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A History of Radio and Content – Part I: Cylinders to 45 RPMs

One of our favorite things about doing Radio Survivor is that people just come out of the blue and tell us that they’ve got a complete history of the relationship between radio and content, and would we like to publish it? Sure, we told Chris Stroffolino.

Chris is a musician, author and teacher currently living in Oakland, California. His first solo album, Single-Sided Doubles was released in December 2010 on Pop Snob. You can contact him on his Facebook page.

We’ll be publishing this series in four parts, each every Thursday morning. Part I takes you from the first phonographic cylinder in 1877 through the 45 RPM record. Thanks Chris. Enjoy!

My sister once asked me why there’s so many popular songs with the word “radio” in the title, or at least prominently displayed, like “transistor radio” and “on the radio” in Van Morrison’s two biggest AM-Radio hits, or even songs that mention radio negatively, like Costello’s “Radio Radio” or that KRS-REM thing. Part of it is that musicians were trying to conjure up airplay, with the sheer soul of celebrating the media that nourished them. Hell, if one of your best memories is “laughin and runnin, hey hey, “ with a brown eyed girl with that transistor radio, of course you’re gonna try to write a song for it. Whereas to celebrate “the little bitty record with the great big hole” still seems sterile. It was easier to get a record label than it was to get in on the radio, and there aren’t even more songs that bombed about records than about radio.

This led me to investigate the uneasy, and even antagonistic, relationship that has existed between the broadcast medium of music radio and the recording industry from their beginnings a century ago. Recording developed at least a decade before radio came onto the scene. Many houses had pianos up until this point, and every town, big and small, had some form of live music. So the early Edison cylinders were a novelty and not an easy sell. The sheet music business stood the most to lose by the success of records. “Get a piano” was the musical equivalent of “get a horse” (or, better, a bike), especially given the widespread poverty and sweatshops of early 20th century America (not even half of which was wired for electricity yet).

1. Records

Thomas Edison produced the first phonographic cylinder in 1877. These early cylinders could both play and record sounds. In 1888, the first lateral disks, whose sound quality was inferior to Edison’s cylinders, were introduced. Originally used only in toys, by 1894 these disks were placed on the open market in direct competition with the cylinders. By the turn of the century, the Victor Talking Machine Company had gained exclusive patent for manufacturing these disks, and the sound quality soon rivaled the cylinders. Throughout the teens, both these recording devices co-existed and competed with each other for sales. In November 1918, Victor’s patent for manufacturing disks expired, opening the field for many other smaller companies to produce the disks. This led disc records to overtake cylinders in popularity and become the industry standard in the next few years (Edison inauspiciously ceased production of the cylinders by 1928).

November 1918 also marks the surrender of Kaiser Wilhelm and the end of World War One, so the increased sales of recorded music was certainly aided by the post-war Victory economy. But this victory of disks over cylinders was also a result of the shorter patent lengths granted to inventors, as the courts weighed the public good more important than unregulated monopoly capitalism. In this case, the expired patent both hurt and helped Victor. The proliferation of smaller labels, often run by first generation immigrants, increased sales–both of the players and the disks themselves. Victor lost its monopoly over the disk market, but still sold more disks than it did when it had the monopoly, as its competitors were now doing a lot of the advertising–and even if many more companies were making disks, these disks were usually played on Victor’s Talking Machines, if not sold at Victor’s stores.

As record sales slowly grew, the labels realized they could make more money off the artists by forcing them to sign exclusive contracts for the privilege of recording, which was slowly becoming more central to the cultural life of America than going out to see live music, as well as having wild hoe-downs on the front porch or piano recitals and sheet music sing-alongs in the living room.

But why did records win out over cylinders? The fact that cylinders were two way, allowing recording as well as play-back, while disks could only play pre-recorded music, surely had something to do with it from a corporate perspective, especially as folks like Alfred Bernays were trying to create the ontological category of the “consumer” by elevating it over the worker, laborer, producer. This made records more sterile than cylinders, or would have were not the first commercial radio station (KDKA-Pittsburgh) granted a license on November, 2, 1920.

Radio immediately changed the game. Victor and other established labels needed radio to make a bigger dent in the market, but didn’t quite know what to do with it yet–was radio an opportunity or a threat? It was clearly more of a threat to cylinders because, like the cylinders, it was potentially a two-way form of communication, especially once AT&T got the phones going which helped the local radio stations organize its listeners into suppliers of content. Radio was cheaper and broadcast quality was almost immediately better than any recorded music was. The radio, like the record, was at least a thing; a commodity–yet broadcast was a threat to major record labels. As long as Victor could keep improving technology, they could rely on revenues from “planned obsolescence” every few years, but that was not enough for the record industry. Ideally, they wanted weekly purchases; they wanted a nation of record collectors!

2. Radio

Although the first successful radio broadcast experiments were conducted by Tesla, Marconi, and Baviera from 1901 to 1903, and visionary (college-affiliated) entrepreneurs like Charles David Herrold (who first coined the term “broadcasting”) in San Jose and Harold Powers in Boston, set up innovative stations, radio manufacturing and distribution lagged significantly behind that of cylinders, Victrolas and disks for most of the teens. In fact, radio technology was becoming increasingly sophisticated during this time, but the U.S. Army and Navy got Congress to impose a non-commercial monopoly on radio technology for World War I; they wanted to keep control over radio for themselves.

The secrecy of advances in radio technology was a matter of national security. First and foremost, radio was armed-forced radio. The U.S. Army and Navy helped nationalize radio in the United States by forcing General Electric to stop selling radios to the Brits, whose Marconi Company was setting up to colonize America with radio as much as any East India company. To sweeten the deal, the military offered GE contract for all US military radio production during the war. General Electric needed financial backers so it could continue its research and development of this new, potentially revolutionary, technology. The new standing-army and navy, with the recent institution of federal income tax, was willing and able to pay. The company that by 1919 was known as Radio Corporation of America (RCA) got its start by making radios for the war effort.

Radio was a red, white, and blue native son, as patriotic as it came. For a while, it seemed the radio airwaves might become government owned–as they became in most European countries (and others), but Congress tabled a bill that would allow the military to maintain control of the radio airwaves once the war ended. So, after the war General Electric set up the Radio Corporation of America to help the military gain control of the American radio stations that had been owned by Marconi. Whereas today, the army and the navy are often fronts for General Electric (Exxon-Mobil, etc), in 1918 General Electric was a front for the army. Whether this privatization was the beginning of the military-industrial complex or what Obama calls a public-private partnership, certainly both the military and the radio manufactures benefited by the arrangement (and, at first, mostly at the expense of foreign investors).

Yet, just as there were many anti-military isolationists in the government, so were there many amateurs and local entrepreneurs with a voice in congress who had a populist community-building stake in this new medium–so while RCA was allowed to make and sell the new mode of cultural production, the radio device, they were not allowed nearly as much of a monopoly over the cultural means of production (the content the radio stations broadcast). So the new broadcast medium was regulated by the government in an attempt to keep the new AM “real estate” a level playing field between forces of monopoly capitalism and ma-and-pa capitalism.

In the early 20s, radio broadcasting was an exciting mess of ownership and content. Because broadcasting was not yet fully privatized or self-sufficient in the sense of being supported by advertising or listener sponsorship, radio became a loss leader. The stations owned by department stores and dime stores were established to sell radios while those owned by newspapers were established to sell newspapers and express the views of the owners. The stations that RCA and other radio manufacturers owned helped sell radios, but the dime store stations had the edge because the stations were often played in the stores that were located on main-streets in small-towns and downtowns with a lot of walk-in-traffic, thus turning many people onto music they otherwise would have to go out of their way for.

The already established manufacturers of records, such as Victor, had artists sign contracts stating they would not appear on the radio. They were afraid that this fledgling upstart medium, radio, would cut into the profits from their record sales as well as of the live venues these labels either owned or had already established close ties with. Some live venues made deals with record labels preventing radio simulcasts for fear that less people would show up. Broadcasters, however, were unfazed by this power play by the recording industry. Radio just brought different live performers into the fold–live performers who weren’t already signed to the record labels with their restrictive anti-radio clause. It didn’t take too long for the clubs to realize that radio reached people and that these people spread the word/sound to other people who did go out.

The Department and Dime store owned-radio stations eventually helped sell more records and record players, as people heard songs on these stations and voted with their pocketbooks. Beginning in 1923, ASCAP could even collect royalties from the stores that played radio (ostensibly on behalf of the artists & songwriters, though more of it went to the record labels & publishers). Because much of the talent that appeared on live radio shows was at least as exciting as the talent that was being signed by the established record labels, eventually the record labels realized they had to sign the live radio broadcast stars, or new labels came into being that didn’t have such restrictive clauses.

Most of the songs people wanted to hear were not produced by Edison or Victor, but rather by smaller upstart labels. Although these larger record labels had the industry muscle, their top-down corporate structure made them less competitive in the field of finding new talent (Artists & Repertoire). This is one of the reasons why the smaller radio stations became more popular than those owned by larger corporations like AT&T who used a “toll broadcasting” model in which bigger businesses would pay more money to underwrite entire shows for a brief mention (and, implicitly, veto power over content): the basis for NPR’s model of funding.

In the Jim Crow south, and segregated north, during the 1920s, more black artists rose to prominence as a result of radio than as a result of records. Sure, some of these artists were signed to record labels that understood the power of radio, but quite of few of them were first introduced on live broadcasts from churches and dance-halls. Radio thus became, whether intentionally or not, a vehicle for social integration in a way records could not.

Otherwise segregationist white people were fascinated by sounds they never really heard before, only later to find out the “race” of the musicians (and by then, it was too late; many were already hooked). They could enjoy this at home, and didn’t have to be seen buying a “race record.” When records became a vehicle of social integration, it was only because they were played on the radio, or the musicians had already become radio stars. In the early 1920s, Victor lagged behind these upstart labels in recording and marketing the most popular music of the period: jazz and vocal blues. Victor’s own neglect of the black artists (or racism if you will) during this period is one of the main reasons so many independent companies sprang up.

3. NBC

With the grass-roots proliferation of commercial radio stations after the war, RCA, as the leading manufacturer of radios, grew. GE, now under the name RCA, successfully lobbied the army and navy to forcibly seize radio stations from the Brits, and by 1926 was able to create the first national radio network from these stations, along with others purchased from AT&T: The National Broadcasting Company. The division of labor between RCA and NBC was between radio (as mode of production–device) and broadcast (as means of cultural production–programming). Because A T&T had granted RCA the right to lease their phone lines for network transmission, NBC was able to compete with the locally owned, but originally more popular stations, by selling national advertising for larger chunks of time at higher costs to larger corporations. Consequently, radio became a major force for cultural cohesion in this country by flattening out regional differences with national celebrities; it allied itself with Hollywood, also in its infancy, and became more about shows than songs.

As Willie Nelson puts it: “The Big radio stations had ‘barn dance programs’ (Atlanta, Fort Worth, Chicago, and Nashville), where the G.O.O began in 1925. Most of it was live music in the early days, before the radio stations and record companies realized they weren’t competitors, but were, instead, in bed together.” RCA’s purchase of Victor to become RCA-Victor, represents the first major national merger of the two aspects of the music industry that had been antagonistic to each other. It was quite legal for the same company to now manufacture record players, records and radios–but NBC still had to seem somewhat autonomous with the feds snooping around.

Significantly, it was the radio manufacturer that bought the record manufacturer, as radio quickly became more attractive, affordable and profitable than records. Ironically, the merger of RCA and Victor occurred because the justice department brought charges against RCA and GE of breaking anti-trust laws in 1930. The RCA-Victor-NBC conglomerate proved even more powerful in the culture industry. GE and RCA split in name, but GE was never far from RCA, and RCA’s fingers were never too far from every major development in the music business for the remainder of the 20th century–no matter how seemingly autonomous the industry got.

With the acquisition of NBC, RCA-Victor could now become more actively involved with the efforts of the National Association of Broadcasters, the lobbying group founded in 1922 by the head of the Zenith. The labor unions had tried to develop a public, non-profit license-funded radio system without commercials, but the NAB successfully lobbied the government to establish General Order 40 to solidify their hold on the radio market against the unions. On a content level, NBC’s top down programming brought back minstrel shows (Amos & Andy, Al Jolson), to complement the lack of black artists RCA signed.

After this merger, RCA-Victor records became slightly more responsive to the radio market it had failed with earlier in the 1920s, releasing records by Jelly Roll Morton, Bennie Moten, Duke Ellington and other black bands. They even tried to start their own “Dimestore” label to compete with the smaller labels, since they could now push their artists on their radio network, as well as the live venues they owned, and make the records readily available. People saw through it, and their dimestore label still flopped.

Golden Age?

By the early 1930s, the upstart radio had grown so much faster than the recording industry many predicted the end of records. It’s not entirely accidental that radio grew much more under FDR than it did during the 1920s, especially in proportion to record sales and production. In 1931, only 40% of American households owned radios. By 1938, ownership had more than doubled to over 80%. Meanwhile record sales dipped from $75 Million in 1929 to $26 Million in 1938. People tend to ask “why pay more for bottled water, when I can drink from a free-flowing public fountain (for which there’s only an initial hook-up fee)?” especially during a depression. Though public sales of records came first, radio could have come into existence without records. Records came into existence without radio..but wouldn’t have taken hold to the extent they did in the last century without radio. Records had to piggyback on radio—certainly without radio they wouldn’t have created nearly as cohesive, integrated and shared culture.

For many, 1930-1950 is The Golden Age Of Radio; certainly it was the golden era network radio-drama. New York talent-agent Arthur Judson formed the United Independent Broadcasters on January 21, 1927 to compete with NBC as the unorganized independent radio stations could not. The fledgling network soon needed additional investors though, and the Columbia Phonograph Company, manufacturers Columbia Records rescued it in April 1927; as a result, the network was renamed “Columbia Phonographic Broadcasting System.” Because AT&T, which had close ties with GE and NBC, charged this new CBS Network more for its use of land-lines than they charged NBC, the costs in establishing a rival network proved prohibitive, and by the end of 1927, Columbia Phonograph pulled its financial backing, so Judson sold the network and William S. Paley, a young Philadelphia cigar magnate whose La Palina cigars had doubled their sales through radio advertisements, became President. Since the record company was no longer the major investor, Paley dropped the “phonographic” from the network name; and it became CBS. By September 1928, Paley became the majority owner of CBS with 51% of the business.

Because CBS was born from the United Independent Broadcasters, it was originally much friendlier to the local radio affiliates than NBC was. While NBC paid affiliates for every network sponsored show (the entertainment and music programming of The Red Network), and charged them for every sustaining show (the non-sponsored news and cultural programs of The Blue Network), which forced these stations to find their own advertisers while having no control over the programming (a form of taxation without representation), CBS gave away the sustaining programs for free, provided the stations would run every sponsored show, and accept CBS’s check for doing so. Within Paley’s first year as President, CBS’s gross earnings more than tripled and cut into NBC’s market share; soon CBS had more affiliates than either NBC Red or NBC Blue.

CBS had become profitable enough in the depression to buy American Record Corporation (ARC), parent of its onetime investor Columbia Records, in 1938. In the intervening decade, the stone that been rejected had become the corner stone. Now CBS Network owned Columbia records–a clear contrast with RCA/NBC’s ownership model, in which the Radio (& Record) manufacturer owned the broadcasting network. Both conglomerates understood the need to own both manufacturing and broadcasting, yet the flow of capital within their respective corporate structures had an aesthetic dimension. When they were the “big two,” the differences between them seemed to really matter), on just about every level of the business.

While RCA President Sarnoff approached his decisions more as a hardware executive interested in selling gadgets than a broadcaster, Paley knew his—and his affiliates’—success rose and fell with the quality of CBS programming: As David Halberstam puts it: “[H]e knew what was good and would sell, what was bad and would sell, and what was good and would not sell, and he never confused one with another.” As “War Of The Worlds” showed, radio could have consequences–for better or worse. Such consequences could get in the way of profits, however, especially for RCA’s top-down profit model.

5. Radio With Pictures

RCA’s intention was to use the radio as a stepping stone for its record sales as well as Television. TV technology was sufficiently developed in the 1930s, but plans for introducing it were put off due to the depression and the rationing for the World War II effort. As Nat “King” Cole smoothly crooned, “let bygones be bygones, because men are as scare as nylons,” radio grew in the continuing scarcity of WW2 in part by cutting into the newspaper business. Wartime rationing of paper limited the size of newspapers—and hence advertisers—and when papers turned them away, they migrated to radio sponsorship. A 1942 act of Congress made advertising expenses a tax benefit and that sent even automobile and tire manufacturers—who had no products to sell since they had been converted to war production—scurrying to sponsor symphony orchestras and serious drama on radio.

By the end of the war, RCA was gambling that it would sell more records and gain more control of content with TV than it had with radio. Manufacture of radios was not increasing fast enough for the accountants; even with planned obsolescence and clear advances in transistor technology, they still lasted a few years too long; much more money was to be made selling TVS. By the end of World War II, the networks had bigger fish to fry, and were ready to launch TV to the newly domesticated Rosie-The-Riveters & their GI Bill husbands, and put radio in its place. It had served its purpose as main course; now it would be appetizer.

National network radio was at least 50% talk; music DJs often had a late-night cult status because the networks figured that would be the best time to fill their federally mandated quota of local community-based programming; they wouldn’t make money, but at least they wouldn’t be losing any with the cheap labor (and local color or cred) these DJS provided. These late night semi-autonomous regional music-oriented DJS became the gerbils eating the dinosaur eggs of network radio programming.

The executives of the more established record labels figured they could make more money publicizing their music through TV (cf: Mitch Miller’s show on CBS, owned by the same label he was the A&R man for). When the big network stars, programs and advertisers defected to Television by 1950, radio was forced to localize and become even more music based by playing records. When the networks and big record labels smelt more potential for money and cultural influence in TV, they underestimated the power of music radio, and the ingenuity of the abandoned affiliates who knew how to run a radio station without them.

Even if the large networks’ intention was to abandon radio and watch as it withered and died, and even if the localization was forced, for many this was the beginning of the true golden age of music radio. In the vacuum left by the empire, the natives played like mice, and worked like cats. As in the early 20s, new, smaller, record labels grew as once again RCA and other major labels were ignoring “race” artists who were very popular on radio. Rooting itself in local communities, radio created a varied tapestry of regional hits that helped sustain a musical career in the absence of national mega-stardom; radio enabled true folk music more than the ‘folk music revival’ ever could or would. Music radio, like the rise of (pre-RCA) Nashville was in part a reaction to the cultural homogeny (and hegemony) the networks were threatening to impose, especially in the wake of World War 2.

6. The 45 RPM Single

During World War II, RCA had been in trouble with the government again. There were charges of payola and, in 1943, the FCC broke up the NBC News Network, forcing RCA to sell its Blue Network radio stations to the Life Savers magnate who established ABC. The RCA-Victor label was also adversely impacted by the American Federation of Musicians Recording ban. Rival Columbia records settled with the union first, and thus managed to lure acts like Eugene Ormandy from RCA. RCA’s anti-labor policies paradoxically opened the door for many non-union musicians to get heard, and unintentionally opened the door for the new BMI-affiliated r&b artists shortly after World War II.

Because Columbia had settled with the musician’s union, many unionized jazz and classical musicians defected and returned to it. This is part of why Columbia launched the first successful 33 1/3 LP format on June 18, 1948, since this format benefits the longer compositions those artists were preferring. Although RCA had unsuccessfully introduced a 33 1/3 LP format in 1931, this time it refused to follow Columbia’s suit and, instead, started production of the 45RPM format in 1949. Both companies still made 78s throughout the early 50s, but RCA’s initiatives in manufacturing 45RPMs and the devices that played them played a vital role in the golden age of music radio (1950-1975), even if it was originally undertaken as a mere power-play with Columbia for settling with the unions.

The r&b, country and pop artists that emerged in the wake of the musician’s strike, while not exactly scabs, were not as unionized or informed about the business and were willing to work for less money. The immediacy, agility and “less is more” ethos of the 45RPM single was attractive to the new program directors and DJS at the music radio stations. It quickly became the closest thing the record business ever had to a gold standard. As in the early 1920s before radio networks, it wasn’t the major labels’ records that became the most popular on radio; it was smaller label’s records.

Next week, Part II of Chris Stroffolino’s series: From Juke Box through Top 40

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