ways in which the content of radio broadcasts benefited the farmer financially. The benefits were also thought to include "a better social life on the farm" (p. 73).

In the early 1920s, many radio stations were owned by local businesses (department stores, insurance companies, newspapers and banks) or aired programs "sponsored" by manufacturers of national consumer products: The Pepsodent Hour, The Victory Hour (sponsored by the Dodge Brothers and named after the new 6-cylinder model cars, named "The Victory"), The Eveready Hour, The Maxwell House Hour, The Champion Spark Plug Hour, and so forth. Even before radio advertising or commercials in the form known now were widespread, radio had become a promotional medium through which businesses could make themselves, their products, and their services known to potential consumers.

The Coolidge-Consumerism collection includes items that show this growth of radio as a medium by means of which other products were sold. The National Broadcasting Company (NBC) commissioned noted survey-taker Daniel Starch to conduct the confidential Study of Radio Broadcasting Based Exclusively on Personal Interviews with Families in the United States East of the Rocky Mountains (1928). Starch charted the rental value of homes in which radio owners lived, the occupations of the heads of family, the frequency of listening, the kinds of programs preferred, the family use of radio, and so forth. This kind of research was, of course, invaluable for helping NBC to arrive at an economic profile of its broadcast market, one that could be used to sharpen NBC's pitch to potential radio sponsors.

A Study of Radio as an Advertising Medium. Prepared by the Research Department, Erwin, Wasey & Company for Their Clients (1928) covers such questions as advertising effectiveness, advertising rates charged by stations, the cost of radio program talent, coordinating radio advertising with newspaper and magazine advertising (the "tie-up"), well known companies that advertise on the radio, and also well known companies that have tried radio advertising and elected not to continue.

The September 1926 issue of Radio Age: The Magazine of the Hour carried the article "Who Pays for Our Pipers?", which aired the ongoing debate regarding who pays and who should pay for radio. The article also names the sponsors of many of the best known and best loved radio programs and shows photographs of some of them. A few items in the Coolidge Papers case file Radio - General 1923-29 also provide background on the important national debate regarding how radio should be paid for, whether by advertisers or the listening public.

Public relations counsel Edward L. Bernays used radio to publicize the new Dodge "Sixes." (DIRECTORY NOTE Edward L. Bernays Papers) And in such selections from his papers as the Bernays Typescript on Publicizing the New Dodge Cars, 1927-1928 and What Future for Radio Advertising?, the noted public relations counsel waxes enthusiastic over the efficacy and excitement of using radio to influence public opinion. (INTRO NOTE Advertising)

In these early days of radio promotion, custom dictated that wit and indirection be used to insure that the advertising intent of any message was subdued and in good taste. Messages from "sponsors," however, often did cross the line of good taste, and criticism of overly aggressive advertising techniques, in radio and other venues, abounded in the journals of opinion. (INTRO NOTE Critiques) In the March 1929 issue of Forum, "Radio - A Blessing or a Curse?", for example, Jack Woodford assails radio for advertising that crowds out listeners' enjoyment and the pleasure of discriminating thought, paving the way for "the government of Dollar Democracy." In effect, he objects, because of the abuses of advertising, radio offers citizens nothing more than pseudo-leisure.

The attack on radio's ability to provide enjoyable leisure is a telling complaint since family-centered forms of entertainment, such as radio, were especially popular in the face of growing anxiety over the seductive increase in leisure time resulting from the shortening of the work week. (INTRO NOTE Leisure) In Living on a Moderate Income: The Incomes and Expenditures of Street-Car Men's and Clerks' Families in the San Francisco Bay Region (not in our collection), a 1937 update of earlier studies, Emily H. Huntington and Mary Gorringe Luck show that the introduction and popularity of radio in the 1920s American household coincided with Prohibition.

In 1917 Congress had submitted to the states the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution, prohibiting the manufacture, sale and distribution of alcohol; it was ratified in 1919. Huntington and Luck suggest that "Partly made possible by methods of easy payment on the installment plan and partly a result of pressure salesmanship, this almost universal addition to the American standard of living [radio] was possible only because it filled a real need: respectable family men no long frequented the saloon . . . they spent more time at home" (p. 17).

Another essay by Jack Woodford, in Forum for July 1929, offers the surprising objection that radio is an unsatisfactory consumer product because of primitive technology (breakdowns, static), inconvenience, and poor programming quality.


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