The first radio station in the United States, Pittsburgh’s KDKA, began broadcasting in 1920. The idea of competing networks scheduling program slates to win listeners from one another was almost a decade away. By 1922, only thirty stations operated in the United States, but radio was already becoming the new-appliance phenomenon that later television, the videocassette recorder, and the personal computer would become: By 1923, 556 stations broadcast an assortment of programs. The production of receiver sets shows the same explosion of growth: From only a few receivers being produced in 1921, the Radio Corporation of America (RCA, incorporated on October 17, 1919) and others such as Atwater Kent and Westinghouse Electric Corporation manufactured one hundred thousand sets in 1922 and five hundred thousand in 1923. For the first time in 1923, both Sears, Roebuck, and Company and Montgomery Ward offered radios in their catalogs.
Tom Lewis’s book on the genesis of radio further points out that the end of the 1920’s saw another surge in the popularity of the medium, sparked by the public’s desire to follow the heroics of Charles A. Lindbergh. When William S. Paley combined two small networks into the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) and named himself president, he established conditions that would affect not only the development of American radio drama but also the basic nature of the medium.
Paley sought to compete with the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) and its president David Sarnoff by widening the types of programs broadcast. NBC had until then been featuring programs that often played to the highest tastes of listeners. Paley eschewed classical concerts and educational fare and instead found a receptive audience that enjoyed jazz, vaudeville comics, and soap opera. It was NBC that eventually broadcast the most popular radio series ever, Amos ’n’ Andy (beginning in 1926 as Sam ’n’ Henry on Chicago’s WGN, the show first aired on NBC under its familiar title on August 19, 1929), and the national sensation of that comedy spurred further sales of radios.
Worthington Miner wrote about the early days of the medium and how the expenses of creating a national industry were absorbed by the broadcasters, the manufacturers, and the sponsors. The listeners, however, had to pay too:[T]he price to the public was the stamp of a salesman’s mind on the dramatic content and intent of every program put on the air. . . . [A] vigorous theater thrives on controversy, and in precisely those areas of prejudice and conviction—sex, politics, and religion—that are taboo for the salesman.
Miner added that “the wonder is that anything of quality or substance ever reached the public air.”
His comments identify both the main propellant and the main obstacle for first-rate radio drama in the United States: commercialization. The revenues generated by the sale of airtime made possible innovative, intelligent plays such as those produced by Orson Welles, Norman Corwin, and Arch Oboler in the 1930’s and 1940’s; the need, however, for large audiences to satisfy the sponsors virtually guaranteed that most radio shows followed the safe rather than the experimental. Howard Fink tabulated the extreme imbalance toward the popular in American radio drama and concluded that during the twenty-year span from the rise of radio to the rise of television at most only twelve radio series (out of some six thousand listed by the Variety Radio Directory) attempted serious plays written expressly for the radio or adapted from other media. That comes to less than half of 1 percent.
The natural comparison to radio in Great Britain tells a different story. The work of John Reith as the first general manager of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) saved British radio and later television from the American type of commercialization by having the BBC set up as a public utility partly paid for by the small fees of listeners. The history of serious radio drama in England has never been a summary of isolated plays and programs of merit but rather the story of the development of an art form that continued even after the rise of television.
It may be unfair to blame Paley for the paradox of American radio—how commercialization alternatively abetted and retarded literary drama. The facts support different readings. Paley may have lowered the quality of the airwaves by broadcasting to a wider audience, or he may have begun to recognize that the growth of the industry was great enough to make room for smaller audiences of different tastes. Paley, along with Irving Reis, for example, became the driving force behind The Columbia Workshop (1936), one of the best dramatic anthologies in American radio.
A half-hour “sustaining series” (that is, free from commercial sponsorship), The Columbia Workshop debuted with a suspense drama written by Reis, Meridian 7-1212, a work that Fink described as going “behind the mechanical illusions of realistic sound to show a real understanding of the space of the medium, especially the necessity of creating verbal and intellectual complications to replace the visual complexities of the theatre.” The following year, The Columbia Workshop offered the first American verse play written for radio, Archibald MacLeish ’s The Fall of the City: A Verse Play for Radio (pr. 1937). MacLeish had written a polemic against fascism, and Reis cast young Welles as the narrator who describes the subjugation of thousands of people to a conqueror who turns out to be a fearful-sounding but empty suit of armor. The narrator’s description of the lifting of the visor and the hollowness inside placed a vivid image in the minds of radio listeners.
The broadcast became the single most famous radio show until that time. Blending sound techniques and poetry to exploit the theater-of-the-mind capabilities of radio, Reis broadcast the show from an armory to approximate the acoustics of a town square. He recorded the sounds of two hundred extras and timed the playbacks during the performance so that, following the live cheers of the extras, the echoing crowd noise sounded overwhelming. Welles had to perform his lines in the quiet of an isolation booth, a change made out of necessity but one that created a type of verbal concerto through the balance of contrasting sounds of the crowd and the narrator.