Frank Gutch Jr: Before Radio Was Radio, It Was Television (Plus Notes)

Frank Gutch young

In a way.  In a very meaningful way, too.  It changed the world.  More specifically, it changed the United States.  I’m convinced.  I studied it in college.  I have been studying it ever since, though now it is called communications (or do they have some other newfangled name) and includes the Internet and God knows what else.  As much as some of my friends think I was there at the beginning, I was not.  I was there when it was forced to adapt to the new kid on the block, television, though, and I hung on as long as I could.  The idiot box was unfortunately too strong and kicked radio to the curb where it reinvented itself into a provider of music, sports and talk— mostly music.  Without the radio, the music business might have been just another part of the entertainment conglomeration, but for awhile, in spite of the attempts to push it into the background, it ruled the roost.  There were reasons and it was regional, at first, but it did.  More on that later.

radioantenna

Here is the definition of broadcasting taken from my old textbook for Broadcasting 100.  “The transmission through space by means of radio frequencies, of signals capable of being received either aurally or visually or both aurally and physically by the general public.”  I know what it means but I have never figured out how the whole radio frequency thing works.  To me, it is pure magic, speaking into a microphone and being heard through speakers of some kind somewhere else.  All I could think back then was, hey, this ain’t no tin can and string.  There is nothing between the starting and ending points.  But there is.  Damned if I know what it is, but it is there.  I used to tell one of my profs, it’s a miracle, and he must have accepted because I have a degree.  In Radio and TV Broadcasting.  Before they started calling it communications, you see.

The book we used in good ol’ Broadcasting 100 was not printed on papyrus, but the information in it is quite dated.  Today, most broadcasting classes do not study what we studied at the University of Oregon.  They study how-to, which is more about the physical process of putting a program together.  They study the business and the economics and the equipment needed to get the programs to the public.  We studied the ethics of broadcasting, the whys and wherefores and just enough of the how-tos to get us by.  We worried about how broadcasting was going to change the world (and I think we can all agree that is has changed it a great deal) and the effects of money on what we then called the public airwaves.  We worried about the various possibilities of the medium (both radio and TV), good and bad.  We questioned and we consumed theories and we talked and talked and talked and occasionally, though only occasionally, something worth hanging onto came out of it.

mediumisthemassageI don’t think Canadians would be all that surprised to know that we studied the theorists in detail and that they included Marshall McLuhan, whose Medium Is the Massage, a book which attempted to define the idea that the medium is (or was) as important as the message, that how you got information was as important (or at least had an effect on) as the message itself.  We debated it constantly because when I was in college, the idea was new and fresh and there were many who disagreed wholeheartedly, stating that the message was the message, period.  I myself was a supporter of many of McLuhan’s views, especially the medium/message one.

Now, I don’t want to get into a classroom situation here because what I learned has been tossed aside by the telecommunication industry which has swept aside theory for the subject of profit.  I do want to give you a slight chronological look at Radio and how it developed, all skewed toward the purpose of this column.  And please accept that this applies to the United States and nowhere else.  I am sure every country has its own story.  I would need three lifetimes to learn them all.

before-after-radio41

Radio station KDKA in Pittsburgh is accepted as being the first commercial radio station in the US.  Its first broadcast was the evening of Nov. 2, 1920 at which time they broadcast the results of the Harding-Cox presidential election.  It was a test run, so to speak, and was broadcast from a garage and God knows how many people listened (probably only the peoples families involved in the broadcast and a few politicians and entrepreneurs who were curious or thought that there might be something in the medium).  But it is a guideline.  They then broadcast a boxing match in April of 1921, a baseball game  between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Philadelphia Phillies in August of that year and from there on the occasional tennis match or football game.  They evidently did not have a regular broadcast schedule for some time and the broadcasts were intermittent.  In the meantime, radio station WHA was set up in Wisconsin in 1922 to broadcast farm news, and away we went!

The advent of radio sets helped the spread of radio throughout the US and radio was soon powerful enough to challenge newspapers as the primary medium.  By the thirties, what with the world coming to an end (just ask Orson), even poorer families found a way to get a set.  Many Americans first found out about Germany’s invasion of Poland by radio, and the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and were walked through VE- and VJ-Days.  But it wasn’t all news.  There was religion and educational programming and symphony concerts and a whole string of different types of entertainment.  It became, during and after WWII, as stated previously, the medium.

It didn’t have certain things newspapers had, but it had the personal touch, something newspapers did not have.  It entertained without you having to work at it.  It told you the news.  It seemingly played music for you.  It brought the theater into your home.  And it was right there in your living room or even your kitchen.  You need not go down to the store or to the corner to purchase it.  It was, in a certain sense, what TV became years later.  Your own fun box.

See, before radio, you had to be somewhere for your entertainment:  the theater, the movie house, the ballpark.  With radio, it came to you.  Of course you had to use your mind.  You had to envision what was on the other side of that box, whether it be the stadium or the jungle or any other place in which your characters lived or situation was.   Thus began the first era of entertainment communications, what would become known as The Golden Age of Radio.  And what an era it was.

Radio at first drew a lot of its talent from vaudeville and Hollywood, as lean as it was.  Stars from those areas became even bigger, talent such as Dick Powell, Jimmy Durante, Edgar Bergen, Ed Wynn, Orson Welles, Burns & Allen, and Red Skelton capitalizing on radio as well as working in their original fields.  Hollywood early on threw their hats and talent into the ring to reproduce movies for the medium.  Theater tossed in personages such as Lionel and Ethel and John Barrymore as well as Bette Davis.  Writers of major works wrote for radio (and later, television), supplementing incomes when the wells began to run dry.  When the forties came around and the blacklist kicked in, radio and television both took up the slack, using or not using real names depending as much upon the writer as the pressure from government and networks.

For kids, it was a windfall.  They no longer had to scrounge pennies to get in to see Tom Mix or Tarzan or Charlie Chan.  They could wait until Monday night or Thursday afternoon and catch the latest episode on radio.  And there were programs written specifically for youth, from kids programs to young adult fare such as Jack Armstrong, The All-American Boy or Flash Gordon or Skippy.

For the adults (and the family as well) there was Big Town (with Edward G. Robinson), Amos ‘n Andy, Dick Tracy, Fibber McGee & Molly, or Green Hornet.  Variety shows such as Maxwell House Show Boat (inspired by but not a copy of the theater musical), Lux Radio Theatre, Mercury Theater On the Air, Arch Oboler’s Plays, or The Clicquot Club Eskimos filled the bill on the musical side.  And you had Bing Crosby, Grand Ole Opry, and National Barn Dance soothed the music side of things.  It was a whirlwind of extravaganzas for a country which, outside of the big cities, depended upon touring and sometimes only local musicians to scratch the itch.

I will bet that few outside of the true fans know that The Mercury Theater was founded by Orson Welles AND John Houseman.  If you don’t know Houseman, you have no further to look for the movie “Paper Chase.”

trumboAn aside:  In the late sixties when I was attending the University of Oregon, a movie came through which played at the little art film theater over on 11th Ave titled “Johnny Got His Gun.”  Viet Nam was cranking up and the draft was hovering over most of the guys on campus, so when the films subject matter became known, it made quite the sensation.  It was looked upon as an anti-war film because it represented the horror that war is or could be— a soldier is returned from the battlefield alive on the inside but with no way to communicate.  No arms, no legs, no voice.  A lot of the guys went to see it.  I couldn’t.  The whole idea was more than I could handle at the time.

A couple of weeks ago, I finished “Trumbo,” the excellent biography of Dalton Trumbo written by Bruce Cook— the basis for the recent movie which starred Bryan Cranston.  What a book!  Not only did I learn about Trumbo (I came across him my freshman year in Broadcasting 100 when we studied the blacklist), I learned about screenwriters and Hollywood and B-movies and a whole string of things of which I had no idea.  A superb book!  A grand book!  I insert this here— Part One of a radio transcription of a 1939 radio presentation of “Johnny Got His Gun” starring James Cagney.  Until I read the book, I had thought that the soldier was returned from Viet Nam.  He wasn’t.  He was the universal soldier, the one whose cause I have embraced since I began to see war as something beyond a Hollywood screen.

By the time the US entered WWII, radio was firmly entrenched as a way of life.  The family huddled around it for war news and programming as if it had always been there.  “Superman” was first aired in 1940.  I don’t think they really knew what they had.

The government thought enough of radio at that time to put together this little piece of propaganda.

While the war limited the breadth and length of radio (by if nothing else draining the talent pool), it, along with movies, remained the medium through which most people spent their time.  War news took precedence, of course, but the comedy and drama from the period was, in my opinion, among the best ever done.  Again, many Hollywood stars lent their talents to regular programming, much of it having connection to the war effort.  New programs were being tested all the time, some hit and some miss.  Those of you who lived in the 1950s (or was it the 60s?) might not know that before “You Are There” vaulted Walter Cronkite to TV fame, it was a radio show.  And any history was fair game.  CBS News covering Sir Francis Drake and the Spanish Armada?  Why not?

Post-war, by the way, was when the blacklist kicked in.  Everyone always links Joseph McCarthy (the backguard!) to the blacklist but it started long before he came along.  I refer you to the “Trumbo” biography.

pbrfights

The 40s slid into the 50s without a hiccup and radio held its control for the first few years of the decade, but there was a new gorilla in the room which turned out to be at least 800 pounds and maybe more—  television.  Radio fought hard but had no chance.  Just the draining of the talent pool was enough to send them into financial hell.  Slowly, advertisers also abandoned the medium, though there was change afoot which would bring many of them back.  Full program scheduling was becoming a thing of the past and specialty programming was replacing it.  Mostly music.

I saw the end and the beginning.  I was there listening to certain radio programs while embracing television on the whole.  I saw the loggers and millworkers of Sweet Home slowly give up their attachment to radio (they even listened to track meets on the radio— track meets!), fewer cars and trucks lining residential streets while two or three or more men leaned against fenders or with their feet on running boards whenever a fight was broadcast.  It was more fun to watch the game, even with all that snow on the screen, than it was to just listen.  Well, it was becoming more fun.  The better reception got, the more they stayed inside.

honeymoonersMany of the programs which bolstered radio worked their ways to television.  Jack Benny became a smash hit on TV (and was on radio, too, but not as huge).  Red Skelton’s various characters were funnier when you could see them.  Jackie Gleason gave TV a real boost when “The Honeymooners” began its run.  Arthur Godfrey took Major Bowes’ idea of a talent show to TV and made buckets of loot.

While radio seemed to be dying a slow death, the new format of music was  to be its saving grace.  Ah, yes.  Music.  From a whole cast of on-air talent and people behind the scenes to present full-on major presentations to one or two people in a booth with a handful of records.

Part Two, assuming I will get around to it, will take up the story of this new direction that the old medium used, but only in spurts.  Teens were about to get a wish they didn’t even know they had— R&B and Rock ‘n’ Roll.  What my generation thought radio was invented for.  And, yeah, Mr. Daghlian, wherever you are, I know I ended that sentence with a preposition (if it was one).  I did it on purpose.  Of all people, I figured you would understand.

NotesNotes…..   Good buddy Gary Heffern turned me on to Annabel (lee) and I have been following since.  She is one of the real creative forces thanks to a voice which is a force in itself.  She can dive into the depths with the best of them and yet can enthrall at the drop of a minor chord.  If she were born back in the twenties or thirties, she would undoubtedly be a contemporary of some of the greatest female vocalists of our time.  I smile when I tell you that this is just the tip of Annabel’s talents.

Jeez, has it been a year since Stephen Young & The Union premiered this video?  Well, not THIS one.  This is an alternate video of one of my favorite tracks of the past year.  A bit of Irish stew which does not sound Irish at all.  Tell you what, I was going to post the original right after for comparisons sake, but “This video is no longer available because the uploader has closed their YouTube account.” pops up where it used to be.

It’s a shame that the original is no longer available. There is something about the film process in the original which caught my attention.  The cartoonish aspect, the graphic novel thing.  And the song should have gotten massive promotion and airplay.  The album, too.  It’s not too late, though.  It’s still available and ready for the taking.

Jesus!  I have been hearing about Dave Van Ronk since I started college back in 1965 when I met That Dorm Guy— the guy who would hold seminars on philosophy and music and politics and religion in his room, the music a soft bedrock and an inspiration.  We heard Van Ronk and Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel and the early Stones when they lived and breathed R&B.  We heard comparisons of various religions and the problems with drugs and were turned on to books we needed to read just so we knew enough not to get slaughtered in any conversations with geniuses.  That Dorm Guy talked a lot about the New York folk scene of the early sixties and the importance of the music developed there.  I don’t think That Dorm Guy is around anymore.  I haven’t heard from him and have tried to find him.  But the memories are still there.  And when I saw and heard this video— Tom Russell remembering Dave Van Ronk— I felt like That Dorm Guy was in the room.  He had old copies of Billboard and The Village Voice that he would let us borrow once in awhile.  Until some guys didn’t return them.  Then he stopped.  I knew That Dorm Guy but my friend Dave Pyles knew Van Ronk himself.  After watching the video, I wondered if maybe he wasn’t someone all of us who “attended” those off-the-cuff” seminars would have liked to know.

I don’t know what it is but I am developing this sense of Fleurie.  She is just far enough outside the pop loop that she intrigues me.  New video.

The music of Seattle’s Lonesome Shack is just raw enough to make me want to hear more.

Sonofagun!  I got a message from Sharon Koltick who plays with Kink Ador, one of my favorite bands— or maybe just used to.  It was plugging a new band known as Dead Cures and as I watched it, I kept hearing this voice I was familiar with and it turns out it IS Sharon.  Back with a new band, evidently.  I like it.  Sharon, I like your new look too.

Yeah, I am a fan.  This is what Sharon was doing around seven years ago.

=FGJ=

Frank’s column appears every Tuesday

Contact us at dbawis@rogers.com

dbawis-button7Frank Gutch Jr. looks like Cary Grant, writes like Hemingway and smells like Pepe Le Pew. He has been thrown out of more hotels than Keith Moon, is only slightly less pompous than Garth Brooks and at Frank bottle capone time got laid at least once a year (one year in a row). He has written for various publications, all of which have threatened to sue if mentioned in any of his columns, and takes pride in the fact that he has never been quoted. Read at your own peril.”

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