1. Yet this was a fairly crude notion of what audiences might want, and by the end of the 1920s, polls and ratings came to dominate how advertisers and their agencies conceived programs. Early polls addressed the question of classical music or jazz, or musical preferences more generally. Radio writer Edgar H. Felix, for example, wrote in 1927 with palpable relief that
    fully 70 per cent of the letters written to WEAF by admiring listeners in 1922 were in response to dance or jazz programs, 25 percent to classical programs, and 5 per cent to so-called educational features. A year later, jazz dropped to about 35 per cent of the response, classical music rose to 35 per cent, and educational talks . . . increased to 35 percent. These figures were brought forward as evidence that the radio audience had improved greatly in its tastes (Felix 123).
    Felix accounted for the popularity of jazz by noting that many stations solicited requests, and that the “poor musical quality of reception then attainable simply exaggerated the more raucous element of jazz music” (Felix 123). Nationally, however, by the late 1920s, jazz or dance music was the most popular music on the air, although classical music never disappeared.

  2. Data such as those employed by Felix were common. In addition to listener mail, there were countless polls about listener preferences, polls that advertisers and sponsors used to conceive programs.28 Depending on how the poll was worded and the kinds of musical categories employed, the poll results usually favored dance music, though classical music fared better in some polls. Taking polls and encouraging listener responses was the first step away from simple assertions of advertisers’ and sponsors’ musical tastes in programming. In a broadcasting environment in which advertising paid for programming, obtaining accurate information on listeners’ preferences was crucial, and polling and audience surveys quickly became prevalent and increasingly scientistic.29 These polls and listener surveys helped advertisers and advertising agencies tailor programs to fit the desired audience, based on the kind of music used.

  3. Polling, and the idea of attempting to capture a particular audience for a particular product with particular music, ushered in the beginning of the end of the goodwill concept. Advertising agencies became bolder about incorporating advertising messages into the programs and targeting particular audiences, and less concerned with generating goodwill among audiences generally.

  4. One program that straddled the “classes and the masses” with great and long-lasting success was The Fleischmann Hour, starring crooner Rudy Vallée, and I will spend some time discussing this program as a way of pulling together the various strands of argument in this article.

  5. On September 5, 1929, J. Walter Thompson began producing and airing a program sponsored by Standard Brands’ Fleischmann’s Yeast.30 Rudy Vallée was the main attraction. John Reber, by summer of 1929 the head of the Radio Department, told his colleagues at a staff meeting on August 26 that the audition of the program went well. An “audition” was a hearing, in Reber’s words, “merely a parading before you of the talent and of the general idea to be developed. We get it for nothing” (J. Walter Thompson Company Staff Meeting Minutes, Box 2, Folder 1). Auditions were probably put on for sponsors to see before their program aired. Reber reported that the star was “really marvelous.”

  6. But Vallée did not get much of a spotlight at first. The early broadcasts featured Vallée mainly as a bandleader, not as a personality. The announcer, the renowned Graham McNamee, did virtually all of the talking except for Dr. R. E. Lee, head of the Fleischmann Health Research Department, who told the listeners of the health benefits of ingesting three Fleischmann’s Yeast Cakes per day. By the program that aired on January 14, 1932, the musical variety show format started to solidify, reducing the announcer to little more than a commercial spokesman for the yeast; in the past he had been the main speaker, as on most programs. But Valleé, who previously had only announced the numbers he was playing, began, at the behest of J. Walter Thompson, introducing the guests as well. “This kind of personality opportunity became a JWT program characteristic,” according to the brief, undated history of the program written by an anonymous employee of the company (“Fleischmann’s Yeast”). By the end of April 1932, Vallée told his listeners that he was both “announcing and directing” the Fleischmann Yeast Hour. Vallée says in his second autobiography that the show by 1932 became “a program that was to discover and develop more personalities and stars than any radio show before or since” (Vallée 87). [Listen to excerpt from The Fleischmann Hour]

  7. Rudy Vallée
    Turning Vallée into the de facto master of ceremonies, the chief personality, was something of an accident. At one point in 1932, J. Walter Thompson was faced with a dilemma: one of the sketches on the program, the comedy team Olsen and Johnson, was popular with audiences, judging by the ratings, but not with the sponsor. Executives at the agency felt that the larger problem, putting acts on Vallée’s program that the public or sponsor might not like, could be circumvented by implying in the script that the immensely popular Vallée had chosen these acts himself, “so that all who like Vallee will like the show because Vallee made it up,” according to John Reber (J. Walter Thompson, Creative Staff Meeting, December 21, 1932, Box 5). “But the facts are,” said Reber, “that Vallee doesn’t know now what is going to be rehearsed this afternoon. He doesn’t write one word of the script. All of the things about how he first met these people, etc., we make up for him” (J. Walter Thompson, Creative Staff Meeting, December 21, 1932).31 This solution effectively created an illusion whereby one personality anointed others with this same quality as he directed the program. For my purposes, the main interest of this story concerns how ratings revealed audience
    preferences that could be used to manipulate sponsors.

  8. The Fleischmann Hour was innovative and exemplary in many ways. In a 1931 speech before the League of Advertising Women at the Advertising Club in New York City, Daniel P. Woolley, vice president of Standard Brands, discussed his notion of “tempo,” that is, matching a product to a particular kind of program and entertainment, in the period before advertisers had much concrete knowledge of their audiences.32 His main example was the The Fleischmann Hour. In those days, yeast was sold not simply for baking bread, but for health, as a kind of vitamin, as we have seen. So Fleischmann’s Yeast was marketed as more of a medicine than a foodstuff in this era. A hard sell, since it tasted bad. Woolley’s own words are worth quoting at length:
    Yeast for health is a very delicate subject to handle. It has much to do with good health, so when we started to look around for a radio program we said, “What is the audience we have to deal with?”
    We decided that, probably, now-a-days they wanted “It” more than anything else. Who had “It” the most of anybody we could find? We found a young crooner, Rudy Vallee, and we found the young ladies panting over him and even some of the old ladies. He also has a great many men admirers. So we engaged Rudy Vallee as the star of this great thing called Health. We wanted him to croon but also we wanted more in the program. We wanted athletics or robust health to play a part. We went through the list—Jack Dempsey and all. Finally we said, “Graham MacNamee [sic] as the noted sports announcer stands for sports!” (“Reproduce Product’s Tempo in Program,” 26).
    “It” refers to sex appeal, the pronoun having been made famous by its attachment to movie star Clara Bow, the “It” girl.33

  9. Woolley said that they wanted to make sure they had a well-rounded program, and so they should get some “ladies with deep and soulful voices and a soloist.” They also included Dr. Lee on the program to talk about health issues. “Now, I might tell you that that combination of MacNamee [sic] for virility, and Vallee for crooning, Dr. Lee to give the advice of the old family physician, plus a lady who sings, has been a very successful radio program” (“Reproduce Product’s Tempo,” 26). It should be noted here that crooning was widely hailed as an effeminate mode of singing, and so balancing Vallée with McNamee was an important consideration for Standard Brands.34

  10. Woolley was right. Vallée had It—sex appeal and that all-important quality, personality. He was hugely popular, the first musical superstar in the new medium of radio, and was widely written about.35 The Fleischmann Hour remained on the air for over a decade, though as the practice of eating yeast for health waned the program was rechristened The Royal Gelatin Hour in 1936. (Royal Gelatin was also owned by Standard Brands, so the sponsor did not change.)

  11. To contrast Vallée’s hugely popular and innovative variety program, it is useful to examine an earlier program, the Aunt Jemima program also produced by the J. Walter Thompson Company. This program only preceded Vallée’s by a year, but speaks to the issue of how radio producers in advertising agencies were piggybacking radio onto earlier forms of entertainment that were known to be popular, namely, minstrelsy, as in the case of the Dutch Masters Minstrels program above.

  12. Yet J. Walter Thompson’s executives thought such a program perfectly natural for selling pancake mix, as noted above. This supposed naturalness, however, still had to be framed and introduced to everyone associated with the product. Perceptions of the quality of sponsored programs occupied many of the J. Walter Thompson staff meeting minutes. Henry P. Joslyn described one of J. Walter Thompson’s own ads, for Aunt Jemima’s Pancake Flour in the meeting on April 3, 1929, an ad that:
    … advertised by a troop of darkies who sing and play for the white folks at Col. Higbee’s plantation. They are real Negroes, headed by J. Rosamond Johnson and Taylor Gordon who have toured Europe and America as concert singers. They are famous under their own names but go on the air as Uncle Ned and Little Bill. Aunt Jemima herself is one of the characters in the troop and a small orchestra, quartette and chorus is built around them. The dialogue brings the name “Aunt Jemima” to the listening ear between each number. The “act” is one of the best on the air today. Occasional jazz is used. Spirituals and old-time favorites are more frequent (J. Walter Thompson Company Staff Meeting Minutes, Box 1, Folder 7). 36
    Unmentioned by Joslyn, the title character was played by vaudevillian Tess Gardella. As one might guess from the foregoing, the scripts for these early shows were written entirely in dialogue. Musical selections were sometimes named, sometimes not. Occasionally the script directions would simply say “Quartette—Lively Spiritual” or “Lively instrumental,” and referred to Aunt Jemima and her friends as either docile or lively.

  13. J. Walter Thompson Company staff nonetheless found the program effective. The company News Letter from December 15, 1928 includes a report from the company’s Chicago office.
    “We settled ourselves in our leather chairs, expectantly, and out of the loud speaker came softly the distant sound of Negro field hands, singing an old southern song,” writes Paul Harper of the Chicago office.

    “With this pleasing background the announcer told us we were to be transported to Aunt Jemima’s cabin down on the levee, where we would be given a glimpse of a Negro frolic. Then one character after another was introduced and a sprightly and amusing dialogue followed. Aunt Jemima called on various individuals to perform their musical specialties. One after the other, the members of the company sang negro spirituals, played on accordion and banjo, joked with each other and told anecdotes, punctuated with uproarious and infectious laughter.

    “The Aunt Jemima selling talk was worked in very unobtrusively and naturally. The whole entertainment hung together beautifully and did not drag for a single moment. It was apparent to every one present that the whole thing was a very distinctive piece of work and far above the average of radio programs” (“Aunt Jemima on the Radio”).
    Joslyn emphasized the importance to preparing the sales organization and salesman before the commercial is ever aired. With respect to Aunt Jemima, “the trade and the salesman out in the field all of the sudden heard a lot of rather native stuff on the air, tied up to Aunt Jemima. They didn’t understand it. They heard the old-time darkies and they heard a lot of murmuring and whispering during the act—things are not always distinct. It is very realistic and very good. You are not supposed to hear everything. But it was not ‘sold’ to them and then wrote in and said they couldn’t understand it. …” (J. Walter Thompson Company Staff Meeting Minutes, Box 1, Folder 7). Nevertheless, Aunt Jemima sales figures climbed steadily after the introduction of the radio program. In a staff meeting on April 16, 1930, John Reber presented his colleagues with the following figures: sales for 1928 were up 14 percent over the previous year; 1929, up 30 percent; 1930, 35 percent in January (J. Walter Thompson Company Staff Meeting Minutes, Box 2, Folder 3).

  14. The transition of advertising from print to sound in the 1920s demonstrates how a new technology does not simply burst on the scene and changes everything. Instead, new technologies such as radio are at first viewed through the lens of existing needs and practices, and only gradually come to shape those existing needs and practices. Radio, bought and paid for by advertisers, was the culminating force in the wave of consumerism that had begun at the end of the 19th century. Programs such as the Fleischmann Hour and superstars such as Rudy Vallée transformed advertising from a relatively straightforward process of hawking goods to a mechanism of funding programs, and imbuing those programs with the ideologies of modern consumerism. The Fleischmann Hour and other programs were educating people about their roles as consumers in an era widely viewed as a kind of technological modernity, encouraging people to fashion selves not through their experience in their communities, in churches, in schools, in unions, but through mass-marketed goods made real and vivid—and desirable—on the radio.

         2     3     4     Works Cited

28. See “What the Public Likes in Broadcasting Programs Partly Shown by Letters,” Palmer, McDonald, “Replies to WJZ Questionnaire on Listeners’ Tastes Show Classical Music More Popular than Jazz,” and Hettinger. See also Hammond and “Favorite Musical Numbers of the Farm Audience.”

29. See Douglas’ chapter “The Invention of the Audience” in Listening In; and Stamps.

30. Vallée’s autobiography says that the first air date was October 29, 1929 (Vallée 86).

31. See also Marchand, 49, for a discussion of this deception. Vallée writes in his second autobiography, however, that he was permitted to come up with his own list of guests, some known luminaries, and “many others whom I dug up or came across in my travels” (Vallée 88).

32. See Marchand for a discussion of “tempo” in this period.

33. Thanks are due to Tara Browner for telling me of this.

34. On crooning as effeminate, see McCracken.

35. Most of the writing about Vallée was the stuff of fanzines, but see Gellhorn. Despite the huge amount of ink used about Vallée at the height of his popularity, there is only one scholarly work on him, McCracken.

36. J. Rosamond Johnson (1873-1954) was the brother of James Weldon Johnson and who had a distinguished career as a composer and performer. I have been unable to ascertain any information on Taylor Gordon.



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