That Carpenter’s Local 54 sponsored popular entertainment, not serious discussion of labor issues, is significant. Before WCFL began broadcasting, its founders claimed, “the program of this broadcasting station will be largely an educational campaign, consisting of speeches, lectures, reviews of the topics of the day, labor legislation, economics and so on.” 136 Yet they soon recognized that to compete effectively for radio listeners, they had to offer amusement along with education. “Labor News Flashes,” “Chicago Federation of Labor Hour,” and “Labor Talks from the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union in New York City” went over best when alternated with entertainment like “Earl Hoffman’s Chez Pierre Orchestra” and “Musical Potpourri.” Ethnic programs like “Polish Hour” and “Irish Hour” and daily and Sunday church services further attracted working-class audiences to the station. 137 But however much like other stations WCFL seemed, when union miners went on strike, listeners heard nightly appeals for clothing and supplies. When the Chicago florists’ organization locked out unionized greenhouse workers, listeners were urged not to buy flowers for Easter. When the American Federation of Teachers held their annual convention in Chicago, listeners shared many of their deliberations. 138 The public recognized that a serious mission underlied WCFL entertainment. In September 1927 Mrs. Mary Schultz wrote to WCFL asking how her truck driver son might enter a trade and closed her letter by saying, “We enjoy your programs very much and our Radio is seldom changed to any other station.” Hers and other letters to the station testify that for many members of Chicago’s working class during the “lean years” of labor activism, WCFL was the labor movement. 139
Cohen, Lizabeth (2008-01-07). Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919–1939 (Kindle Locations 3000-3015). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.
Early radio listening neither enticed people away from habitual family and community circles nor undermined existing identities, as for example, Polish, Catholic , and working class. Instead, radio frequently reinforced these affiliations. No doubt radio exposed some people to new cultural experiences, to different ethnic and religious traditions, or to new kinds of music. But most important, workers discovered that participating in radio, as in mass consumption and the movies, did not require repudiation of established social identities. Radio at middecade, dominated as it was by local, noncommercial broadcasting, offered little evidence that it was fulfilling the predictions of some advocates and proving itself “the great leveler,” capable of sweeping away “the mutual distrust and enmity of laborer and executive ... business man and artist, scientist and cleric, the tenement dweller and the estate owner, the hovel and the mansion.” 140
Cohen, Lizabeth (2008-01-07). Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919–1939 (Kindle Locations 3015-3022). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.
The local, noncommercial structure of early radio may have nurtured ethnic, religious, and labor programming, but at the same time it raised the problems of who would pay for radio broadcasting and how the airwaves would be regulated. The resolution of these issues over the course of the decade would undermine radio’s early grassroots character and thereby alter the listening experience of Chicago’s workers. The first of these issues, how to fund radio stations, troubled radio promoters from the start and continued to plague them as more than half the 1,079 stations established between 1922 and 1925 went bankrupt. 141 Operating a radio station proved too costly for many of the nonprofit organizations that undertook to do it. Leaders in the radio field debated different schemes for financing stations, from taxing owners or manufacturers of radios to selling public subscriptions , but most opposed involving the government or charging consumers. 142 In this vacuum, one of the most powerful broadcasting stations , American Telephone and Telegraph’s WEAF in New York City, began experimenting with paid commercials and thereby launched a wave of “toll stations” all over the country. When the public, including Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, protested that direct commercial advertising would contaminate the airwaves, a form of indirect sponsorship arose as a compromise in which a company underwrote a show in exchange for prestige and publicity. 143 By the mid-twenties , the big radio stations began featuring programs like the Eveready Hour, the A& P Gypsies, the Gold Dust Twins, and the Ipana Troubadours. As is obvious from this list, manufacturers and distributors of brand-name products were the first to appreciate the commercial potential of radio. 144
Cohen, Lizabeth (2008-01-07). Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919–1939 (Kindle Locations 3023-3037). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.
Interest in advertising intensified with the emergence of network radio, which gave advertisers a national audience. It was not accidental that WEAF, initiator of commercial radio, became the home station of the National Broadcasting Company when it formed the first radio station chain in 1926. Almost from the start, the success of commercial radio and national networks were inseparably linked. The promise of national exposure attracted advertisers, whose fees made possible more elaborate radio productions. These first-rate network shows put independent stations at a disadvantage and expanded the audience for network radio. Those very same commercial interests who were competing during the 1920s for a larger share of the consumer market – companies like Metropolitan Life, Walgreen Drugs, Palmolive Soap, and Publix Theaters – seized radio as a new vehicle for making their appeal. 145 According to J. Walter Thompson’s Radio Chief, William Ensign, “National advertisers find that radio ... carries their names or the names of their products into millions of homes in a way which is not only conducive to good will building – but which stamps those names with a personality that makes them
Cohen, Lizabeth (2008-01-07). Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919–1939 (Kindle Locations 3038-3046). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.
mean more than just something to be bought.” 146 By the end of the twenties, the distinction between indirect and direct advertising had blurred. Increasingly, advertising agencies were not only advising clients about radio campaigns but also were producing shows for them to be sold as “packages” to the networks. 147 These shows not very subtly plugged the products of their sponsors. Metropolitan Life Insurance brought radio listeners morning exercises, Aunt Jemima and A& P gave recipe advice, and the Hoosier Manufacturing Company broadcasted lectures on efficiency in the kitchen. 148 Radio had come a long way from featuring amateur talent on local stations. By solving its finance problem through advertising, American radio set itself on a course in which successful selling became the end purpose of programming. Resolving how to regulate access to the airwaves also favored commercial, network radio over local, nonprofit stations. During the grassroots era of radio, chaos reigned on the airwaves, as more stations sought to broadcast than there were frequencies available. In the absence of any more recent legislation than the Radio Act of 1912, which required all persons operating wireless communications to get a license from the Secretary of Commerce, Secretary Hoover assigned wavelengths to radio stations. When the demand for air space and time surpassed the supply, Hoover also began limiting the power and hours of some stations while prohibiting others from broadcasting at all. By 1925, almost 600 stations were on the air for at least a few hours a week, while 175 applications remained on file. In Chicago, forty stations used channel space adequate for only seven full-time stations by sharing time and transmitting at different powers.
Cohen, Lizabeth (2008-01-07). Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919–1939 (Kindle Locations 3046-3061). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.
But this make-shift regulatory system was far from perfect and, many felt, far from fair. The Department of Commerce denied WCFL a license, for example , until the federation accused it of favoring large, corporate stations. Once official, WCFL continued to resent the limits on hours, power, and frequency set by Commerce. Finally in 1926, Chicago station WJAZ became so disgusted at being restricted to two hours of broadcasting a week that it defied the terms of its license to test the Secretary of Commerce’s authority to regulate . In decisions that only exacerbated the crisis, the courts and the U.S. attorney general ruled that the Department of Commerce had no power to police the airwaves, leaving stations to regulate themselves. The result was increased chaos. Between July 1926 and February 1927, over two hundred new stations went on the air (sixty-five of them in Chicago) while old stations jumped to new frequencies and increased their power and hours. Radio broadcasting became even more of a free-for-all. Congressional passage of the Radio Act of 1927 finally brought order to the airways, but at the expense of small, local stations. The Federal Radio Commission created by the new law revoked the license of
Cohen, Lizabeth (2008-01-07). Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919–1939 (Kindle Locations 3061-3070). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.
every radio station and then required that stations reapply. Under the new regime, allocations of frequency, power, and hours rested on “public interest, convenience and necessity,” which in the minds of the commissioners translated into technical and programming quality. Because commercial stations could mount superior productions with advertising revenue, they walked away with the strongest power, the clearest frequencies, and the longest broadcast periods. Of the twenty-four clear channels created by the commission, twenty-one went to network stations affiliated with NBC or the brand-new CBS. WCFL, on the other hand, suffered considerable loss of broadcasting time as it was required to share its frequency with two other stations. For years the Chicago Federation of Labor continued to fight for a clear channel at 50,000 watts, eventually taking its case to Congress. But few local nonprofit stations shared WCFL’s pugnaciousness against what it termed “the Radio Trust.” Many, instead, gave up. In the end the Radio Act of 1927 brought stability to American radio but accomplished it by consolidating the broadcasting industry along commercial and national lines. By 1930, fewer, more powerful stations, at least a third of which were commercial and a fifth affiliated with national networks, ruled the airwaves. 149
Cohen, Lizabeth (2008-01-07). Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919–1939 (Kindle Locations 3070-3079). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.
Chicago workers experienced this consolidation of radio broadcasting very directly. When they turned on the radio in the late 1920s, they found more network programs, more advertising, and fewer local shows than just a few years before. By 1930, all the major radio stations in Chicago had affiliated with NBC or CBS, and many smaller ones, feeling pressure to broadcast more elaborate programs, negotiated to carry some network shows. Even WCFL worked out an agreement with NBC to purchase certain programs. Soon , “Rudy Vallee’s Orchestra,” “Roxy and His Gang,” and “Squibb’s Program” flanked “Labor News Flashes.” 150 By 1930, hopes for a noncommerical system of radio had also died. Advertising seemed the only strategy to pay radio’s way. Ethnic programming turned to ethnic merchants or outside businesses eager to penetrate ethnic markets, and soon even WCFL sold time to sponsors like the Ford Manufacturing Company who sought access to workers’ pocketbooks. By the mid-1930s, a study of retail advertising on Chicago radio stations revealed that WCFL had become a prime recipient of local advertising dollars. 151 Religious broadcasting made a similar transition to the commercial, network era. Many commercial stations carried nonsectarian religious programs like Chicago station WLS’s “The Little Brown Church of the Vale, a lay-man’s community church,” designed to reach a broad audience. Networks also made programs with denominational appeal available to their affiliates, such as the pan-Protestant “National Religious Service ,” “The Jewish Hour,” and Father Coughlin’s “Radio League of the Little Flower.” Commercial stations ran these religious broadcasts as a public service, without paying sponsors, to lure
Cohen, Lizabeth (2008-01-07). Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919–1939 (Kindle Locations 3080-3094). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.
listeners and legitimate stations where advertising underwrote most everything else. 152 Ethnic, religious, and labor programming by no means disappeared with the changes in radio at the end of the decade. Instead, much the way ethnic stores evolved into outposts for brand-name goods and neighborhood theaters became linked to movie chains, local radio stations became more national and commercial in order to survive. Where once radio had provided a voice for community groups, by the 1930s it treated these constituencies as potential markets for advertisers’ products. Radio, furthermore, bolstered similar commercial trends in shopping and movie going by giving national standard brands and chain theaters exposure through advertising. And when stores piped in radio shows, movie theaters arranged schedules around the popular “Amos‘n’ Andy Show,” and radio stars made Hollywood pictures, some aspects of mass culture reinforced others. 153 It is difficult to know how Chicago audiences reacted to the commercialization of radio. The little evidence we have suggests that people opposed it without having any realistic alternative. When the major Chicago broadcasters set out to discontinue silent night in 1927 because it interfered with radio’s new priorities – earning advertising revenue and presenting network shows – the public opposed the move by more than five to one, according to a Chicago Daily News poll. 154 Apparently, listeners preferred “to fish” for obscure, distant stations than to know that nationwide everyone was listening to the same programs. Nonetheless, silent night was put to final rest in November of 1927. At just about the same time, a survey of Chicagoans’ attitudes toward radio as an advertising medium revealed that people appreciated the high quality of network programs sponsored by national advertisers but not their advertisements. Half of those surveyed said they still preferred local Chicago programs to chain broadcasts originating in New York. 155
Cohen, Lizabeth (2008-01-07). Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919–1939 (Kindle Locations 3094-3110). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.
But the trend was against local, amateur, noncommercial radio. Ironically, no one better articulated this transformation than a spokesman for NBC’s Chicago station, WMAQ, when he testified before a Federal Radio Commission hearing in 1930: “We believe that the fundamental reason for the remonstrances to-day by the special interests, by religion, by education, and by similar groups is clear. The minorities, and they include many groups of educated and intelligent people, are to-day receiving little or no radio service from the average cleared channel stations. They have been lost sight of.” 156 Radio may have ended up, by 1930, in the hands of national, commercial networks, but that fate was byno means preordained. Through much of the decade, radio offered local ethnic, religious, and labor groups a new way to reach constituents and reinforced the cultural predilections of Chicago workers. As with standard brands and the movies, workers encountered radio first through the filter of their ethnic and working-class communities. Only when chain stores, chain theaters, and chain radio stations acted
Cohen, Lizabeth (2008-01-07). Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919–1939 (Kindle Locations 3111-3119). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.
to expand their hold over the consumer market and set out to destroy independent competitors did mass culture force a more uniform message onto its audiences. By having community stores, theaters, and radio stations disseminate mass culture during the 1920s, workers avoided the kind of cultural reorientation that Madison Avenue had expected. Working-class families could buy phonographs or brand goods, go regularly to the picture show, and be avid radio fans without feeling pressure to abandon their existing social affiliations. Participating in mass culture made them feel no more mainstream or middle class, no less ethnic, religious, or working class than they already felt. When a politically aware Communist worker asserted that “I had bought a jalopy in 1924, and it didn’t change me. It just made it easier for me to function,” he spoke for other workers who may not have been as self-conscious but who like him were not made culturally middle class by the new products they consumed. 157
Cohen, Lizabeth (2008-01-07). Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919–1939 (Kindle Locations 3119-3127). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.
It might be argued that those working-class Chicagoans most changed by mass culture were not adult workers but their American-raised children, many of whom would not join the work force until the 1930s. Certainly , their parents often thought so. When Mary Shemerdiak lamented that “the people of this younger generation are of the shallow type who care for clothes, shows and dances” and not for Ukranian clubs or other ethnic activities, she voiced a complaint common among immigrant parents in Chicago. 158 During the 1920s, foreign-born industrial workers who had emigrated to American before the war often were distressed to find their children, growing into their teens and early twenties, attracted to what seemed the most mainstream forms of mass culture. Ethnic, working-class parents were right to observe that their children craved stylish fashions, the latest motion pictures, popular tunes on the radio, and evenings at commercial dance halls. Among this first American generation, the normal process of emancipation from parental authority had taken on a larger cultural meaning. Young people’s struggle for emotional autonomy from parents converged with efforts to assimilate into American society, making adolescence a time to escape the confining ethnic worlds of their families. Mass culture provided an ideal vehicle for expressing independence and becoming more American. Whether a teenager belonged to a gang of “delinquents” who stole cars, shoplifted at Goldblatt’s and snuck into the movies, or at the other extreme, joined the growing ranks of working-class youth attending high school, he or she participated in a peer society that celebrated the most commercial aspects of mass culture. 159 Fashion in clothes most visibly separated ethnic youth from their parents. Social worker Sophonisba Breckinridge noted that although immigrant mothers were accustomed to “unchanging fashions which were judged entirely by their quality,” sons and daughters bought flashy
Cohen, Lizabeth (2008-01-07). Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919–1939 (Kindle Locations 3128-3143). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.
clothing to last only a season. Interviews with men and women in their twenties who worked at Western Electric’s Hawthorne Works revealed that they viewed earning money to buy “swell clothes” as a prime benefit of working. 160 But a closer look at how the children of Chicago’s industrial workers, some of whom were already employed themselves, partook of mass culture reveals that this attraction did not entail as much repudiation of ethnic identity as parents feared. Rather, more like their parents than was at first apparent, young people looked to their ethnic peer groups to mediate mass culture. Interests that seemed unorthodox at home were nonetheless pursued in ethnic company at neighborhood movie houses, club rooms, and dance halls. The way that they participated in mass culture did not so much tear ethnic youth from their roots as help them reconcile foreign pasts with contemporary American culture. Young people spent enormous amounts of time at picture shows, but given the neighborhood structure of movie going during the 1920s, they created worlds of their own peers within local theaters. A study of the habits of ten thousand Chicago schoolchildren from all economic groups found the typical youth going to a neighborhood theater once or twice a week alone or with siblings and friends. Three-fourths of the young people did not go to the movies with their parents. 161 In ethnic working-class neighborhoods the situation was extreme: Theater audiences consisted of multitudes of unaccompanied youth. 162 There, laughing and yelling with their friends, young people were hardly lost at the movies. Polish adolescents in a North Side neighborhood went so far as to treat a nearby theater like a clubhouse and would arrange to meet there almost nightly. One youth explained, “There is about fifteen or sixteen of the bunch and we always go ‘way down in front and sit down there under the clock.... We always sit over along the wall next to the door.” 163 When Chicago’s working-class youth were not socializing in movie houses, they could be found at their neighborhood clubs. Whether Jewish, Polish, Italian, or Czech, whether from Lawndale, Back of the Yards, Little Sicily , or Cicero, young people built their social lives around clubs. Known as “basement clubs,” “social clubs,” or “athletic clubs” and dubbed a myriad of all-American sounding names (such as the Bluebirds, Aces , Spartan A.C., Lawndale Sportsman, Owls, East Side Wildcats, Wigwams, Yankees, and True Pals), these associations guided the cultural experimentation of young people from their mid-teens to mid-twenties. Here, in rented quarters away from parental eyes and ears, club members played cards, held “socials,” and planned sports contests and annual dances. To the radio’s constant blaring – the “prime requisite” of every club, according to one observer – club members practiced the ways of the larger world, its fashions, music , games, dance steps, social mores, and sex role stereotypes. Parents and
Cohen, Lizabeth (2008-01-07). Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919–1939 (Kindle Locations 3143-3167). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.