An American revolution on the radio dial

part 1, 2

"The 1920s as we know was a time of enormous racial strife," says Susan Douglas. "There was an explosion in lynchings, the rise again of the Ku Klux Klan, there was a rabid anti-immigrant movement, and so it was a time of enormous Anglo-American xenophobia and pride and racism."

And in that context, music became a battleground.

"A lot of people found it incredibly invigorating and exciting. Of course, a lot of other people found it really threatening," says Hilmes. "The fact that your eight-year-old could sit there in front of the radio and get that station from Chicago's south side playing that vile jazz and other things that were unfamiliar and threatening. You'd never send your 8-year-old to this distant, strange neighborhood where people speak a different language, but she could bring that right into your living room."

Which is exactly what some of these enterprising station owners were doing. George Schubel, the guy who owned the neighborhood circular in Queens, was one of them.

George Schubel, newspaper publisher and founder of early radio station WHN.
Photo courtesy Cliff Doerksen

"First," says Doerksen, " he asks nightclubs to send their band over to promote the nightclub. And a nightclub in the '20s is essentially a speakeasy, right? It's an illegal-drug-consuming club."

The next thing he does is he puts up a mic in the speakeasy and runs a wire back to his his radio station.

"They're broadcasting these live floor shows," says Doerksen. "This is called 'cabaret broadcasting,' which is a huge, huge cultural scandal."

People fired off letters to newspapers, the government, anyone who'd listen. One letter, sent to secretary of commerce Herbert Hoover regarding George Schubel's station, reads as follows:

The New York station, WHN, should be suppressed or at least toned down. It is utterly monopolizing the air with its bad English, cheap jazz, advertising of doubtful resorts and speakeasies to such an extent as to be a source of common disgust. This most thrilling achievement of modern science should not be prostituted to the disgusting uses which are now its habit.

P.S. This is a confidential letter and not for publication. I do not want to invite a fight with the sort of gunmen and toughs who seem to be running WHN.

Despite the popularity of WHN and so many of the other stations that played what was basically just pop music, a lot of people felt like the man in the letter. They thought the modern marvel of radio shouldn't be debased by low culture.

"The utopian visions of radio were limitless," says Cliff Doerksen. High culture was seen as an antidote. "People at that time ascribed all kinds of remarkable properties to classical music. Music really could ennoble people and that classical music was an actual answer to the labor problem, okay. If everyone listens to Bach and Beethoven, we will live in unity and there will be no strikes. If you just listen to better music you'll have better penmanship and posture and stuff."

Mary Garden, star of the Chicago Opera, dressed for operatic role, circa 1909. - Courtesy Library of Congress

Some people saw real, transformative moral power in high-western classical music. An entire station in Chicago was solely dedicated to broadcasting that city's Civic Opera and its star soprano, Mary Garden

"There was this idea that you could transform people through the kind of music they were exposed to," says Derek Vaillant, author of "Sounds of Reform." He says we shouldn't simply dismiss these people pushing high-western music as snobs or elitists turning their noses up at the rabble. There was some of that, sure, but Vaillant calls many of them "musical progressives." He says they were "social reformers, the folks that started settlement houses in Chicago, other sorts of activists and philanthropists who wanted to use music to bring together what they saw as fragmented population of new immigrants and ethnic groups."

Meanwhile, in the boardrooms of companies like GE and RCA, people saw money to be made in high culture. Remember, they were in the business of selling radios. Fancier people with fancier tastes bought fancier radios.

The corporate stations also saw money to be made in uplifting America. They were establishing radio empires. They were building more stations. They were creating networks.

Cliff Doerksen says that in order to keep growing, they needed to stay within the good graces of the public and of Washington. "Music is the single most potent signifier of a highbrow broadcaster's good intentions and high ideals. You just can't do better than that, to have a tenor like John McCormac is going to sing and that's wonderful. Or music lectures and musicologists, musically educational programs aimed at children, etc."

It's easy to look back and roll your 21st-Century eyes at the idea that the awesome power of the flute could end class warfare. But some historians look back and see a different sort of utopian possibility at play. Let's take that example of the 8-year-old girl sitting in the living room unattended, listening to the sounds of a jazz club uptown.

"Before, it was fairly easy to control the power of this music by limiting whether or not this record or sheet music got much play in the house," says Derek Vaillant. All of a sudden things were different. And Vaillant says that's a powerful thing in 1920s America. It was a time when there were institutions organized to keep people of different races and different ethnic groups apart. There were mores. There were laws.

"Radio suddenly undoes this very careful organization," says Vaillant. "So radio does have a subversive potential to break down the spatial divisions that have customarily kept certain groups apart in American Culture."

"It allowed for a turnstile between the races that very few other media did," says Susan Douglas. "It gave people an expanded sense of their city. It often took them to places where either they might not feel comfortable going, would feel too shy or cautious to go to. It gave people a real sense of transport and part of that transport involved crossing racial divides and I think that's a very important thing that we forget about the role of music on the radio."

Douglas says we should resist getting too caught up in the power of this historical image. While there was remarkable diversity on the air, it often wasn't reflected behind the scenes. The business of radio, even on stations that brazenly propagated this type of musical miscegenation, was rarely open to African Americans and other minority groups. But she'll concede that there is a certain magic to this moment of possibilities, when people were making it up as they went along. When the direction of American broadcasting hadn't been set. And maybe a different America could have been built.

Continue to New York Clashes with the Heartland

©2018 American Public Media