Wednesday 10 May 2023

What Golden Age?

Not everything in the wonderful days of network radio in the 1940s was all that wonderful. There were shows funny, creative and adept. There were others that were trite, boring and inept.

On-air people like Fred Allen, Bob and Ray, Stan Freberg and Henry Morgan poked fun at radio with some degree of causticness. Syndicated columnist John Crosby simply highlighted what he saw as banal, clich├ęd and tawdry. He went further than that in a series of articles on November 21, 22 and 25 where he let listeners do the talking. We’ll republish them below.

I find the first one interesting as the same, quite valid, complaint is made today.

Radio in Review.
The Enraged Public
Over a period of time, a columnist gets a lot of squawks from readers, many of them directed at himself. However, a radio columnist, I find, is in a favorable position in this regard because the ire of his readers is usually directed at radio rather than at the man who writes about it. A great many of these complaints are general, but there are many, many specific gripes indicating the letter writer is not only a close listener but a critical one. It might be instructive to pass along some of these criticisms, if only to demonstrate that radio causes a lot of suffering besides your own.
The complaints range all the way up and down the scale of radio from mispronunciation to the selections made by Toscanini for the NBC symphony program. The degree of emotion also varies widely from mild irritation to thunderous rage. The most violent reaction, curiously enough, is usually excited by the smallest details.
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Let’s start out with pronunciation. A man from Brooklyn, who describes himself as a linguist, says he is constantly shocked by mispronunciations made by professional news commentators, public figures and actors. In order to set these people's minds straight, he sent along a list of words which he has heard mangled repeatedly on the air. Here they are: "depravity" does not, he points out, have a long “a,” "cacaphony" is not accented on the second to last syllable, "inexplicable," "hospitable," formidable," "applicable," and “indefatigable” are not accented on the “i” syllable, “deprivation” does not have a long “i” and "tenet" does not have a long "e".
A New Haven man with the same complaint says he wishes Red Barber [above, right], director of sports at C. B. S., would learn that its [sic] La Guardia Field, not La Gardia Field, which he persists in saying. From Park Avenue comes a letter in which a listener swears he heard an announcer describe Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony as “po-ig-nant” music, inserting another syllable for good measure. A radio commentator who listens to other radio commentators expresses a strong aversion for the ones who stress the least important word in a phrase such as Columbia Broadcasting SYSTEM. Another irritated listener wishes Van Deventer, the Mutual Broadcasting System news commentator, would say Italy instead of Iddaly, battle instead of baddle, sentimental instead of senimenal, and avenue instead of avenoo.
Dozens of listeners complain about murder mysteries on the air on moral and intellectual grounds. One reader, however, had a special and, I believe, unique complaint. Why, he asked, did so many radio, murderers kill their wives? Why not some other victim, the mother-in-law possibly? This reader feels strongly on the subject because, he says, his own wife gets nervous during those programs and lately he finds her looking at him speculatively, possibly wondering just what thoughts are passing through his mind. He has a strong presentiment that she has already become resigned to the idea of being murdered and has fallen to speculating about when it will come off and what homicidal device he plans to use.
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The complaints against advertising would fill a couple of large volumes, but the most illuminating came from the secretary to the director of a sanatorium. She writes that the peremptory note in commercials—("Stop in at your neighborhood druggist's TODAY and ask for Globule's Hair Tonic. Do it NOW!") have an almost hypnotic effect on the mentally deranged. Alter such a commercial, patients rush into her office with the names of products written on little slips of papers and insist that it be bought NOW, or, at the very latest, TODAY.
Complaints against announcers and masters of ceremony, particularly the latter, outnumber all others. The noisy or screaming announcer, you'll be pleased to know, irritates a great many people and has, to my knowledge, no defenders at all. A Los Angeles listener commented bitterly that he couldn't understand why everyone from movie stars to housewives, was introduced with falsetto screams from the announcer. A New Jersey listener narrows this complaint down to certain announcers and names names, specifically Jack Bailey and John Reid King [left].
A New York listener would like to know why emcees, announcers or entertainers always seem so surprised when the guest star actually shows up. "Why, if it isn't CLARK GABLE!" he shouts, as if he didn’t suspect the actor were even in town. Guest stars come in for a good deal of sour comment from readers. A great many of them ask whether something can't be done about all the mutual back-slapping that goes on between guest star and regular entertainer. One writer says he’s getting awfully tired of band leaders who introduce visiting singers as “America’s No. 1 chanteuse,” particularly when the lady in question courteously reciprocates by calling her host “America’s No. 1 band leader.”
And there are many, many irate listeners, I’ve found, who can’t understand why an audience participant gets a shattering volley of applause because he announces he’s from Brooklyn.
This is the first of a series of three articles on complaints from readers.

The Enraged Public
As Dr. Paul F. Lazerfeld pointed out in “The People Look At Radio,” radio commercials arouse not only frequent but easily the most violent complaints from the public. The letter writers bear this out. A reader complaining about, let us say, the quality of a program does so in measured sentences. But when writing about commercials, he resorts to the vivid and sometimes profane expletive.
"Positively revolting!” says one reader. "Horrible, horrible, horrible!” says another. Even when the reader holds his rage down to the point where he can finish a sentence, I find the denunciation is put in the most sweeping terms.
"Just thinking of those singing commercials would drive me to jibbering insanity," writes one man. "They are loud, nerve-wracking and have probably turned more people against radio than any other single thing."
“I’m so sick of B-O boomed at me from every angle that I’d cheerfully send every cake of Lifebuoy overseas in the hope that the advertising would be switched in that direction, too,” writes another.
“Won’t you do something about the AWFUL advertising in rhyme of the Alka Seltzer people,” pleads another woman. “Those AWFUL rhymes! That INANE dialogue!”
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As you'll observe, the rage is so intense that mere words don't suffice, the writers take to exclamation points and capitals to express themselves. One man who writes a postcard virtually every week has four different sizes of capital letters which are barely enough to express his feelings. Several persons have written to say they will never buy another bottle of a headache remedy as long as they live because of its infuriating advertising. Some have even begun a crusade against products. The effect on sales is probably negligible but any advertiser who makes such virulent enemies among consumers is practicing poor public relations.
There are, of course, plenty of persons who write in specific complaints. One man, for instance, wonders what the copy writers would do if the word “yes” were banned from the air. Many others object to the use of the comparative ("more delicious," "more satisfying"). As "The New Yorker" magazine pointed out, the comparative is meaningless when not compared with anything. But it is not meaningless to the average listener who knows that a "more delicious" soup means a better soup than a competing product. He is less worried about the misuse of English than he is about the affront to his intelligence.
Repetitious catch phrases repeated over and over again drive many listeners crazy, and I use that word advisedly because "crazy," "insane" and other variations of lunacy bob up repeatedly from listeners writing about that form of advertising. "They go on and on and on and on," screamed one letter writer in handwriting of such intensity that it indicated her reason was beginning to totter.
Another pet peeve is any form of patent medicine advertising. "My insides are my own business," writes one angry woman, "and I'll thank the pill people to stop telling me how to put it in shape. I like it the way it is."
Listeners, at least the letter-writing listeners, view with intense distrust the linking of doctors and dentists with patent medicines, tooth powders or deodorants or any implication that a medicine is made like a doctor's prescription. Even if such a statement were true, they wouldn't believe it.
"It contains not one but several ingredients," as one reader pointed out, doesn't mean anything. It's very difficult, he said, to make a medicine containing only one ingredient.
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The singing commercial leads all others in criticism. “The girl that goes for a man in an Adam Hat would go for anything,” writes one girl. She indicated that any man in an Adam Hat would get thrown out of her house. A special complaint against singing commercials is the practice of writing commercial lyrics to the melody of an old and beloved melody, which some listeners feel is a desecration.
All In all, the specific complaints against advertising are not so intriguing as the deep feeling which they rouse. It might interest a certain tobacco company to learn that one man wrote in that he had broken his ankle in a mad dash across the living room to turn off an announcer chanting “LS-MFT . . . LS-MFT.” . . .
This is the second in a series of three articles on complaints from listeners.

The Enraged Public
Radio programs and radio commercials are not the only things lambasted by my letter writers. They also take a dim view of studio audiences, particularly those at audience participation shows. "When I hear the silly loose-lipped laughter when some one on the stage gets a pie in the face, I get a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. Do you think the home audience reacts that way? If they do, there isn't much hope for us," writes a man from New Jersey. A New Yorker writes: "In case the radio sponsors should ask us, which they don't, we listeners are pretty well fed up with the seemingly pent-up outbursts of acclaim from the studio audiences which greet the final words of a comedian as he steps back from the mike. He may close with no more side-splitting remark than "Well, that's all for now, folks,” when the air and our eardrums will be split by an explosion of artificial cheers accompanied by the most annoying of all sounds—finger whistles. If the sponsors think audible indorsement is needed, why not turn it into a revival meeting? Members of the audience could run to the microphone and tell in their own words how wonderful it is."
Another listener says she has learned to identify one woman who apparently goes to many radio shows and giggles continuously, particularly when nothing is very funny. This is a common complaint. One man writes that he and his wife wonder if they have lost their sense of humor. "We hear riotous and continuous laughter from the studio audiences and there we sit not able to crack a smile."
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Another common gripe and one which could be easily corrected is against blaring music in dramatic sketches. Listeners point out that when their sets are tuned for voices they are too loud for the orchestra and when they are tuned in properly for orchestra, the voices are too low to be heard. Several persons have written to say they sit with their hand on the volume control knob and must retune their radios several times during one program.
Another and rather querulous complaint concerns the Hooper polls. "I often wonder who is approached by these polls," a Long Island woman writes. "My circle of friends is fairly large and I know no one who has been questioned." The same story comes from many listeners. I have yet to hear from any one who has been polled.
A frequent gripe lately has been the clash [in the East] between the Henry Morgan show [left] on A. B. C. at 10:30 p.m. Wednesdays and "Information, Please" on C. B. S. at the same hour. Both programs appeal to the same type of listeners and there are few programs on the air which do. Why, ask several irate fans of both programs, do they have to be broadcast at the same hour on the same night? (It was an accident. "Information, Please" had to take its time because it was the only time available on C. B. S.) There are also a good many complaints about the lateness of the hour for both programs.
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Of late there have been increasing complaints against the reciprocal guest-star trick. "Isn't there something that can be done to break up the monopoly among the top-flight comedians?" asks a man from Wilkes-Barre, Pa. "Benny, Hope, Allen, McCarthy are bad enough by themselves, but week in week out, we find them trading guest-star appearances. I believe an action should be filed to break up this combination under the anti-trust laws."
A slightly different angle on guest stars comes from another listener who objected to the parade of governor on the Edgar Bergen program about a month ago. (The governors of California, Kansas and Missouri appeared in succession on the Bergen program.) It is bad enough," says this listener, "when the governors make fools of themselves in their official capacity but when they compete with professional comedians, it is disgusting."
There are lots more, but that's enough for now. Somewhere in the last three days you must have run across some of your own pet gripes and I hope it helped to discover that you have company.
This is the last of a series of articles on complaints from listeners.

Crosby’s other columns for the week include an attempt at being Fred Allen with a parody of Bride and Groom (November 18), an odd speculation about now-transcribed-on-ABC Bing Crosby (November 19) and one on a gorilla’s skull appearing on a daytime ladies-participation show (November 20) and looking ahead to television. You can click on each to make them larger.

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