Some time ago, I spotted several references to a column by Robert Ruark during the Golden Days of Radio, quoting a line that completely dismissed most programming as a waste of anyone’s time. None republished the full column or even gave a date of when it was printed.
I’ve managed to find it and pass it on without comment. It appeared in newspapers beginning September 23, 1946.
Radio Only Business In Which Riches Come To Its Detractors
By ROBERT C. RUARK
NEW YORK.—-There must be something deeply and seriously wrong with radio—something which does not afflict the daily press nor the magazine business nor even the movies. And lord knows the movies take a kicking from everybody.
I write this sorrowfully, because there are some facets of this weird, unseen business which are at least as beneficial as a bus trip to Philadelphia. Charlie McCarthy is less painful than tropical yaws and if you have broken your watch, there is a reason a reasonable assurance that radio will tell you what time on the hour, the half hour, and the quarter hour. Mary Margaret McBride, you might say, is preferable to a hole in the head.
What puzzles me is that much of the best entertainment in radio is built around a sarcastic treatment of the things radio holds most dear—and certainly the things from which the industry derives its wealth. And the better radio columnists have built their prestige by the steady application of the hammer. Knock, knock, who’s there?
Vipers in Bosom
For my money, the most listenable programs on the air are Fred Allen’s and a recent thing confected by a wild and ribald wit named Henry Morgan. A practicing iconoclast, Mr. Morgan devastates sponsors, soap operas, news commentators, political pundits, give away refrigerator-and-mink-coat shows, ponderous public service shows, mood music—he tears them to bits and leaves them naked and bleeding. So, less cruelly, does Allen, a man with a sharp eye for the unprotected vitals in this harum-scarum racket of peddling corn flakes and liver pills to involuntary victims.
Boon to Comedians
Never, in the history of humorous entertainment, has such a great boon to the comedian come about. The serious, every-day mechanics of radio, from the rhymed jingle to the awful importance of the Hooper rating, are funnier than the prattfall, more ludicrous than a blow on the skull with a bladder. Nearly everything in it is either corny, strident, boresome, florid, inane, repetitive, irritating, offensive, moronic, adolescent or nauseating—and, in the case of the transcribed commercial, generally a combination of all those faults.
We make mistakes, and many of them, in the newspaper business. The fevered attempt to package hurried news, overnight opinion, swift pictures, can never be less than a boobytrap for the careless and a dark pit fill of margin for error. We have a fondness for leg art and an overdeveloped sense of human interest when it pertains to stranded cats, forlorn dogs and rich people with marital ills.
Need for Fresh Air
Preachers don’t tolerate religion, lawyers rarely sneer at jurisprudence, and I know of no reporter, columnist or photographer who can make a rich living by sneering at his trade. We got a lot of freaks in our business, but the reformed saloon-keepers and actors-turned-essayists usually collapse after their first fund of reminiscence withers on their ghost’s typewriter. But even the freaks can't find enough kiddable material to fill their daily space with acid comments on the moron content of the press.
Walk up to the average man today and mention commercial, soap opera, or the average advertising plug, and he will make signs of acute nausea. Listen to the quiz shows and the cheap and sordid impositions on ignorance, like that Anthony program, and, you will feel a pressing need for fresh air.
Stone chucking at other people’s panes is a fascinating pastime these days, and practically everything from religion to stamp collecting comes in for its share of censure. But somewhere, somehow, there is something grievously wrong with a business whose outstanding successes are most appealing when they are knocking their profession on the head.
The success of radio would evidently mean that either we are a race of artistic cretins with a fondness for the singing commercial, on that radio has become a habit, like biting your nails, which does not constitute an endorsement of its value in our daily lives.