Donna L. Halper
Broadcast Historian/Emerson College

Hello! In this and future columns, I want to take you back through the history of radio-- what was on the air, what was going on in society, what were the hits, who were the stars. My thanks to Lou for the opportunity, and I hope you enjoy our first excursion-- to the year 1931.

If you were listening to radio in 1931, you probably had a lot on your mind besides music. Sixteen percent of the country was unemployed, and the Great Depression was showing no signs of letting up. President Herbert Hoover was being blamed with increasing frequency, which may be one reason why Alka Seltzer was invented that year... 1931 was the year that the great inventor Thomas Edison died. It was also the year that the Empire State Building was formally opened, and organized crime figure Al Capone was sentenced to 11 years in prison for income tax evasion. RCA's Victor Talking Machine Company picked the wrong year to introduce 33 1/3 rpm plastic records. Unfortunately, they were of poor quality and few people could afford the new record players necessary to play them; the plan to popularize them could not be implemented. The same problem beset experimental television-- there were 15 stations on the air, but few Americans had the money for a TV receiver, especially when programming was so limited. CBS did begin doing some television broadcasting in mid-1931 (their station was W2XAB), but by and large, the nation's loyalty still belonged mainly to radio..

1931 saw a new magazine make its debut-- on October 15, Broadcasting appeared; it came out twice a month in its early days. At the time of Broadcasting's first issue, there were 608 radio stations on the air in the U.S. The census of 1930 said that 12 million of the country's 30 million homes owned at least one radio. In 1931, newspapers reported a loss of advertising revenue, while despite the Depression, radio showed an increase. One study by a New York advertising agency claimed that radio had pulled in $36 million in by the end of 1931. NBC, which in November of 1931 celebrated its fifth anniversary, was profitable, as was CBS; and if you lived in New England, John Shepard III was expanding his Yankee Network. But the President-Elect of the National Association of Broadcasters, Harry Shaw (owner of WMT in Cedar Rapids) warned the Federal Radio Commission that while number of large stations were making good profits, more than half of the stations in the U.S. were either barely scraping by or losing money, the result, he said, of "increased music license fees, the necessity for ... new equipment, and ... increased demands from local musicians unions."

A newspaper poll held in late 1931 showed that Guy Lombardo and Paul Whiteman had the most popular dance orchestras (although fans of Vincent Lopez or Joe Rines or Leo Reisman might disagree). Winners in the vocalist category included Rudy Vallee, Kate Smith, and a new singer who had made his debut over CBS in September-- Bing Crosby.

And Radio Digest named the Mills Brothers the "vocal find of 1931"-- these four young men, who would become stars on CBS, were perhaps the first black group to win what was the equivalent of today's "best new group" Grammy. And speaking of awards, NBC's John Holbrook not only won a "best announcer" award but was given the gold medal for good diction by the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

If you listened to radio in 1931, you could hear two great news commentators-- Lowell Thomas and H.V. Kaltenborn. In addition, as of March, a new and unique news show had appeared-- "The March of Time" , which every Friday night re-created and dramatized stories from Time Magazine; the show's signature line "time... marches on" became a catch-phrase of the early 30s. And of course, there was also Walter Winchell for celebrity news and gossip.

Among the female vocalists you might have heard in 1931 were soprano Jessica Dragonette and "The First Lady of Radio", contralto Vaughn DeLeath (whose career included singing for Lee DeForest's experimental station circa 1920, and being one of the few women program directors in New York in the early 20s with WDT). The Boswell Sisters got their first network show, and their first sponsor-- Baker chocolate. Among the male vocalists, one of the most popular was comedian and vaudeville star Eddie Cantor; he began doing a show for NBC in 1931, having done numerous guest performances on radio as early as 1923. Some of the big hit songs of 1931 were "As Time Goes By", "I Surrender Dear", "Love Letters in the Sand" and "Dancing in the Dark."

1931 was the year when controversial and bigoted radio priest Father Charles Coughlin had a parting of the ways with CBS, which tried to place restrictions on his network programs. This prompted Father Coughlin to buy time on a number of independent stations so that he could continue broadcasting. Another controversy involved the popular show "Amos 'n' Andy"-- an irate black journalist Robert L. Vann of the Pittsburgh Courier started a petition drive to get the show cancelled on the grounds that it was racist; his efforts failed, but an estimated 750,000 signatures nation-wide were gathered before the drive ended...

Meanwhile, radio dramas were increasingly popular-- perhaps you heard Richard Gordon portraying Sherlock Holmes on NBC. For kids, "Little Orphan Annie" began in 1931, one of many shows to use the characters to sell the sponsor's products. (By 1931, the majority of the network shows were controlled by powerful advertising agencies, which helped to write the shows and book the talent for them, as well as assuring lots of product plugs...) And 1931 was the year when "Myrt and Marge" debuted-- you may recall the show's theme song, "Poor Butterfly." 1931 was also the last year that Samuel L. Rothafel, better known as Roxy, presented his popular variety show, "Roxy and His Gang" on NBC-Blue-- he had first broadcast from the Capitol Theatre in New York in 1923...

If you had the money, a new car cost about $700, and a gallon of gas was 10 cents. But for all too many people, trapped in a horrendous economy, their favorite station provided them their only escape. It was an era that would come to be known as radio's Golden Age, when so many stars were born and it seemed an entire country was depending on radio...