RADIO Hysterics

"Compared with radio the theatre is crystal-clear and simple, and the movies seem a straightforward manufacturing process like making cheese"

MERRILL DENISON January 1 1944

RADIO Hysterics

"Compared with radio the theatre is crystal-clear and simple, and the movies seem a straightforward manufacturing process like making cheese"

MERRILL DENISON January 1 1944

RADIO Hysterics

"Compared with radio the theatre is crystal-clear and simple, and the movies seem a straightforward manufacturing process like making cheese"



BECAUSE I am known to write radio programs now and then people are always blaming me for everything they don't like on the air. "Why do you allow such terrible trash on the air?"

someone is forever saying to me at dinners, or, “Why do you pick such atrocious announcers?” or, “Surely you can do something about those nauseating advertising jingles,” or, “Why don’t you give us more good plays?” or, “When are you going to do something about those horrible soup operas?”

It is about as useless to point out that the technical expression for daytime slop is soap and not soup as it is to point out that I can hardly be held responsible for all of radio’s shortcomings, not when the 900 odd stations of the United States and Canada broadcast 18,000 different, individual programs each succeeding 24 hours.

But I’ve learned that it is better to cheerfully accept all blame first; then try to explain something about radio, even if I can’t defend its worst inanities.

Explaining radio is not a simple task. In it art and business are joined in an alliance which is sometimes messy, often ludicrous and generally hysterical. Compared with radio the theatre is crystal-clear and simple, and the movies, long celebrated for their zany folkways, seem a straightforward manufacturing process like making cheese or dehydrating apples.

Where but in radio could one duplicate my experience with a sponsor for whom I had plucked quite a number of fan letters out of the ether with one announcement of a six-cent giveaway? When the sponsor wired for me to come to him I expected the red carpet at the very least and possibly a medal. Instead I found him in his large and luxurious office brooding over three letters spread out before him on his glass-topped desk. He thrust one of them gloomily toward me. It was written on a dime store nickel pad with a carpenter’s pencil.

“Read it,” he sighed. “I call that mighty discouraging.”

I read and here I quote . . .

“I have never used any of your products in any form but if they are as lousy as your radio show it is no wonder you have to waste your stockholders’ money trying to make people buy them.”

I unquote to ask, where hut in radio would you find anyone ignoring all kinds of messages of kindly cheer to concentrate on one irrelevant dish of rennet? But such is radio and after you have lived with a few sponsors you learn to expect that sort of thing.

But the major obstacle to cooking up a quick, tidy explanation of radio lies not in the quaintness of

sponsors but in the public’s blissful ignorance of radio logistics, to borrow a fancy new word from the military.

(Logistics is the art of moving and quartering troops; in radio it might be termed the frenzy of assembling and airing a program.) There is probably no subject on earth with which the average North American is more familiar and less informed than radio — unless it be the weather.

In fact Mark Twain’s famous quip would seem perfectly to apply—everybody talks about radio but no one ever does anything about it.

Radio Surveys

THERE are only two things wrong with the Twain quotation. In the first place it wasn’t Mark who thought it up but a Hartford, Conn., newspaper man named Charles Dudley Warner, and, in the second,

there are thousands of zealous, earnest, bewildered people trying all the time to do something about radio and finding it hard going. A vast industry known as surveying has even come into being to ring telephone numbers, ask questions and then try to make sense out of the answers.

Far from nobody ever doing anything about radio everybody takes a crack at it sooner or later, but most of them are like Don Quixote battling the windmill, except that they can never seem to find the windmill. If this is abstruse, I mean that most investigators finally retire, baffled and discomfited by radio’s central mystery—the audience. Not only does it defy measurement with any pretense of scientific accuracy but it also defies advance prediction of its whims and


For example, most of radio’s successes have been unpremeditated accidents. The crooners —Rudy Vallee, Bing Crosby and now Frank Sinatra—no one foresaw their mighty popularity, much less planned for it. They went on the air and the strange, unpredictable audience took them to its capacious if slightly maudlin bosom.

F. D. R. . . . before the days of the fireside chat, political speeches

were anathema to the air waves. Orson Welles and his sudden leap to world-wide notoriety ... no one, including Orson himself, ever dreamed of the commotion that would follow the attack on Flemington, N. J., by his airy horde from Mars. Had anyone foreseen it, it never would have been allowed to happen and Orson might never have become the enfant terrible of radio, the movies and the stage.

Then there is the case of Charlie McCarthy. Edgar

Bergen may have believed in his little friend but no one else did and there were grave misgivings when one agency finally decided to put them on the air. I ho misgivings were induced by the fairly sensible belief that a ventriloquist act had to be seen to be appreciated or even believed in because it could be so easily faked on radio. You know what happened to Bergen and McCarthy. Is it five or 10 thousand bucks a week?

Endless examples could be cited of unknowns who suddenly emerged from nowhere to become sensations overnight, often for no reason that could be rationally established. Sometimes it was a queer throaty quality in the voice which was labelled sex appeal but which might have been caused by a distended uvula. Sometimes it was a trick of dialect or a cute expression. Who in his senses, for instance, could foresee that I wanna buy a duck,” or “l dood it,” would be equivalent to stumbling on a gold mine?

In a world where such things happen, is it surprising that we are prone to try hysterics in our efforts to secure an audience? Dealing with a shifting mass of irrationality, the program builder, by association, tends to become irrational himself.

Radio Can Be Analyzed

INHERE in America are those, that is, of course, cannot who be analyzed insist that that radio, it must be psychoanalyzed or nothing.

This seems a plausible point of view on the evidence but I am inclined to disagree with it. It seems to me that radio can be analyzed, providing one keeps in mind that immeasurable, unpredictable audience lurking behind a kind of cosmic anonymity, which defies the sponsor’s best efforts to break it down. I*or it is from the inscrutable nature of the audience that dangle most of radio’s hysterics, like Chinese wind glasses in a hurricane.

Unlike the magazine or newspaper, radio cannot count the copies sold or those returned; unlike the theatre or movies, it cannot keep a tally on the number

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of cash customers who pass through the turnstiles. Instead it is in the position of having to cast the bread of entertainment upon waters enshrouded in perpetual fog. And to learn what happens to the bread, and whether it was eaten with relish or thrown in the ash can, radio must chase around telephoning total strangers, ringing unknown’s doorbells, reading unintelligible fan mail and asking elevator boys next morning what they thought of last night’s show.

But let us delve into a case history— that of Marigold Soup, a fictitious name thought up for the occasion. Marigold Soup is one of those fine old supervitamin-charged home products which capture the flavor of the sunripened pea, bean and/or corn, and seal it in with the yum-yummy smell of the good old-fashioned farmhouse kitchen.

Marigold Soup was going great until it woke up one morning to find that its foremost rival, Dandelion Soup, was on the air. Dandelion Soup, if I remember rightly, had been induced to go on the air because Marigold was not already there. Going or coming, radio got both soups.

The system of free competitive private enterprise being pretty fiercely competitive, there was nothing much that old Mr. Marigold could do but buy himself some time and get on as quickly as he could find a spot; otherwise Dandelion would steal all the dealer outlets.

Up to that moment Mr. Marigold had been a hardheaded, successful businessman living in a rational and familiar world. He lived by cost accounting and breathed statistical analysis. He could tell you what one sun - ripened, vitamin - charged bean would set him back in the field, on the cannery platform and laid down on the grocer’s shelf. The unit cost per customer, shaved finer than the down on a hummirigbird’s beak, was his shield and buckler, his pillar of fire and cloud of smoke, the hard, concrete core around which Marigold had his being.

And suddenly he was plunged into a realm that had no absolute standards, where nothing could be accurately measured, where there were no tidy, tight statistics but only grandiose, glittering assertions. In place of substantial realities like a carload of eggplant, F.O.B. Evansville, 111., he was made to wrestle with insubstantial hurly-burlys called auditions, and asked to choose between strange serials bearing names like “Sisters of Sorrow” or “The Dawn is Thine,” and a boogiewoogie name band with salutes to our brave boys in the armed forces and Treasury trailers during bond drives.

Settled For Variety Show

It was frankly a puzzle to old Mr. Marigold which of those desperate alternatives was likely to sell the most tins of Marigold Soup, but we kept reminding him about Dandelion and the old gentleman finally settled for a variety show on the basis that it had at least variety.

The next step was to decide what kind of a variety show. Mr. Marigold, quite rightly, didn’t want to get off on the wrong foot by starting something we might all rue later. To avoid this the dealer organization was sent questionnaires and a vice-president

was dispatched by air to make a sample roundup of corner grocery store opinion in New England and the Middle West.

Except that all the labels on Marigold Soup were changed, I never knew what happened to the roundup and the questionnaire because I was one of those who were trying to put the variety show together. There were quite a number of us engaged in the same enterprise. We included vicepresidents, account executives, time, space and soup salesmen, gag, script and continuity writers, musical arrangers, production men and agents by the score.

We put a number of shows together but none of them seemed quite what Mr. Marigold had in mind. Finally there came a Monday morning when show time was only 10 days off and we rushed around and hired a $500 a week Master of Ceremonies, a $2,200 name band with arrangements extra, a trick novelty quartet at $750, two guest stars at $1,000 each, with a $465 dramatic cast to support them in a 10-minute featured playlet, and a $3,500 famous star of stage, screen and radio, whose fame, we hoped, would henceforth become inextricably associated with the name “Marigold.”

And so Marigold Soup went on the air. It was neither better nor worse than many shows of the same ilk but for some reason it caught on. Its purpose, remember, was to sell soup, but before long the good old nourishing family stand-by became charged with more than health-giving vitamins. Before it had been on the air three weeks it began to acquire listener interest, heart and sex appeal, and, more importantly, Crashley and Hooper Doople Ratings.

It is the Rating that generally throws the sponsor for a loop and make., him act sometimes like a maniac depressive and sometimes like a paranoiac.

The Rating comes from the survey and it is the survey that does all the telephoning and doorbell ringing. Its practical function is to help us radio folk convince the sponsor that we are giving him his money’s worth by attracting a vast horde of potential customers to listen to the Marigold Soup Revue. In theory it reveals what percentage Qf the listening audience was listening to Marigold Soup while the program was on the air,

That may seem a trifle confused but it works out this way. Three or four dozen operators throughout the United States call a number of telephone subscribers, picked at random, and ask these questions: “Is your radio turned on?” and “What Program are you listening to?” This is called a coincidental survey because it seems sheer coincidence that the information so obtained can have unimpeachable veracity.

Nevertheless if half those called between 9.30 and 10 p.m. on Marigold’s night say they are listening to the Marigold Revue then Marigold soup gets a 50-point rating which makes everybody very happy because Bob Hope at his best never went above 46.7.

Fantastic Figures

Your true worshipper of the Rating can, and does, achieve results that are incredibly bizarre. By taking an arbitrary figure between onè and 10.000,000 and multiplying it by the Rating, the sponsor can convince himself that his program Ls reaching from five to 50,000,000 people, depend*

ing on the size of the arbitrary figure chosen.

I tried this system myself once and it worked out rather well. At the time, I was doing a transcription series for a War Relief Society and had succeeded in placing our platters on more than 700 outlets. Since it was impossible to determine the precise number of listeners (we couldn’t get a Rating because we were noncommercial) I determined to do the next best thing, to find out how many listeners we could have if everybody listened. This is a common radio approach when seeking statistical encouragement.

To learn what the potential audience might be I therefore added together the radio population, which means the number of sets, in the primary listening areas of all the stations carrying the transcriptions. A primary listening area is that radius in which a station’s signal can be heard at a certain strength and is determined by the field engineering staff of the Federal Communications Commission. This pretty well gives it absolute authenticity and goes a long way toward keeping scoffers quiet.

Whatever the primary listening area may or may not be, when I added them all together I was not a little surprised to find that I had 325,000,000 listeners in the U. S. A. alone, which as you know has a total population of 136,000,000. Being modest I was content to stop there but had I wanted to I could have gone one step farther and had myself a really goodsized audience. By accepting the convention that there are four radio listeners to every set, and multiplying by four, I could have drummed up a crowd of 1,250,000,000.

This is the kind of fabulous fancy in

hich the sponsor becomes entangled once he has a Rating. Furthermore he soon learns that there is nothing much one can do with a Rating except to try to make it bigger.

In itself a Rating means nothing. It sells no soup nor does it ever seem to have much bearing on the soup that is already being sold. It is something disembodied and apart, like an ideal. But it is nonetheless important. As it was once Mr. Marigold’s burning ambition to gel his unit costs down, now his burning passion is to see his Rating go up.

Not only does Mr. Marigold become devoted to the Rating for its own sake, and willing to commit almost any folly or expense that promises to boost it, but he finds that it has enormously enlarged his field of competition. Although Marigold Soup’s one reason for going on the air was to compete with its old rival, Dandelion, the rating puts Mr. M. into direct competition with all the other Ratings on the air, whether they spring from the sponsorship of soup, soap, cosmetics or insurance.

And now our old friend and patron Mr. M. is launched on waters he is illequipped to navigate. In the good old days he could be happy as a clam puttering around with his peas and tin cans, trying to keep the unit costs down, with perhaps an occasional side glance to see how Dandelion was coming on, but once the Rating becomes the lodestar different values enter in.

No longer does product vie with product. No, indeed. Marigold’s $500 M. C., $2,200 name band, $750 novelty quartet, $2,465 playlet and $3,500 stage, screen and radio star now must vie with Walter Winchell, the

Lux Theatre of the Air, Pepper Young’s Family, Frank Sinatra, Information Please and Raymond Gram Swing. To vie successfully with such high Raters, there is but one formula, to do more of the same thing, but do it louder and pay more for it.

With the Help of Charts

Examining Mr. Marigold’s mental health at this point, it becomes obvious to any amateur psychologist that Mr. M. must reconcile the conflict between the desire for a low unit cost and a high Rating or invite advanced and possibly incurable schizophrenia.

With the help of his agency, some colored charts and a couple of surveys Mr. M. does succeed in bringing his two opposed desires in line by allowing himself to be sold the proposition that the higher the Rating the lower the unit cost. The argument is ingenious and bears repeating.

If a 10-point Rating represents an audience of 2,500,000 listeners, all of them potential Marigold Soup addicts, then a 20-point Rating must represent 5,000,000 potential addicts. Experience has already taught Mr. M. that it is cheaper to sell two cans of soup than one, so that it follows naturally that if he can get the Rating up the unit cost must come down.

Does the reader begin to grasp why it is first necessary to make some examination of radio’s logistics before attempting to explain it?

I have, out of consideration for the reader, tried to keep the examination starkly simple. For example, I have represented our old friend Marigold as a single individual. He was not. He was a complex of boards of directors, general, sales and advertising managers, legal counsel, wives, children (of all ages), chauffeurs, secretaries, stenographers, barbers, bootblacks, old college friends, bartenders, chiropodists, hairdressers, a maiden aunt named Abigail and just about everyone else.

All of these good folk one time or another had an influence on the destinies of the Marigold Soup Revue; which observation brings us back to the inscrutable nature of the audience, for it is only because the audience has so far proven itself to be inscrutable that the casual opinions of a heterogeneous assortment of indiscriminate people can have any influence.

There is possibly another reason. Because radio has failed to develop any body of criticism comparable to those serving the theatre, books, sports, music or the movies, it has failed to develop any standards and so the opinion or judgment of any one person is as good as that of any other.

For all the nonsense that has been written about fan mail it is startlingly unrevealing and while the Rating may I give a rough picture of a program’s comparative popularity it neither tells the sponsor why it is popular nor how to make it more so. To obtain counsel on these points he can only poll his friends and from them he gets so many conflicting opinions that he soon feels like a visiting uncle who wants to make the baby smile. If pleasantries fail he tries grimaces, and when these avail him nothing and baby remains dead pan, he increases his frenzied efforts, until, in thwarted desperation, he finally bums the house down.

Here I think is the explanation of why so much that is on the American air is juvenile and strident. Seeking to entice an audience and having no means of knowing its reactions, the

sponsor can think of nothing but to give it more of the kind of thing it seems to like.

Thus when a soft drink program stumbles on jingles, 10,000 jingles pollute the air, each louder and more jingly than those that have gone before. When soap opera, by sheer accident, learns that it helps the Rating for the heroine to have a baby, other daytime serials go in for twins, triplets and finally quadruplets by Caesarean delivery. When an Orson Welles or an Edgar Bergen streaks across the radio horizon like a Halley’s comet, and no one can be found to top them, their weekly pay cheques rise from $75 to $750 to $5,000 as sponsor outbids sponsor for their rate-winning capabilities.

In Britain the picture is different. There, under government control, it is

possible to provide a balanced schedule of so much news, so much music, so much drama, so much talk, so much frivolling, so much pomposity and so much so forth. The frenzied efforts to discover what the audience likes best or wants most of can be dispensed with; instead the program builder’s job is to devise programs that can interest some of the people some of the time rather than strive for the impossible and unattainable single program that will please all of the people all at once.

It is only fair to point out, however, that American radio in spite of its hysterics and bad taste has produced more superlatively fine programs than all other countries combined, but perhaps the explanation is not to be found in the system under which radio operates but in the incredible resources of the country itself.