Dynamist Blog

Content Matters--But So Does Style

On the lookout for style-as-innovation stories, my friend Sean Doughterty, an old-time radio buff, sends along an exchange from a fan listserve that illustrates that the iPod is hardly the first audio innovation to change behavior with aesthetics. The reply is from Elizabeth McLeod, author of The Original Amos 'n' Andy -- Freeman Gosden, Charles Correll, and the 1928-43 Radio Serial, and I am posting it with her permission.

My question: do you think that Amos 'n' Andy - or any other specific radio stars of the late '20s-early '30s era (perhaps Rudy Vallee?) - helped drive radio sales, and thereby hasten the heyday of great radio entertainment?

Or was it a more general thing - that RCA created a National Broadcasting Company to encourage radio sales... and the talent then rose up to fill the airwaves with that needed entertainment?

There's a lot of anecdotal talk to the effect that many people bought their first radios to listen to "Amos 'n' Andy" during 1929-30, but I don't think it's realistic to claim that the fad surrounding the program was the major engine driving radio sales during that era. There were numerous other factors as well.

The most important of these factors involved the evolution of radios themselves. Beginning around 1925, radio sets evolved from crude-looking boxes festooned with knobs and jacks and dials and visible wiring to more elegant devices contained in wooden cabinets designed as furniture. This change made radio far more acceptable as family entertainment for the living room instead of a reclusive hobby for the attic.

Following this change, in 1926-27, radio manufacturers introduced sets that operated directly off the AC line, rather than off batteries. Many housewives of the era objected to the presence of batteries in their living rooms -- especially the wet-cell "A" batteries that could leak acid on the floor, create odors, or otherwise make their presence unpleasant. These batteries, likewise, would need to be carried off to a garage or filling station once a week or so to be recharged, adding to the inconvenience of owning a set. An AC set, on the other hand, could simply be plugged into the wall and enjoyed without any of this muss or fuss.

And the final such factor came in 1930, with the introduction of "midget" radios. These small table sets -- including the famous "cathedral" cabinets -- were much easier to fit into a living room than a massive console, and were also much more affordable for working-class people, who could buy one on credit for as little as fifty cents a week. These radios exploded onto the market during 1930, a period which coincided with the peak of A&A's popularity, and the two crazes thus were able to feed off each other -- more people could buy radios to listen to A&A, and more people who bought radios discovered they enjoyed A&A.

The popularity of "Amos 'n' Andy" did, however, undoubtedly drive the popularity of radio drama during the early 1930s, encouraging a great many imitators in the nightly serial format -- and soon spreading into daytime as well. While most dramatic programs prior to A&A had been anthologies, with few or no continuing characters, the popularity of "Amos 'n' Andy" proved beyond question that listeners would and could follow the stories of favorite characters and that Everyman characters such as they were could serve as the framework for long-term series popularity. Without the proletarian influence of Amos and Andy, the evolution and development of dramatic radio might have lagged for years in the sort of stilted, psuedo-stagey productions which characterized most American radio drama prior to their rise.

Her account echoes Elmo Elkins Caulkins's landmark 1927 Atlantic article, "Beauty the New Business Tool", which I discuss in Chapter Two of The Substance of Style. Caulkins wrote:

In applying art to machines we are on our own ground. Machines are native with us, and the effort to beautify them has created a new field of artistic endeavor, as witness the sky-scraper, the motor car, the phonograph and the radio....

Among our new playthings was the phonograph. For a long while it lingered in its ugly box with its blatant horn, and no one minded its hideousness in the strange new experience of listening to it. It did not occur to us that it was not necessary to affront the eye to please the ear. But the spur of competition compelled the manufacturers to add every improvement they could think of, and when mechanical improvements were exhausted they turned to aesthetic ones, with the result that the great horn disappeared inside, the case took on some semblance of form, designers and cabinetmakers were consulted and period and other designs produced, so that now the phonograph may easily be an addition to the furnishing and decoration of a room. The transformation of the radio took less time. While it is still so new that broadcasting stations have not yet been assigned permanent waves, its makers are as much concerned with giving it an acceptable physical appearance as with lengthening its reach. That is because it arrived in an age in which both manufacturer and consumer are aware that there is such a thing as good taste. We demand beauty with our utility, beauty with our amusement, beauty in the things with which we live. And so the radio has been promptly put in the hands of the designers, to make it, if possible, a thing of beauty and a joy forever even when silent or especially when silent.

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