by Elizabeth McLeod
Broadcast advertising. We take it for granted as the foundation of the American system of radio and television.
Imagine a time, however, when the very notion of a broadcast advertisement was enough to send editorial writers into hysteria -- enough to draw the ringing condemnation of politicians, pundits and preachers. Such was the climate seventy -six years ago. Such was the response when the American Telephone and Telegraph Company -- dear old Ma Bell herself -- kicked off a marketing revolution.
It happened in New York City. At 5:15 in the afternoon of August 28, 1922, a man known to history only as "Mr. Blackwell" spoke into a Western Electric microphone in a makeshift radio studio on Walker Street in Manhattan, and delivered a turgid ten minute talk ostensibly focusing on nineteenth-century novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne. Routine stuff for radio in 1922 -- a era when stations would put on anything that would fill a few minutes.
But this talk was just a little different. Mr. Blackwell droned on a bit about Hawthorne's views of what constituted "a good home"-- a home "removed from the congested part of the city, right at the boundaries of God's great outdoors." But then he got down to business -- pointing out that those words had inspired a brand-new cooperative apartment complex -- Hawthorne Court, far away from the congestion of the city in Jackson Heights, Queens. And perhaps this little talk might inspire the listening audience to find out more about these fine new apartments.
The Queensboro Corporation certainly hoped so. They had just paid a hundred dollars for the privilege of presenting Mr. Blackwell. And in doing so, they had become AT & T's first "toll broadcasting" client. Or, in simpler terms, the first advertiser to take advantage of a new idea in radio: the notion that stations themselves wouldn't produce programming -- but that they'd sell the time to advertisers who would package and present their own shows.
It wasn't an accident. Or a sudden innovation. It was, instead, the result of careful, deliberate planning on the part of AT&T -- planning which placed the Telephone Company squarely on the cutting edge of the emerging broadcasting industry.
The idea of advertising on the radio wasn't new -- nor was the Queenboro Corporation's broadcast over WEAF, strictly speaking, "the first radio commercial." Over the previous decade there had been a number of "barter" advertisers on the various experimental stations, such as Charles Herrold's "SJN" in San Jose, California and Lee Deforest's 2XG in New York. Often a music store or a phonograph company would donate records to be played over the air by these catch-as-catch-can broadcasters, in exchange for a plug. There are even indications that some early stations were accepting cash considerations in exchange for promotional announcements -- broadcast historian Donna Halper suggests this may have occured at station WGI in Medford, Massachusetts several months before the Queensboro broadcast, and there is evidence of similar experimentation around the same time at station KFC in Seattle. But despite these experiments, no one was really thinking of radio as a full-scale vehicle for advertising. These early advertisers were in it simply for the goodwill. The infant medium was a long way from being a significant element of anyone's promotional budget. As long as radio was the province of inventors, hobbyists, basement tinkerers, and small businesspeople, it was unlikely to go much further with the "commercial" idea. As innovative as those pioneers in Medford and Seattle might have been, their isolated activities carried no weight in the offices of the nation's leading advertising agencies. It would take a corporation with the national prestige of AT & T to bring the concept of radio advertising to its full potential -- and it would have to happen in New York City, the captial of the advertising industry.
The telephone company already held a technological edge in the new industry -- its Western Electric subsidiary held crucial patents for the manufacture of transmitters, microphones, and other necessary broadcasting equipment. But even more important, AT & T maintained a nationwide web of long-distance lines -- just the sort of system that would be needed if radio stations were ever to be interconnected into nation-spanning networks. The company had operated experimental stations in 1919-20, and felt ready to take its involvement in radio to the next level.
In January of 1922, AT & T announced that it had received a permit for the construction of a new radio station in New York. But it wouldn't be just another station -- the initial press release made that very clear.
"The American Telephone and Telegraph Company will provide no program of its own, but provide the channels thru which anyone with whom it makes a contract can send out their own programs...There have been many requests for such a service, not only from newspapers and entertainment agencies but also from department stores and a great variety of business houses who wish to utilize this means of distribution."
Two simple sentences -- but they defined the entire future course of the American broadcasting industry.
WBAY TO WEAF
American Telephone and Telegraph began its new radio venture on the afternoon of July 25, 1922, with the first program from its new station WBAY, with studios located in the AT & T Long Lines building at 24 Walker Street in Manhattan. The first broadcast was low-key -- phonograph records and station announcements. It wasn't until the following week -- August 3rd, to be precise -- that WBAY gave its first nighttime broadcast, including a brief explanation of the "toll broadcasting" concept by Long Lines Commercial Department manager George W. Peck. But there were still no paying advertisers -- and, as it turned out, WBAY would never have any.
The signals from the WBAY transmitter proved weaker than expected, and on August 16th, the station's operations were transferred to the Western Electric company's West Street transmitter -- with the call sign WEAF. A wire line linked the new transmitter with the Walker Street studio, and there was a notable improvement in the signal quality. The station was now poised to make history.
TIME FOR SALE
The Queensboro Corporation's commercial broadcast on the 28th finally got the ball rolling on "toll broadcasting," but it didn't exactly open a floodgate. There were no additional advertisers for nearly a month. Queensborough had contracted for a series of talks -- and the client was very pleased with the results, attributing several thousand dollars in sales to the campaign. Word of mouth led other advertisers, finally, to take a chance on the new medium. On September 21st, the American Express Company and the Tidewater Oil Company presented talks containing indirect advertising messages. But that was all. After two months of "toll broadcasting," WEAF's books revealed total receipts of just $550, with only three hours worth of air time having been sold. Clearly, dry talks on dull subjects weren't going to do the job -- but neither the AT & T nor the listening audience would have accepted direct, hard-sell methods. It was becoming apparent, even this early, that radio advertising would have to be entertaining if it was to be successful.
Additional advertisers came on board during late 1922 and early 1923, several enticed by the William H. Rankin Advertising Agency, which had experimented with radio by sponsoring a talk on December 30th, and was pleased with the response. Most of the clients followed the precedent set by the first sponsors, and presented simple, indirect messages. One of these was the Gimbel Brothers Department Store.
Gimbels followed its arch-rival Macy's onto the WEAF air by a few weeks -- and wanted a program that would set it apart from its competitor. After a few experiments, Gimbels emerged in March of 1923 as the sponsor of a dance orchestra program -- the first sponsored entertainment feature on the air. There were no commercials as such -- only a simple opening and closing announcement that the music was being presented thru the courtesy of Gimbels.
The following month, Browning King and Company, a clothing firm, took
the next major step. On April 25th, the Browning King Dance Orchestra went
on the air, under the direction of Anna C. Byrnes. Like the earlier Gimbels
program, no direct advertising was permitted -- not even a mention of what
business Browning King was in. But the company's name was attatched to
the orchestra -- which had been contracted to broadcast exclusively for
Browning King, and no other firm. For the first time, entertainers and
a sponsor would be formally linked. With this development, radio advertising
had begun to assume the shape that it would retain for the rest of the
Meanwhile, the print-advertising establishment was wary of the new medium. The trade journal "Printer's Ink" led the chorus of naysayers in its February 8, 1923 issue. An editorial entitled "Radio An Objectionable Advertising Medium" fired a warning shot:
"Station WEAF has built up its reputation on the fine quality of its programmes. Radio fans who tune in on this station are accustomed to get high-class entertainment. If they are obliged to listen to some advertiser exploit its wares, they will very properly resent it, even though the talk may be delivered under the guise of a matter of public interest, or even of public welfare. An audience that has been wheedled into listening to a selfish message will naturally be offended. Its ill-will would be directed not only against the company that delivered the story, but also against the advertiser who chooses to talk shop at such an inopportune time."
After working itself into a righteous froth, the magazine got to the real point: the print industry's fear of broadcast competition. And then, a bit of saber-rattling:
"Much of radio's popularity is due to the way the newspapers have been playing it up. In many cases, they are devoting whole pages and in some cases entire sections to radio developments...It is certain that the newspapers will not continue to give the radio interests all of this generous cooperation if the broadcasters themselves are going to enter into advertising competition with the newspapers."
Strong words -- and remarkable when one considers that up to that point only one station in the entire country had ventured into the advertising business. But radio was an exploding industry -- and sooner or later the question would have to be addresed. How would radio support itself? Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover anticipated that question during December 1922, with further words of warning:
"It is inconceivable that we should allow so great a possibility for service, for news, for entertainment, for education, and for vital commercial purposes, to be drowned in advertising chatter."
But even Hoover was unable to offer a workable alternative to advertiser-supported broadcasting, at a time when the industry was passing out of its infancy -- and into a rowdy adolescence.
AT & T insisted that it was the only broadcasting organization in the US allowed to sell radio time -- control of key transmitter patents by Western Electric enabled the company to maintain complete control over how the equipment was used, or so it was reasoned. But this claim mattered little -- by the summer of 1923, other stations had begun to openly sell time in defiance of the AT & T patent claims. The Company tried threats, but were ignored. Finally, in 1925 AT & T realized that there was no holding back the tide, and after extensive litigation, agreed to revise its licensing policy. From that point forward, all licensed purchasers of Western Electric transmitters would be authorized to use the equipment for "toll broadcasting." The final barrier had fallen. Commercial radio had arrived to stay.
The latter half of the 1920s brought the art of radio advertising to new heights -- and lows. While AT & T continued to stress dignified, indirect advertising, other broadcasters weren't so delicate. Flim-flam men of all kinds infested the airwaves, like the Kansas-based medical charlatan John R. Brinkley -- whose incessant promotion of his "goat-gland" implant surgery for men lacking in a certain vigor blanketed much of the middle west from Brinkley 's own station, KFKB.
Such tasteless excess gave ammunition to those who continued to criticise the very concept of broadcast advertising -- and made reputable broadcasters all the more cautious. When AT & T sold its broadcasting operations to RCA in 1926 -- leading to the formation of the National Broadcasting Company -- a conservative policy on advertising remained in effect. Direct sales messages would be allowed only during the daytime hours -- while evening programs had to continue the indirect approach. It wasn't until late 1929 that full-frontal advertising was allowed on NBC's nighttime schedule.
THE SHAPE OF THINGS TO COME
Even though radio advertising had become an entrenched part of the industry, there were still misgivings about it, continuing into the early 1930s. Finally, in 1932, Congress ordered the Federal Radio Commission to investigate the role of advertising in the medium -- and whether commercial radio licensees were truly acting in the public interest. The resulting report removed any doubt as to the future course of American broadcasting -- concluding that radio could not survive without the support of advertisers. Like it or not, broadcast advertising had become a fact of life.
And in the decades to come, it would sink ever deeper into the American consciousness.
"Pepsi Cola Hits The Spot -- Twelve Full Ounces, That's A Lot!"
"I'm Chiquita Banana, and I'm here to say..."
"See The U-S-A! In Your Chev-ro-let!"
"Roach-Prufe -- spelled its own way -- P-R-U-F-E!"
And, the good and the bad -- the clever and the crass --
For better or for worse...
It all goes back to Nathaniel Hawthorne.
And an apartment house in Queens.
Text Copyright by Elizabeth McLeod