By Goode, Stephen
Insight on the News , Vol. 14, No. 5
Radio started as wireless telegraph. As soon as it began to talk, commentator entertained with political controversy. Among the biggest were Will Rogers and Father Coughlin.
If you arrived at the home of almost any average American family in the evening during the 1930s, it's likely they'd be gathered around their radios. It probably would have been a console model -- an Atwater Kent, for example, or a Philco -- and it would have been the most prominent piece of furniture in the living room.
Family values were in. One of the era's most popular shows, One Man's Family, reached an estimated 28 million listeners (out of a total population of about 125 million) every Wednesday at 8 p.m. on the NBC network. At the beginning of the widely heard program, an announcer's voice said the show was "dedicated to the mothers and fathers of the younger generation and to their bewildering offspring.
In the 1930s, "radio was a companion. It was something very much like a friend, and people had a warm place in their hearts for it in ways we'd find schmaltzy and a bit simple," says Philip J. Harwood, an associate professor of communications at the University of Dayton in Ohio who specializes in the history of broadcasting.
Amos `n' Andy, a comedy show about two black characters -- performed, incidentally, by two white guys -- also was wildly popular. Almost every American knew radio singer Kate Smith's great songs, "When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain" and "God Bless America." The telephone number most likely to be readily recognized by the average American was Murray Hill 8-9933, which is the number anyone could use to call the Major Bowes Amateur Hour and had appeared on that evening's program.
On Sunday, March 12, 1933, only a few days after becoming the nation's 32nd president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt launched his "fireside chats" over radio from the White House. The public listened -- and approved. His wife, Eleanor, later had her own biweekly talk program, sponsored by Pond's cold cream and Sweetheart soap, among others.
But often more frequently heard that even FDR's popular chats or his wife's trilling broadcasts were two programs of commentary and opinion -- Fr. Charles W. Coughlin's The Golden Hour of the Little Flower and The Good Gulf Show, hosted by the enormously influential and widely admired "cowboy entertainer," Will Rogers.
Why their enormous popularity? "For the first time, radio allowed Americans to get to know or at least feel they knew people like Coughlin and Rogers as genuinely human persons," says Harwood. "That was the power of radio."
In 1934, Coughlin, a Roman Catholic priest originally from Canada, was getting more mail than the president (or anyone else in the country), writes historian William Manchester in his narrative history of America from 1932 through 1972, The Power and the Dream. That meant about 80,000 letters every week, according to Manchester. But when the "Radio Priest" (as the press dubbed him) delivered an especially strong polemic -- the program, broadcast from Coughlin'sk home church in Detroit and aired from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m., CST, on CBS -- it meant as many as 1 million letters, requiring a staff of 150 clerks to sort them (and gather an average of $20,000 per week in contributions). Stating what perhaps was obvious to most, Fortune magazine in 1932 called Coughlin's program "just about the biggest thing that ever happened to radio."
Rogers too, had a sizeable audience. He already was a national celebrity when he launched his program on NBC in 1933, a half-hour on Sunday evenings right after Coughlin's program. Ben Yagoda, one of Rogers' biographers, notes that the week after the program began Protestant ministers across the country complained about a 50 percent decline in attendance at Sunday-evening services. It was a problem solved by one clergyman who brought a radio to church, placed it in the sanctuary and allowed his congregation to listen to the program during prayer breaks, according to Yagoda. …