Ray Suarez: From American Public Media, this is "Hearing America: A Century of Music on the Radio," an American RadioWorks documentary. I'm Ray Suarez. A century ago, the first radio broadcasts sent music out into the air. Since then, music has dominated America's airwaves and it's been a cultural battleground.
In the coming hour, an American revolution on the radio dial. First, this news update.
Suarez: This is "Hearing America: A Century of Music on the Radio," an American RadioWorks documentary from American Public Media. I'm Ray Suarez. [sound of dots and dashes]
On Christmas Eve 1906, wireless radio operators on board ships from the North Atlantic to the Gulf of Mexico heard something startling through their headphones. Normally, the radio men would listen through the static for the dots and dashes of Morse code, but on that night a century ago, they heard something different. They heard music. [Handel's "Largo Cylinder"] It was music like this, though we really can't be sure. No one recorded that historic broadcast. Historians aren't even certain the birth of radio broadcasting happened precisely on Christmas Eve, 1906, that's just how the story goes. But we do know that about that time, a Canadian scientist named Reginald Fessenden used a microphone and a transmitter to launch a sea-change in American life. And at the same time, he became the world's first DJ.
Since then, music on the radio in the United States has been a cultural battleground. A place where people who wanted to shape the nation's society skirmished over what America should sound like, and should be like. Over the coming hour, producer Nate DiMeo tells us the story of the music on American radios starting from the beginning, when no one knew yet what radio was going to be.
Nate DiMeo: It all just happened so fast.
Susan Douglas teaches communications at the University of Michigan. She says in the decade and a half after Reginald Fessenden's experiment, radio was the domain of hobbyists and tinkerers. They'd send their voices out into the air, hoping another nerd somewhere would hear them.
["Radio Foxtrot"] The public loved the idea of radio. But until there was something coming out of the air that people actually wanted to listen to, it was never going to take off. Then music radio came along.
Newspapers wrote about a tidal wave of radio engulfing the country. At the beginning of 1920 there were no radio stations, two years later, there were about 600. Most were just started on a whim. Michelle Hilmes teaches at the University of Wisconsin
This is one of the few - literally, one of just a handful of recordings of actual radio broadcasts from the 20s. The technology to record radio just wasn't widespread and beyond that, no one really thought any of this stuff was worth keeping.
Cliff Doerksen is the author of "American Babel: Rogue Broadcasters of the Jazz Age." He tells this story of how one of those small station owners got his start. A guy named George Schubel. He ran a community newspaper in Queens.
Which was a remarkably easy thing to do at the time.
George Schubel's story is typical of the time. Station owners like him were improvising American broadcasting. They were figuring out what audiences wanted to hear by trial and error. By the mid-20s, in a big city like New York or Chicago, you could tune in to upwards of 35 different stations, with a remarkable diversity of programs. Some more appealing than others.
Even on a show about oral hygiene, music was the dominant sound.
But these mom and pop broadcasters weren't the only ones starting stations. On the one hand you had small business people maybe hoping to use their stations to raise the profile of their hotel or their shoe repair shop or their dental clinic. And on the other you had stations owned by RCA, and GE and Westinghouse. And they were folks that made the radios.
Michelle Hilmes says that the big New York companies started powerful stations to get Americans hooked on buying radios.
The companies needed to assure Americans that radio was going to be good for America. And that wasn't necessarily an easy thing in the 20s. You need to try to understand what it was like for, say, a New Yorker to move across the radio dial at the time. She could sit in her apartment near Central Park, tune the dials on the front of the heavy wooden cabinet on her new RCA radio. And on RCA's flagship station WEAF, she could hear the New York Philharmonic by exclusive arrangement with the radio corporation. [New York Philharmonic playing Richard Strauss' Tod und Verklarung]
But the mom and pop stations were usually playing earthier stuff. The songs that were popular in the neighborhood, the bands that were playing in the local dance halls. So on another station, our New Yorker could hear the incomprehensible singing of one of the new ethnic groups swelling the tenements of the Lower East Side. [Cylinder recording] Turn the dial and she could hear black jazz from Harlem. [Taylor's Dixie Serenaders "Everybody Loves My Baby"] And she could do all that during a tense time in America.
Here's Susan Douglas:
And in that context, music became a battleground.
Which is exactly what some of these enterprising station owners were doing. George Schubel, the guy who owned the neighborhood circular in Queens, he was one of them.
Here's Cliff Doerksen.
The next thing he does is he puts up a mic in the speakeasy and runs a wire back to his his radio station.
People fired off letters to newspapers, the government, anyone who'd listen. Here, an actor reads one sent to Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover. It's about George Schubel's station.
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 that the modern marvel of radio shouldn't be debased by low culture.
Cliff Doerksen says high culture was seen as an antidote.
[Mary Garden singing] 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.
Derek Vaillant is the 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."
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.
It's easy to look back and roll your twenty-first-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. [Andy Preer & the Cotton Club Orchestra, "I Found a New Baby"]
All of a sudden things were different. And Derek 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.
Again, Susan Douglas.
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 miscengination, 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.
Suarez: Coming up:
The sounds of New York clash with tunes from the heartland.
Suarez: I'm Ray Suarez. You're listening to "Hearing America, a Century of Music on the Radio," from American RadioWorks. Our program continues in just a moment from American Public Media.
Suarez: This is "Hearing America: A Century of Music on the Radio," an American RadioWorks documentary from American Public Media. I'm Ray Suarez.
There are more than 10,000 commercial radio stations broadcasting in the United States today. On one out of every five of them, you'll hear something like this. [contemporary country] Country music is deeply embedded in American culture, from strip mines in Kentucky to strip malls in Los Angeles. Country music is a quintessentially American style, celebrating the lives of working-class people. Mostly white, working class people.
But the story of how country music got its hold on the nation is an unlikely one. When radio dominated American cultural life, back before the 1950s when television swept the country, America tuned in to a much different sound. When you switched on a radio in the 1930s, you heard "respectable" music. High-quality broadcasts with a sophisticated, big-city sound. National networks were taking over radio. Both the federal government and the advertising companies demanded respectable programs.
Radio networks hoped to win the ears and minds of the nation. But a lot of Americans didn't want to listen to music dictated by New York's cultural elite. In the second part of our program, Nate DiMeo explains how a few powerful broadcasters created country music America.
Nate DiMeo: By 1930, networks linked radio stations from coast to coast. The sounds of high-brow New York culture became the default soundtrack to American life. Its symphonies, its broadway showtunes, even its tap dancing. [tap music]
Some music simply vanished from the air. Gone was the stuff that caused so much turmoil in the 20s, the hot jazz of night clubs and dance floors and saxophones.
The network era was almost aggressively civil.
Ben Grauer was a popular voice on NBC for decades.
After all, radio had earned a bit of a reputation in the pre-network years. What with its music made by foreigners and black people and hillbillies. There were rough edges that needed sanding.
Most of the audience loved this new national programming from NBC and CBS. They'd been listening to amateurish local stations with fourth-rate dance bands for years and now there were high quality productions coming in with a clear signal. But author Cliff Doerksen says there was a major audience left out.
Old-time, sort of a grab bag category of fiddle music and old pop tunes that were so far behind the time that they had become folk songs. But with the New York-based networks running the show, these stations and this music almost disappeared completely from the air. Almost.
The federal government wanted everyone in America to have access to national programming. But it knew it wasn't in the networks best interest to buy a little 200-watt station in every hill or holler to make that possible. So Washington allowed for what were called clear channel stations. These were powerful stations in cities whose broadcasts could reach out into people's homes in the countryside.
And on a few of those stations. Old-time music found champions. Perhaps none was more important than George D. Hay.
This is Hay sometime in the early 50s, looking back on his years as the host and creator of the Grand Ole Opry. He started out as a newspaper man. Had a popular column called Howdy Judge in the Memphis Commercial Appeal. A lot of the articles were fictional accounts of African Americans appearing in court before a white judge. The same kind of racist jokes that were in some of the minstrel acts he later brought to radio. [McGee Brothers: "C-H-I-C-K-E-N Spells Chicken"] Hay was an early host of the WLS Barn Dance, an old-time music program on a powerful Chicago station.
John Rumble is senior historian at the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Hay's career took off when he moved down to start up another program on Nashville's WSM. The station mostly played New York stuff from the network.
The "night the Opry got its name" is one of the classic origin stories in American pop-culture history. Here's historian Louis Kyriakoudes.
Hay was trying to create, and create is the key point, a radio program and a style of music that appealed to the predominantly rural and small town audience. So he was really juxtaposing the collection of string band musicians and odd performers from vaudeville who would show up in the early years of the Opry, against this vision of high culture being broad cast over the New York-based radio station.
Hay played what you could call the hillbilly card. He gave his popular performers names that would sound more authentically Southern and rural. The Fruit Jar Drinkers, The Gully Jumpers. Dr. Humphrey Bate (an actual Vanderbilt-trained physician) and his Augmented String Orchestra became Dr. Humphrey Bate and his Possum Hunters.
And that identity was white. Kyriakoudes says Hay took a biracial musical tradition and whitewashed it, creating what would come to be called country music.
Sociologist Richard Peterson. [Fiddlin' Arthur Smith & His Dixieliners, "Chittlin Cookin' Time in Cheatham County"]
Shows like the Opry and the WLS Barn Dance were usually squirreled away to just a couple of hours on the weekend, but there was one powerhouse station keeping old-time music alive all week long. How it got there is one of the most unlikely stories in the history of radio.
New regulations gave Washington the ability to shut broadcasters down. Bill Crawford is co-author of "Border Radio."
Brinkley did thousands of these quack operations. They were shockingly popular. He built the station at first to entertain recovering patients waiting to get back on their feet and give their new virility a test drive. He also found it was a great way to advertise all sorts of novel procedures and patent medicines. Federal regulators were falling all over themselves to shut him down.
And he could sell whatever he wanted to. Bunk medical cures the U.S. government was cracking down on north of the border. Things like expensive crystals that would supposedly dissolve in water to make water more water-like.
But more importantly, people as far away as the Arctic Circle could hear it almost every night
The networks needed dozens of small stations to make sure their national message was heard from coast to coast, but Brinkley didn't. His XERF and the other border stations that followed his lead were like networks unto themselves. And while NBC and CBS were making stars of people Bing Crosby, XERF was making the biggest stars in country. [Carter Family, "Keep on the Sunny Side"]
The Carter Family, the first family of country music, paragons of middle-American virtue, owed their careers to thousands of goat testicle operations.
John Rumble says the music on border radio and the Opry helped define what it meant to be a rural American in the 1930s.
In 1937, NBC gave its seal of approval to George D. Hay's vision of rural America. The Opry could make the network money. The show's mix of country crooners, singing cowboys, minstrel acts, and Southern Christian values was sufficiently packaged and homogenized for the network to take it nationwide. This move helped solidify what you can think of as a sort of shadow mainstream. A cultural parallel track that Louis Kyriakoudes says still runs through the country today.
In March of 1974, the Opry celebrated its 50th anniversary in 70s rhinestoned, butterfly-collared style. George Hay was dead. Singer Roy Acuff had taken over the host's mic. It was the opening night of the theater at Opryland - a mammoth complex with a hotel, even an amusement park, on the outskirts of Nashville. The Opry had come of age.
Four months after this appearance, Nixon would resign in disgrace. His presidency was under siege. The Vietnam War was in some of its darkest days. He was in the throes of Watergate.
But that night, in the house that George D. Hay built, Richard Nixon got a standing ovation.
Suarez: I'm Ray Suarez. You're listening to "Hearing America: A Century of Music Radio" from American RadioWorks. Coming up, sex and race and something new called rock & roll.
To see an interactive timeline of radio stations across America, visit our Web site, AmericanRadioWorks.org. There you can listen this program again, and sign up for the American RadioWorks podcast: public radio documentaries with you, wherever you go. That's at AmericanRadioWorks.org.
Major funding for American RadioWorks comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Our program continues in just a moment, from American Public Media.
Suarez: This is "Hearing America: A Century of Music on the Radio," an American RadioWorks documentary from American Public Media. I'm Ray Suarez. [The Lucky Strike Orchestra, "Happy Days Are Here Again"]
Radio's golden age started in the late 1920s. Big networks like CBS, NBC and Mutual armed themselves with the best on-air talent money could buy. They hired the finest musicians. They had powerful allies in Washington. They pushed smaller radio operations out of business. And then, in the late 1940s, they just walked away.
There was new territory to conquer.
This is tape from an NBC station back in 1939.
When the networks turned to TV, they left radio wide open for other voices. And once again, radio became a cultural battleground, where conflicts erupted over race and class and sex. Here's producer Nate DiMeo.
DiMeo: Let me introduce someone.
Communications professor, DJ, radio historian.
He'll set up our story.
Wright says the networks more or less just abandoned the medium. They sold off stations, they reassigned employees.
And with the networks out of the game, small-business people could step in and buy up these abandoned stations and licenses. These small local operations couldn't afford Bing Crosby or Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Orchestra, but there were local artists in places that were off the cultural map in the network era.
And now it did. [Sonny Boy Williamson and His King Biscuit Boys, "Eyesight to the Blind"] Stations around the country found that the radio business could be cheap. You could get a local band to play for nothing, maybe just a plug for their show at the roadhouse later that night. Better yet, you could just play records. Find a good personality to play those records and shill for local companies and you were making money.
[archival tape of Dewey Phillips] That's Dewey Phillips on the air in Memphis around 1950. He was an anomaly at the time: a white DJ spinning regional rhythm and blues hits for black audiences. Rick Wright says Phillips and his African American contemporaries up the dial on Memphi's WDIA helped elevate disc jockeying to an art form. People like Nat Turner, a young B.B. King, and, one of Wright's favorites, Rufus Thomas.
Wright says that one Nashville station -
Life and Casualty. L-A-C. Anyway, he says that that station would take this music and this DJ style to places it had never been. He says the course of American cultural history was changed one Saturday. The story goes like this, a white DJ named Gene Nobles was doing his show.
And they walked into the studio and started talking to the DJ.
And Nobles said, "Sure, hand them over."
And he played them.
Fifty thousand watts at night could get you very far. Bob Dylan has said he owes much of his musical inspiration to listening to WLAC as young teenager all the way up in Minnesota. And DJs in other cities were picking up the WLAC style. [archival tape of Alan Freed]
In Cleveland, Alan Freed helped spread the gospel of R&B and African American style to young, white America. He popularized the name rock and roll along the way. Over the course of a few years, the music crept up the charts and into mainstream consciousness. Bruce Morrow remembers sitting around his living room in Brooklyn as a teenager listening to a countdown program hosted by a stodgy announcer named Morton Block.
By early '55 this music was a cultural force. And a guy polite society saw as a renegade had reached the big time: Alan Freed was on the air on one of New York City's most popular stations. [archival tape of Alan Freed]
This is from a radio town hall meeting in the early spring of 1955.
It's almost hard to imagine this actually happened. The stir that rock and roll caused is so well documented in movies and pop culture. People burning Elvis records. A nation seemingly terrorized by its teenagers. It's such a symbol of the repressed, paranoid, square, Eisenhower era, it's hard to remember that in 1955 the feelings were raw and this moment was powerful.
Ceasar wrote "Tea For Two." [Lawrence Welk, "Tea for Two"] Just listen to him.
And it is also clear what he intends to convey when he says this.
But if adult America was in an uproar about the dangers they heard in R&B and rock and roll, teenagers like Bruce Morrow were hearing other things.
Susan Douglas points out that some corners of American society, of course, wanted to keep that bridge from being built. They wanted to keep the music that they saw as sexualized and morally corrosive off the air. But, in some ways, they shouldn't have worried. Because big business was already finding ways to make a buck by stripping the music of its danger. [The Chords, "Sh-boom"] Around 1954, Chuck Blore was working as a DJ in Arizona.
That's the original version by the Chords. Five African American guys from the Bronx.
Which was by the Crew-Cuts, four, clean-cut white guys from Canada.
Here's Rick Wright.
It's a familiar story. One hundred years into the history of music radio, we're used to the pattern. Mainstream, corporate radio sands down rougher-edged music from the underground and polishes it up for mass consumption. It happens all the time today. It happened when the networks took control in the 30s. But in the 50s, radio was suddenly a wide open industry again. With no central control. It took a certain business genius to create a homogenized sound all those local stations would embrace. Actually, it took several business geniuses, perhaps the most important, was a man named Todd Storz.
Here's Susan Douglas with the at least partially apocryphal story of the night Todd Storz invented top 40.
Depending on who tells the story, the diner's either in Texas or Nebraska.
This was probably 1949. [Perry Como, "Some Enchanted Evening"] Perry Como's some enchanted evening was hot that year. The song would finish and someone would drop another nickel in the machine. [sound of coin dropping into jukebox] And the song would start up again. And then the waitress would take her tips and drop them in the jukebox and play the same song over and over and over.
One that would replicate the way teenagers used the jukebox. If the kids want to hear what was popular then let's give them what's popular over and over again. Advertisers loved the idea because there was never any controversy. Only the most inoffensive stuff with the broadest appeal could crack the top 40. The format was a godsend to people worried about sex and race and rock and roll.
And these powerhouse, AM stations in the late 50s and early 60s, pretty much wrote the play book for modern radio. The jingles, the gags, the promos, the give-aways. The sound of big commercial radio. The homogenized music manufactured to appeal to everyone while offending no one.
This is a demo for American top 40 delivered to radio stations in the early 80s.
Back in their heyday in the 60s and early 70s, top 40 stations dominated the ratings. Of course, you'll still find Top 40 stations on the air today. But in some ways, they're shadows of their former selves. Their grip on listeners started to slip mid-70s. FM radio came in. Listeners liked the sound quality. Business liked that you could split the dial up into more and more stations. Susan Douglas says that with more stations came more formats.
The time when pretty much everyone was listening to the same things was over.
Douglas says these narrow niches have stripped radio of some of its power.
And new technologies push this trend even further.
If you're a fan of old school R&B, you can catch Rick Wright on Power 106.9 if you're in Syracuse, New York. Or you can listen anywhere, on the Web, where you can pretty much find anything else you want, whenever you want it.
New technologies mean everyone can find the kind of music they like. [The Temptations, "Hey Girl"] If radio used to provide a turnstile between different racial and social groups, now it sets up walls between them. The days when a whole culture could be moved, and maybe even moved a bit forward, by new music and new voices on the radio might be over. In this time of satellite radio and podcasting and Internet radio and multi-stream high-definition radio it's maybe too easy to listen to exactly what you want to hear. And hear the sounds of music and of people you already know.
Suarez: "Hearing America: A Century of Music on the Radio" was produced by Nate DiMeo. It was edited by Catherine Winter. Senior producer Sasha Aslanian, project manager, Misha Quill, associate producer Ellen Guettler. Mixing by Craig Thorson. Production assistance from Kathleen Ward. Web production by Ochen Kaylan. The executive editor is Stephen Smith. The executive producer is Bill Buzenberg. I'm Ray Suarez.
To see archival photographs of radio throughout the last century, and to listen to this, and other American RadioWorks programs, visit our Web site, AmericanRadioWorks.org. There you can sign up for our email newsletter and podcast. AmericanRadioWorks.org.
Major funding for American RadioWorks comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. American RadioWorks is the documentary unit of American Public Media.
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