Support American RadioWorks with your Amazon.com purchases
Search Amazon.com:
Keywords:
  • News/Talk
  • Music
  • Entertainment

Transcript

Intro

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.

Cliff Doerksen: Classical music was an actual answer to the labor problem, okay. If everyone listens to Bach and Beethoven then we will live in unity and there will be no strikes.

Actor reading letter: This most thrilling achievement of modern science should not be prostituted to the disgusting uses which are now its habit.

Michelle Hilmes: You would never send your eight year old into this distant, strange neighborhood where the people spoke a different language, but she could bring that right into your living room.

Irving Ceaser: They sense not the content but the intent. The leering clarinet, the moaning, sensuous trombone.

In the coming hour, an American revolution on the radio dial. First, this news update.


Segment A

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: Radio in the teens was mostly Morse code, dots and dashes.

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.

Douglas: So it was quite revolutionary when, in 1920, some people put on their headsets and they heard music.

["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.

Douglas: These were called wireless concerts and they basically shoved a phonograph in front of a microphone and began playing records.

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

Michelle Hilmes: It could be a dry-cleaning business or it could be a chicken farm.

WAAM Announcer: Good afternoon everybody.

Hilmes: People who would come on the air for a few hours a day and simply play the music that they liked, or bring on neighbors or their associates.

WAAM Announcer: This is WAAM. 1 Bond Street, Newark New Jersey. Mr. Scott at the console of the mammoth Edison organ opens with "Sweet and Low."

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.

Cliff Doerksen: And he hears about this radio thing in 1922 and he says, "I'm going to get a radio station."

Which was a remarkably easy thing to do at the time.

Doerksen: He looks around the neighborhood and finds this kid who's one of these wireless amateurs, he's a recreational technophile. And he says, "Can you build me a transmitter?" "Certainly." The kid throws together this transmitter and they get a government guy to come out and inspect it and they're in business as broadcasters.

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.

Dental Clinic Announcer: We'll bring you now the dental clinic of the air program, sponsored by dentists using the E.R. Parker Dental System everywhere. This program is designed to try to help you with your dental problems in the home. To give you such advice and assistance, such information, as we believe will be conducive to better teeth and better health.

Even on a show about oral hygiene, music was the dominant sound.

Dental Clinic Announcer: I'm going to ask Sydney Dickson to play for you as our first number on the dental clinic of the air program. A little number called "Little Grey Home in the West."

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.

WEAF Annoucer: This is WEAF, New York.

Hilmes: The bigger stations were using their stations as public relations outlets to a certain extent.

Michelle Hilmes says that the big New York companies started powerful stations to get Americans hooked on buying radios.

Hilmes: They weren't really in the 1920s expecting to make a lot of money out of them. But they were facilities that promoted radio, a better kind of radio, something that would create a good impression with the public.

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.

Douglas: The 1920s as we know was a time of enormous racial strife.

Here's Susan Douglas:

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.

Hilmes: A lot of people found it incredibly invigorating and exciting. Of course, a lot of other people found it really threatening.

Michelle Hilmes.

Hilmes: The fact that your 8-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, he was one of them.

Here's Cliff Doerksen.

Doerksen: First, 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.

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

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.

Actor reading letter: 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 that the modern marvel of radio shouldn't be debased by low culture.

Doerksen: The utopian visions of radio were limitless.

Cliff Doerksen says high culture was seen as an antidote.

Doerksen: 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 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: There was this idea that you could transform people through the kind of music they were exposed to.

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."

Vaillant: 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.

Advertisement: The United Radio Corporation presents a miniature program similar to those that will be presented over WEAF of the National Broadcasting Company and associated radio stations. Peerless was one of the first radio speakers to faithfully reproduce the low notes, such as those voiced for us by the tubas and bassoons in the Hall of the Mountain King.

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.

Doerksen: Music is the single most potent signifier of a high-brow 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.

Music Appreciation Hour Announcer: Good morning my dear children. Today I shall introduce to you some more members of my musical family. I shall ask Mr. Devries to give you a little idea of the tone quality of the flute. It's very lovely. Mr. Devries, will you let the boys and girls hear your flute?

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"]

Vaillant: 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.

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.

Vaillant: Radio suddenly undoes this very careful organization. So radio does have a subversive potential to break down the spacial divisions, the have customarily kept certain groups apart in American culture.

Douglas: it allowed for a turnstile between the races that very few other media did.

Again, Susan Douglas.

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 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:

Grand Ole Opry Announcer: From Nashville, Tennessee, the Grand Ole Opry.

The sounds of New York clash with tunes from the heartland.

Richard Peterson: There was such fear of what was happening in the cities. Race mixing, jazz, but here was a way of finding a pure American music.

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.


Segment B

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.

Announcer: Perhaps you've already realized that you're listening to an orchestra different from any that's ever been on the air. The Coca Cola Orchestra is an all-string orchestra. It doesn't even have a saxophone.

The network era was almost aggressively civil.

Ben Grauer: All staff people had to wear tuxedos after 6 p.m.

Ben Grauer was a popular voice on NBC for decades.

Grauer: The dominant note was one of cautious formality with the listener. The doctrine was that you were a guest in the home. The earliest hosts or masters of ceremony were very square, they had to be. The idea was you were the spokesman for this dignified responsible, highly ethical corporation.

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.

NBC Announcer: [NBC chimes] It's 10:15. B-U-L-O-V-A, Bulova watch time. W-E-A-F New York.

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.

Doerksen: Rural people in the 20s had their own stations called farmer stations. [Atlanta station ID] They didn't like what came out of the cities, they didn't want to hear the classical music and opera coming from the high-brow stations. And they sure didn't want to listen to jazz from the low-brow stations. They wanted to listen to what was called "old-time" music.

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.

George D. Hay: Hello everybody, this is George D. Hay speaking. I thought we might do a few little country music sketches just for old time's sake. The Grand Ole Opry was started.

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: He created this persona for himself called the solemn old judge.

John Rumble is senior historian at the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Rumble: He dressed in an old fashioned flowing tie and a swallow tail coat, he had a little, wooden whistle that would recreate the sound of a steamboat whistle. And he would blow that to begin the country programs.

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.

Rumble: So in 1925 he organized what was then called the WSM Barn Dance. Which was fortuitously and serendipitously renamed the Grand Ole Opry in 1927.

The "night the Opry got its name" is one of the classic origin stories in American pop-culture history. Here's historian Louis Kyriakoudes.

Louis Kyriakoudes: The Opry got its name one Saturday evening in 1927. Over the radio from New York, on the national broadcast feed, was the New York Philharmonic. Walter Damrosch was the conductor and he told the audience that there was no place in the classics for realism, but that he would make an exception and perform a piece by Arthur Honegger called "Pacific 231," which sought to recreate the sounds of a train. [Arthur Honnegger "Pacific 231"] George D. Hay in Nashville, waiting for the orchestral concert to end, said, "For the next three hours, we will present nothing but realism. We will be down to earth for the earthy. We have heard grand opera from New York, but now we will be listening to the Grand Ole Opry." And there upon, DeFord Bailey, the harmonica virtuoso on the program, launched into his Pan American Blues. [DeFord Bailey: "Pan American Blues"]

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.

Kyriakoudes: Hay is picking and choosing to determine who will be on the Opry and trying to present a highly rusticated vision of what Southern musical culture is and it's appealing to the people who are listening in the audience because they have one leg in each world. They have one leg in the older, really 19th century world of the South and for that matter the Midwest, but then they've got one leg in the modern world, you know, thousands and thousands of them are leaving Southern and Midwestern agriculture, moving to cities. They're people making a transition from one way of life to another and George Hay is there presenting a manufactured rusticality that they find reassuring and comforting and fits in with really what many see as their own self identity.

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.

Richard Peterson: The down home rural card was a good card to play.

Sociologist Richard Peterson. [Fiddlin' Arthur Smith & His Dixieliners, "Chittlin Cookin' Time in Cheatham County"]

Peterson: Because there was such fear of what was happening in the cities. There was so much race mixing, there was so much jazz, there was all kinds of degredation in music. Here was a way of finding a pure, unadulterated, American music that came out of an Anglo-Saxon background. They made up a whole bunch of stuff.

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.

Dr. Brinkley: And ladies and gentlemen, you're again listening to the voice of Dr. J.R. Brinkley of the Brinkley Hospitals. And I trust that I may have your attention for the next few minutes regarding some matters of vital importance to you as a healthy man and healthy woman.

New regulations gave Washington the ability to shut broadcasters down. Bill Crawford is co-author of "Border Radio."

Bill Crawford: One of the first people is a guy named Dr. John R. Brinkley and he had a station called KFKB, Kansas First Kansas Best, which was one of the most popular stations in the Midwest.

Dr. Brinkley: And you know you're sick. You know your prostate's infected and diseased. And you know that unless some relief comes to you, that you're going to be in the undertaker's parlor on the old, cold slab being embalmed for a funeral.

Crawford: Dr. Brinkley had made a fortune doing something he called the goat gland proposition. An early form of Viagra in which he would take a sliver of a goat gonad and insert it, transplant it, into a man's personal equipment. He claimed it would "Make any man the ram what am with every lamb."

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.

Crawford: So Dr. Brinkley looked for a place where he could reestablish not only his radio station but also his medical practice.

XERF Annoucer: [station ID in Spanish] That means you're listening to XERF in Ciudad de Acuna in the Republic of Mexico. Your clear channel station that covers every state in the nation.

Crawford: If he was broadcasting from Mexico, he was beyond the reach of American broadcasting regulation. He could broadcast whatever he wanted at whatever power he wanted to.

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.

Advertisement: A man may live without food, 40, 60, or even 80 days, but deprive him of water for five or six days and he'll die a horrible death, the best way to give a system the water it needs is to keep a glass handy constantly, sip it but sip lots of it, and that's the way to drink Crazy Water.

Crawford: They designed antenna figurations which boosted the power of the stations to more than a million watts of effective radiated power. So these stations were enormously powerful. They were so powerful that folks who lived by the station didn't need to pay for electricity. There was so much energy that light bulbs would go on by themselves. Folks near the station could hear the stations being picked up on barb wire fences, bed springs and even on their dental work.

But more importantly, people as far away as the Arctic Circle could hear it almost every night

Crawford: The core of Dr. Brinkley's programming on the station was music. This was music that wasn't played by the networks in New York which looked down their nose at these rural sounds because they saw it as their moral duty to uplift America from out of this kind of uneducated form of entertainment into a more educated, sophisticated environment.

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.

Rumble: The Carters represented the domestic tradition, they sang about the family and God and home, all of those things. Ya know, they'd sell 100,000 recordings or more of some of their hits, but to saturate the culture, that took border radio.

John Rumble says the music on border radio and the Opry helped define what it meant to be a rural American in the 1930s.

Rumble: You had a kinship with other people who listened. Those things reinforced what we would think of as traditional values. Faith in God, devotion to family, hard work, devotion to country. Those things were part of the cultural glue.

Network Opry Announcer: From Nashville Tennessee, Prince Albert, the world's most popular smoking tabacco brings you the South's most popular program, the Grand Ole Opry.

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.

Kyriakoudes: The Opry has been there, one of the longest, continual playing radio programs, broadcasting to a middle-American sensibility and defining, for these people, what life and culture and popular entertainment are and it has been doing that consistently. [archival Grand Ole Opry tape]

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.

Roy Acuff: But you know, I never dreamed that a night like this would ever come to Roy Acuff. So I'd like to say to the world that's listening in, from our new home in Opryland U.S.A., ladies and gentlemen, the president of the United States, Richard Nixon. [applause]

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.

Richard Nixon: Country music radiates the love of this nation. Patriotism. Country music therefore has those combinations which are so essential to America's character at a time that America needs character.

But that night, in the house that George D. Hay built, Richard Nixon got a standing ovation.

Nixon: But it's going to depend on our willingness to not only wear the flag but stand up for the flag and country music does that. [applause]

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.

Irving Ceaser: Parents have a right, because they sense not the content but the intent. The leering clarinet, the moaning, sensuous trombone.

Town Hall Meeting Announcer: You know gentlemen, we're talking about rock & roll. I suggest that we listen to it for a moment here, to a brief, recorded sample of some of this music that we've been discussing and also take a look at some pictures from a rock & roll concert.

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.


Segment C

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.

NBC Announcer: It is a miracle that's being presented here at Marshall Fields.

This is tape from an NBC station back in 1939.

NBC Announcer: This thing called television. A miracle engineered by RCA Victor and you should avail yourself, if you do nothing else, of the opportunity of seeing this in it's perfected forms. It is indeed the greatest achievement of the 20th Century.

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.

Rick Wright: Dr. Rick Wright, Syracuse University.

Communications professor, DJ, radio historian.

Wright: Hey I'm kicking for a 63-year-old guy who's been in radio since he was 15 years old!

He'll set up our story.

Wright: Here's the scenario: when television surfaced, everybody said "Wow! Things are going to be really fantastic" But guess what? Radio is now dead!

Wright says the networks more or less just abandoned the medium. They sold off stations, they reassigned employees.

Wright: There were folk who showed up to do their radio shows, without warning found a note on the door that the show had been cancelled and moved over to television. All the advertisting, all the money, everything went over to television.

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.

Wright: You go into the South and you go into the Mississippi Delta and wonderful places like that. We find many of the American blues artists, Howling Wolf, Jimmy Reed, playing some heavy music. But they were calling all of this music race music at the time and basically it had no outlet.

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: Hey now, Rufus comes in, "Hey baby, this is Rufus Thomas, WDIA Memphis, Tennessee, where you can cop a smile about a quarter mile provided you've got time and don't mind this drive time line we're gonna try."

Wright says that one Nashville station -

Wright: WLAC Nashville was owned by the Life and Casualty Insurance Company.

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.

Wright: And they were playing, basically you know, records by Guy Lombardo or whatever and it was that era of a 50,000-watter trying to find itself with no audience. And there were some African American students from Fiske University who had gotten past the security and got up to the station and brought a bunch of 78s with them.

And they walked into the studio and started talking to the DJ.

Wright: "Mr. Nobles, can you play some of our folks' records on your radio show?"

And Nobles said, "Sure, hand them over."

Wright: And they passed over Fats Domino and Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Etta James, Laverne Baker.

And he played them.

Wright: All of sudden, the phone started to ring, and the letters and cards were coming from all over the place. [Lillian Offitt, "Miss You So"] And they established at night, one of the real, first, mainstream R&B formats on a major powerhouse radio station. WLAC 1510 Blues Radio Nashville, Tennessee. The only full-time R&Ber at night with 50,000 watts.

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.

Bruce Morrow: At that time, "On the Radio with Morton Block," the number 20 record would be Doris Day and then it would be Victor Moon and Frank Sinatra. And all of a sudden, rock and roll started rearing what he called "its ugly head" into his top 40 countdown.

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]

Town Hall Meeting Announcer: From millions of radios, record players, and jukeboxes the sounds of America's newest and most controversial music, rock and roll

This is from a radio town hall meeting in the early spring of 1955.

Town Hall Meeting Announcer: The music is condemned by its critics as noise, and a contribution to delinquency.

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.

Town Hall Meeting Announcer: Here today to present their views on the rock and roll controversy are Irving Ceasar, lyric writer and music publisher.

Ceasar wrote "Tea For Two." [Lawrence Welk, "Tea for Two"] Just listen to him.

Irving Ceaser: Parents have a right, because they sense not the content but the intent. The leering clarinet, the moaning, sensuous trombone. It's interpretation. The very fact that it appeals to a certain kind of interpreter. For instance if I say "I love you truly, truly." But if I say, "I love you truly" and weave my eyes and twist my body when I say it, "I love you truly," you know what I intend to convey when I say "I love you truly" that way.

And it is also clear what he intends to convey when he says this.

Ceaser: You know the rock and roll business, it was born out of rhythm and blues and race. Written by people who didn't know the English language. Didn't know how to spell, didn't know how to play but could accompany himself on the gee-tar and so forth and that's how rock and roll was born.

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.

Morrow: With Alan Freed coming in, all of a sudden we were hearing people like Big Joe Turner, Mama Thornton, Ray Charles was coming into our lives. And we started identifying with this music. And the music was saying things, talking about what was happening in lives of people we didn't really know because they didn't live in our neighborhood, in our world. Music gave us the opportunity to become human beings.

Douglas: White people listening to African-American music on the radio has played an underappreciated role in having white people first embrace black culture and then begin to appreciate that there were commonalites. And that forged an important beginning bridge between the races.

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.

Chuck Blore: I remember there was a record, I was still in Tuscon. The record was "Sh-boom."

That's the original version by the Chords. Five African American guys from the Bronx.

Blore: And that record, oh God I loved it. And then of course the guy from Mercury came in and said, "Don't play that version, play our version," and we said "Oh! Ok!" [The Crew-Cuts, "Sh-boom"]

Which was by the Crew-Cuts, four, clean-cut white guys from Canada.

Wright: Here's African-American music and young, white teenagers loving it.

Here's Rick Wright.

Wright: All the music was covered. I mean Little Richard would do a version of "Tutti Frutti" which was the original [Little Richard, "Tutti Frutti"] it got no air play at all. Then it was covered by Pat Boone. [Pat Boone, "Tutti Frutti"]

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.

Douglas: One of the inventions that emerged in the 1950s was top 40 radio.

Here's Susan Douglas with the at least partially apocryphal story of the night Todd Storz invented top 40.

Douglas: He was in a diner I guess one night.

Depending on who tells the story, the diner's either in Texas or Nebraska.

Douglas: And watching how teenagers played the jukebox.

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.

Douglas: And a light bulb went about a new format.

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.

Demo: Leticia, here's your request and dedication. Casey Kasem, perennial award and billboard winner, helps you win ratings.

This is a demo for American top 40 delivered to radio stations in the early 80s.

Demo: Heard on over 500 stations around the world, deliver the important 18 to 24 and teen demos, as well as those 25 to 54. Who's left? Nobody.

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.

Douglas: We have top 40, we have urban, we have soft jazz and so on and so forth.

The time when pretty much everyone was listening to the same things was over.

Douglas: And what the industry will say today is, "There's more diversity than ever. Look at all of the formats." But within each format, you have diversity kept at bay on the other side of the door.

Douglas says these narrow niches have stripped radio of some of its power.

Douglas: And this move seeks to place each of us in a very narrow preserve where we don't have to listen to other kinds of music and therefore don't get exposed to other kinds of music.

And new technologies push this trend even further.

Wright: [on the air] Well Cora, before you go, I'd like to play a record for you. Let me go into the archives on Old School Sunday here on Power, 106.9.

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.

Wright: [on the air] Hey Cora, I like your style. But that's another story.

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.


Back to Hearing America