Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Obsolete is On the Air!

It might be news to you, but there were troubles in the Golden Age of Radio.

You wouldn’t know it by listening to those old broadcasts today. People still laugh at Fibber McGee and Molly, Charlie McCarthy and Edgar Bergen, Red Skelton (to the right), Jack Benny and so on. But according to a number of critics and columnists, they had been on the air so long that no one would be able to replace them when the time came.

As it was, the fear turned out to be for nought. That’s because the Golden Age petered out in the ‘50s, the big network shows killed off by television, where audiences became larger and larger, advertisers put their money. There were some stragglers into the early ‘60s, but radio turned into a medium of information and disc jockeys. A number of the big variety/comedy stars of radio moved right into television, and there were newcomers to take the places of those who didn’t. New replacing old. It’s not only the cycle of life, it’s the cycle of entertainment.

Herald Tribune writer John Crosby was one who was concerned about the future of radio, though he really only deals with the comedy and variety formats. The following is a two-part column. Several of the ideas mentioned in Crosby’s column did become reality—in television. For a while in the ‘50s, stars rotated in time slots, meaning they didn’t appear every week. The 39-week season hasn’t existed in decades. And live broadcasts ended even in the radio days for sitcoms.

One thing Crosby doesn’t seem to understand is that it wasn’t necessarily the sponsors wanting to stick with the tried and true that kept the stars on the air. It was the audience. They wanted Benny and Fibber and McCarthy. If they hadn’t, sponsors would have dropped them just like they did Phil Cook, Baron Munchausen, Joe Penner and Al Pearce.

Radio Review Talent Gets No Younger

NEW YORK, Nov. 6.—Bing Crosby's successful transcription series on the American Broadcasting Company, a revolution in more ways than one, has uncovered some of the original errors committed by the broadcasters 10 and 20 years ago and has uncovered the precarious framework on which radio has uneasily rested for the last 10 years. Radio's great names are all getting older—most of them are in their fifties; they are almost all rich men and many of them would like to get out of the business and take it easy. There isn't any one to take their place.
How did this come about, anyhow? Well, radio is a strange and unyielding mixture of oil and water, of show business and advertising. Although advertising became the economic base on which radio has rested since the early 1920's, broadcasting remained essentially show business. Its greatest stars were comedians, orchestras and singers. Advertising brought into the business the precise evaluation of profit land loss. The object was to sell soap or laxatives and to do so to get the largest possible audience.
Before the networks became established, independent radio stations had to dig up their own talent and they found it in the local vaudeville houses and night clubs. The result, to take one example, was Amos ‘n’ Andy, both experienced, though certainly not famous, in show business. They were young enough to bring in their own concepts of what a non-visual, highly personal entertainment medium should be. Amos ‘n’ Andy were and still are pure radio showmen.
When network advertising became the big thing in radio, the audience expanded enormously and the advertising agencies instinctively turned to personalities from other branches of show business who were most widely known. That result was Eddie Cantor, a motion picture and Follies star, and Ed Wynn, a well-known stage entertainer. These men brought along the most familiar hallmark of the older branches of show business, the audience. Gradually the listening public, scattered over 3000 miles in individual homes, learned to accept studio laughter and studio applause as the measure of their talent.
But while this debatable innovation might measure their talent, the sponsors had to have some better way to measure the listening audience. Previously show business had but two ways to judge success, the pounding of palm on palm and the jingle of gold in the box office. The listening public could neither applaud nor by tickets, so the Crossley rating came into being.
Originally, the Crossley ratings were the secret of the advertising agencies who paid for them. The ratings were needed to show the sponsor he was getting his money's worth, but were also a handy device to needle the talent. A comedian, say Jack Benny, would be approached by his advertising agency and told he had slipped a point or two in his last show. This was all Greek to the comedian whose prior criterion was applause. Somewhat bewildered, he would promise to do better next time and frequently did.
After awhile, the talent, and you could buy bushels of it for a couple of thousand dollars a week, grew highly inquisitive over these ratings, and insisted on being shown these figures to determine not only his own profit and loss but also his standing in relation to the competition.
Presently, the Bennys and Allens and Amos ‘n’ Andys noticed they were way on top of the parade and when their contracts expired, they demanded more money. A price for a leading comedian shot up as high as $25,000 a week. The Crossley rating became a, device for inflating their salaries and prestige and resulted in skyrocketing all salaries in radio. A top show now costs anywhere from $700,000 to $1,000,000 a year to produce.
Naturally a sponsor, when he's spending that much money, wants the widest possible audience to justify it. He demanded not a five or six rating but a 20 rating, and the only talent that could produce ratings like that were the established stars. This tended to freeze the talent picture about where it was. It takes time, effort, and a lot of money to groom a new comedian and to accustom 20,000,000 people to listen to him every Tuesday night. The sponsors preferred competing for the old ones, and the Amos ‘n’ Andys ceased entering radio.
Yet, without any reflection on their ability, the Hopes, Allens, Bennys, and Charlie McCarthys owe their success to the vast publicity radio has given them far more than to any unique powers of their own. They got in early and monopolized the field. There might be dozens of potential Bob Hopes in the theater, night clubs and elsewhere, but they are not in radio and, under the current system, never, will be.
(This is the first of two articles on the growing obsolescence of the top radio stars. Copyright, 1946, for The Tribune).

NEW YORK, Nov. 7.—The wear and tear of a weekly radio program has produced a lot of grumbling among radio stars in the past but little was done about it. Curiously enough, it was a comparatively young man who brought the revolt into the open. With a vast and already unmanageable income from movies and records, Bing Crosby could well afford to quit entirely. This gave him a strong bargaining position when he insisted on a transcription rather and a series of live broadcasts.
The success of transcription programs—that is, other than Crosby’s—is a matter of debate, but it’s causing plenty of that. Crosby’s program is almost entirely vocal and orchestral. It's not difficult to turn out six such programs in a matter of days, releasing the singer to his own pursuits. This situation is true of few other radio entertainers. Fred Allen and Bob Hope depend on topical material. Their shows simply couldn't be cut six weeks in advance. As a matter of fact, many Allen programs have to be changed at the last minute because a joke written on Wednesday is out of date by Sunday night.
In a different way, transcription is not the solution for character or situation comedy of the Jack Benny or Charlie McCarthy type. Both comedians could sidestep topical allusion without any great difficulty, but they can’t sidestep the plain hard work involved in putting out one half-show show a week. It just takes a week to put out a smooth half hour of comedy.
Nevertheless other comedians and entertainers are eyeing the Crosby series with great interest, as a partial solution to their problem, and it has had the added effect of stirring up new ideas.
"The top radio stars ten years ago are the top stars today," Edgar Bergen said in an interview a few days ago. "Are we going to give them a rest or are we going to kill them quick? A 39-week season is too tough a grind. There should be some relief.”
Bergen, the guardian, tongue and brain of that little imp Charlie McCarthy, has two ideas that might help reduce the strain of weekly shows. First, if transcription were allowed on N.B.C. (which it isn’t), he thinks it could cut a few shows during his summer vacation, enough to give him, say, a week off in January, another in February and one in March. Three Sundays, he says, would do much to relieve the strain of appearing for 39 consecutive weeks.
His second idea is more radical. Bergen said he planned to approach Allen with a plan to pool their talents and appear on the same half hour for alternating weeks. That would give each comedian two weeks to prepare a show. Or, as an alternative, he would like a 26-week season, with Allen taking the other 26 weeks of the year. The Allen-Bergen combination is a natural because both have the same sponsors, and Allen follows Bergen on Sunday nights.
I don't know what reaction Allen has had to this proposal, but chances are he listened readily. Allen is not happy with his weekly chore. He has threatened to retire for years and is still threatening to step down at the end of the current year.
One more plan is receiving some considering on the west coast. Two of Jack Benny’s cast, Phil Harris and Dennis Day, have their own programs now. If Harris and Day are strong enough to support their own programs, would they and the rest of the Benny cast be strong enough to carry the program without Benny for a week or so while the comedian took a rest?
Another potent factor in the changing picture in radio is the growing obsolescence of entertainers. He and Benny are 52. Charles Correll, the Andy of Amos ‘n’ Andy, is 56. Eddie Cantor is 54. James E. Jordan, better known as Fibber McGee, is 50. The similarity of their ages indicates that when these entertainers leave radio the exodus will not be a gradual proposition ever a period of years but sudden and startling.
All this, the transcription show, the doubling up of talent, the aging of the stars, is part of the same thing. All other branches of show business by sheer instinct of self-preservation have groomed substitutes to take the places of the top talent. Radio, apart from Alan Young and Ed (Archie) Gardner, has borrowed the talent from other media. Most of the best ones came from vaudeville, but that great reservoir dried up long ago. Few persons in motion pictures have the talent to run a half hour radio program and the stage has little to offer either. Radio will have to train its own talent or there won’t be any.
(This is the second of two articles on the growing obsolescence of the top radio stars. Copyright, 1946, for The Tribune).

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