The Art of Pleasing Everybody
AFTER listening to current broadcasts and to the critical outbursts common among discriminating listeners, many of us have concluded that the increasing dissatisfaction with many American radio programmes has some justification. Outraged listeners blame the commercial broadcasters, who, fortified with arguments which I shall presently disclose, patiently suggest that the public is responsible for its own discontent. Recent sales figures for receiving sets have convinced the broadcasters — and very logically, too — that theirs is still a ‘reasonably satisfied’ public. Furthermore, 1935 was a banner year for the industry as a whole: according to a report recently published by the Department of Commerce, the total net revenue produced by eight national and regional networks and 561 stations was more than $86,000,000; New York, California, Ohio, Illinois, and Pennsylvania accounted for 42 per cent of the total station revenue; 14,561 employees received $26,911,392 from the networks and stations during the year. Technical progress, substantial profits, and the smiles of satisfied advertisers constitute still another chapter in the phenomenal success story of an adolescent industry.
Its leaders, however, are far from complacent. Most of them regard their stewardship of the air as a serious, sometimes a dangerous, trust and they are seeking punctiliously to uphold the ethics of commercial broadcasting. The more influential and public-spirited radio executives speak unaffectedly of ‘building traditions’ and lament the stubborn survival of meretricious programmes and slovenly production methods. Chain officials state proudly that only one per cent of to-day’s listeners habitually tune in to small stations lacking network affiliations. If this is so (and the independents poke fun at such estimates, claiming, with reason, that a good programme always builds a loyal audience, no matter who broadcasts it), then the big broadcasters are wise in their determination to enforce high programme standards themselves; to advise and encourage, whenever possible, a similar course for associate stations; and to investigate and act upon critical suggestions in their attempt to improve the quality of air presentations generally.
To-day the chains function almost paternally as pacemakers for American broadcasting, and, having already earned considerable prestige and public confidence as the result of costly pioneer efforts and large investments, they stand to lose most if dissatisfied listeners, through legislative or reform agencies, persistently challenge their right to administer the best air channels for profit.
There is still another very good reason why the major broadcasters are anxious to conquer legitimate criticism: the vast, democratic radio audience has one royal prerogative, and need only say, ‘We are not amused’ — then where would radio be? The cheapest as well as the most effortless of amusements, for the audience, is also the most easily rejected. To register disgust or protest you do not have to burn the offending book, stalk out of the theatre, hiss the fat tenor, or cancel your subscription. It is almost too easy, and that is why radio men digest editorial rantings and the more temperate magazine articles carefully; why they frown over indignant correspondence, telegrams, and telephone calls.
Radio programme directors do not bristle at criticism. I would not say that they enjoy it (although one chain official states that one fifth of all critical letters received by his company contain constructive suggestions), but they are thoroughly accustomed to it. Individual reactions described in letters, solicited or otherwise, are still the best barometer that we have to measure changing radio tastes. Diligent statistical surveys have been made, with conflicting results, to impress advertisers, but they have not been ideally conclusive.
In March of this year, results of trials with a new radio meter, designed to record audience preferences, were disclosed in Boston. Invented at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the new meter, when attached to a receiving set, shows investigators when the radio is turned on or off, the station tuned in, and all station changes. Ultimately, though extensive surveys may be difficult and expensive, this new device may tell broadcasters what kind of people and how many of them listen to each programme. Listeners may then be classified and graphs will supply an answer to what the American public really wants. At the present time, though the radio people probably possess more tangible proof of likes and dislikes than their voluble critics, generalizations about popular taste are likely to camouflage private pleading.
Radio lacks the box office which provides motion-picture producers with unanswerable arguments as to what will and what won’t please a mass audience. Because of enormous production costs and the difficulties of distribution, the cinema seldom dares to seek any but the largest audience for its popular creations, but the economics of radio have permitted much experimentation in bringing outstanding musical and educational material to special groups whose existence, at the outset, was merely optimistic surmise. An examination of facts and figures resulting from broadcasts of meritorious programmes should prove illuminating. Enough is known already about that gratified ‘public’ which finds pleasure and contentment with Major Bowes and his ardent amateurs, with radio’s lisping troubadours, popular newsmen, gossips, homespun serials, and persistent jazz. The malcontents are in another camp: thoughtful, discriminating listeners, alarmed by vulgar popularization and disgusted with much that they hear.
This ‘second public’ may not be getting what it wants, but I am afraid it is getting only what it deserves. Readers who doubt this statement should ask themselves: ‘Have I ever directly indicated to a programme sponsor or station owner my approval or disapproval of his policies?’ Unless the answer is a quick and unequivocal affirmative, then you are one of the many whose silence and chronic apathy arc actually responsible for radio’s frantic efforts to win an impossible cum laude in the art of pleasing everybody.
What have we been able to learn about discriminating radio listeners and their habits? Stations KFI (50,000 watts) and KECA (1000 watts) are both in California, but no geographical prejudice is intended in selecting them for illustration. These stations have long and enviable records in serving a large and loyal audience. KECA is regarded by the radio profession as the consistent champion of the best classical music, as far removed from commercialism as is possible under the present system. Both stations are now part of the NBC network, carrying programmes familiar to the whole country, but it is with their individual experiments and achievements that we shall be concerned.
In 1925, two years before the first great broadcasting network was established, KFI gave the United States its initial uncut Wagnerian opera, Die Walküre, Three years earlier the station had offered a complete performance of Carmen, and, when radio was barely emerging from its total preoccupation with vaudeville ’turns,’had the temerity to offer good chamber music as regular fare.
KFI existed to make money, and it still does, charging high rates for its time. A spot announcement of twenty words (readers may not realize how profitable brief announcements are to station owners) costs as much as fifty dollars. But the commercial success of the larger KFI enabled its owner to purchase KECA in 1929 as part of a projected chain. When plans were changed and he was left with an extra station on his hands, he turned it over to his associates, giving them carte blanche to ‘go ahead and gamble with it.’ The men to whom he entrusted KECA have worked tirelessly for years to give that ‘second public’ what they believed it wanted and deserved. They construed the owner’s offer cheerfully, and in less than seven years have lost that patron of the radio arts half a million dollars, while KECA has been gaining its reputation and increasing the number of its listeners.
The station publishes an attractive monthly magazine, which costs each of four thousand subscribers one dollar annually and brings them complete concert programmes and broadcasting schedules, together with interpretative notes and critical comment, weeks before the programmes go on the air. From seven in the morning until midnight, KECA offers every variety of worth-while music from Palestrina to Schönberg, embracing all musical forms. Because recordings are used, for the most part, the station offers during a month more concerts than the most indefatigable critic could cover during a metropolitan season. The listener selects what he wants far in advance, studies composers and compositions if he cares to, anticipates pleasantly, and is certain that at the scheduled time he will hear what he has been promised — fine music, admirably performed, unmutilated by advertising, presented without clowning or rehearsed applause or obtrusive comment. To be sure, much of the music is mechanical to begin with, but so is radio itself; and, since transmission is excellent, few KECA listeners see any reason to prefer the broadcast of a real concert to perfect recordings by the world’s greatest artists. They hear the music as it should be played and are spared the distortions practised in many studios so that some masterpiece may terminate at the same moment as the advertiser’s allotted time.
Each month KECA produces one play in its Shakespearean cycle, presenting good casts and careful productions of such works as Richard II and Coriolanus, requiring two and one half hours for each broadcast. The station offers educational material regularly, coöperating with universities, schools, and civic organizations. Periods are devoted to news, to French, Italian, Spanish, and Chinese lessons, to an informative financial service, pertinent talks by members of the American Medical Association, and such subjects as ‘Law in Everyday Life,’‘Fishing and Hunting,’‘The Better Business Bureau,’‘Friendly Forum’ (religious), and the like. Programmes have been entertaining, as all radio programmes must be, but they have been, generally, dignified presentations, intelligently prepared for an intelligent audience.
Members of this audience responded loyally to a questionnaire sent out by the station in February of this year. More than 25 per cent of the subscribers to the station magazine answered in detail, — a very high return, incidentally, — but the figures which follow are based on the first 955 questionnaires received, enough to be representative. The total of ‘hours listened’ was 4546: 949 morning, 1282 afternoon, and 2315 evening. The average hours per person were four, and this figure confirms what most of the writers said: ‘We are tuned in to KECA almost exclusively.’ News broadcasts were heard 298 hours in the morning, 452 in the afternoon, and 574 in the evening. The average age of the listeners was forty-four years. Occupations were interesting: professionals (doctors, engineers, lawyers, teachers), 202; housewives, 116; students, 52; miscellaneous (policemen, soldiers, salesmen, laborers, clerks), 332. The average income was $3259 per year — which is astonishingly high, enough to make the advertising agencies think twice. This income was derived from 373 employees and 280 who were in business independently. Homes were owned by 41 per cent, — again an exceptionally high figure, — with the average valuation of $6812. Figures for age, income, and home ownership show that the audience is firmly established economically, settled in habits and locale, and highly responsible. Automobiles were owned by 71 per cent of the respondents. Forty-seven per cent said they were definitely influenced by radio advertising.
What of the listeners’ tastes? The majority voted for instrumental music of the highest type, but reservations and comments were so numerous that generalizations were impossible. Sixtyfive per cent listened to organ music, and preferred — quite remarkably — music written originally for that instrument, rather than transcriptions. Unqualified approval was registered for the Shakespearean cycle. Magazine preferences were also listed: Reader’s Digest, 332; Time, 272; National Geographic, 173; Saturday Evening Post, 168, closely followed by several in the ‘quality’ group.
In 1935, about one year before the above figures were obtained, KECA, having consistently devoted 40 per cent of its time to good music, asked its listeners to vote for or against the policy. It was conservatively estimated that 50,000 families approved of good music, — and unknown thousands may have approved tacitly, — so schedules were revised, and, to meet the overwhelming demand, classical music, or its equivalent in other programme forms, was increased to 100 per cent of the station’s sixteen daily hours on the air. Thereafter complaints were received that the swing to the classics had been too great, so listeners were given Blue Network programmes, furnished by NBC, to balance the ration. Then many KECA listeners complained that the network offerings were greatly inferior to KECA’s own material!
It is not easy to please even an intelligent minority, and before we hand over all or part of existing radio facilities to high-minded but inexperienced groups we can learn from the experience of those radio practitioners who are now frankly ‘fed up’ with the apathetic reception of efforts intended to awaken the ‘second public’ to its cultural responsibilities. With but few exceptions, those progressive executives who have tried to produce programmes of the highest quality for a limited audience confess that they are discouraged or disillusioned or even resentful after years spent in fighting indifference. They still believe that discriminating listeners dial in to programmes designed for their pleasure, but the broadcasters lack tangible proof of their appreciation or loyalty. Without such proof how can they convince the gentlemen who pay for the programmes that higher standards may prove profitable?
In May, KECA’s magazine commented: ‘It is necessary that lovers of fine music thoroughly and permanently convince advertisers that the best way to gain their good will and custom is to provide them with the programmes they prefer. A rising graph in the sales chart is the most convincing argument. No merchant of sagacity and judgment will hesitate, in face of such a demonstration, to preserve and sponsor fine music and to restrain his advertising to the smallest duration and frequency.’
Here, I believe, we have the most practical and the best temporary solution of radio’s programme problems. Under the present system— probably the best, for a long time to come — the broadcasters must always debate the question of prestige versus pocketbook. Although the networks and many independent stations offer frequent and sometimes satisfactory sustaining features, sponsored programmes are still most popular with the public, and advertisers have to pay the bills. Yet the agencies are obviously anxious to obtain good will as well as sales for their clients, and as stubborn realists they are well trained in measuring public response to air offerings.
Under present conditions the American radio fan has potential control over every programme he listens to. Father Coughlin and Dr. Townsend are heard because millions have indicated that they wish to hear them. Mindful of the deluge of telephone calls that would disrupt service on his trunk lines, a station owner used to think twice before choosing not to broadcast a Huey Long speech. The supporters of the late Senator were quick to action. So were the adherents of Upton Sinclair in his California gubernatorial campaign. Rugged individualism persists in radio circles, but usually, when policy is not involved, the broadcasters defer to the desires of the audience. Every listener may cast his vote, but not all listeners do. Experience has shown that if Toscanini and the Brahms ’Requiem’ have been promised and subsequently are not put on, three or four disappointed people may take the trouble to ask what is the matter. But if tonsillitis keeps Jack Benny from his rendezvous with the ‘mike,’ the telephone switchboard will have St. Vitus’s dance for hours.
Last winter a radio executive, who, like many others, does not disguise his impatience with discriminating listeners, addressed a great conclave of educational workers assembled to berate that evil monster, the commercial broadcast. He asked, from the platform: ‘Will all of you who have ever written to a radio station, expressing approval or disapproval of its policies, please hold up your hands.’ Timidly two hands were held up, their owners feeling something akin to social ostracism.
The same executive later asked how many of the teachers would donate an hour a week for the preparation of educational broadcasts, if radio facilities were at their disposal. This time half a dozen hands were counted.
Recently I inaugurated a weekly broadcast of candid motion-picture reviews, designed for adults, in which I not only recommended outstanding films, but denounced as drivel those numerous ones unworthy of anyone’s time. This innovation (and don’t think for a moment that the men who backed it were not courageous) found an appreciative but not particularly responsive audience of educated, reflective folk, who thought the project worthy. Some of them were even brave enough to say so in writing, though we did not solicit testimonials. But with few exceptions these letters from professors, artists, teachers, lawyers, and others began: ‘This is the first time I’ve ever written in about a radio programme, but I do enjoy, etc., etc.’ — as if the writers had lost caste.
Two years ago, the Los Angeles Philharmonic was threatened with dissolution, and a public-spirited radio station offered facilities for twelve broadcasts, spanning three months. The campaign was intense and carefully planned. Authorities believed that out of two million taxpayers one hundred thousand might be found financially able or musically spendthrift enough to contribute one dollar each to saving the orchestra. The estimate was faulty, because there were only six thousand!
Nor is that all. Radio advertisers have a way of learning things about the public. Having six concerts to spare, the Los Angeles orchestra, anxious to make new friends, offered to broadcast the programmes free of charge to any sponsor who would defray the nominal expense of local radio time. A sponsor could not be found. Advertisers figured that there were only six thousand people with a dollar’s interest in symphonic music; why divert advertising appropriation to them? What would happen if we walked into a shoe store and said, ‘I came here because you people enabled me to hear Arthur Schnabel playing a programme of Beethoven sonatas last week!’ — and then helped to defray the cost with the profits on a pair of oxfords? And if our friends did likewise? Last year one of the national networks offered, on sustaining and sponsored time, four hundred symphony concerts by the best American orchestras. If that company had tangible proof — nothing more than sincere and unsolicited letters — from half the people who enjoyed some of those concerts, it would not be very hard to get the manufacturer of a dog food to seek your good will by bringing you Parsifal instead of Joe Palooka!
I should like to quote from a comprehensive report compiled by the California Association for Adult Education, which offered five broadcasts weekly for six months during 1935, the air curriculum embracing art, literature, history, physical and social science. Participating in this experiment were the University of Southern California, California Institute of Technology, Loyola University, Occidental College, Los Angeles City Board of Education, and the Southwest Museum. They pooled their resources and broadcast scripts prepared from authentic sources, with editorial supervision and production supplied by station experts, utilizing as performers actors recruited from the federal arts projects. Necessary funds for the experiment were supplied by the American Association of Adult Education, and the National Broadcasting Company coöperated not only by keeping air channels free, at the necessary times, but by broadcasting certain of the historical dramas itself. The educators wrote: ‘The traditions and ideals of scholars have not proved equal to the task of taking over the new instruments of communication. Men of commerce have captured the public ear by superior energy and organization. An analogy may be drawn between modern scholarship ignoring the instruments of press, magazines, and radio, and medneval scholarship clinging obstinately to the Latin tongue. If scholarship makes the necessary effort to master new forms of expression, there is reason to believe that they may become once more the guardians of our intellectual culture.
. . . Radio lies open to any group of men who can produce material of real interest to the general public or to any substantial section of that public. The only way to combat worthless radio material is to produce work of intellectual integrity in equally attractive form.’
Translating this attitude into practical activity, these educators went to work on programmes. Believing that radio lacked (as it does) the equivalent of the well-written magazine article, the teachers decided to ‘dramatize intellectual interests’ and concluded that ‘radio is probably more suited to convey intellectual drama than either stage or screen,’ since the listener sits at his own fireside under ideal conditions for meditation. Dramatic sketches were deemed best for educational broadcasts; and with the Socratic dialogues as perfect models, using four to six characters, the teachers sought to present ideas entertainingly, simply, and yet with authority.
In literature this was relatively easy. Recalling the mediæval bards, and the extreme effectiveness of oral recitation, the teachers supplied scholarly abridgments or adaptations of such works as Socrates’ Crito and Phœdo. These were followed by excerpts from Lucian, Greek pastoral idylls (done as dialogue), and the colloquies of Erasmus, the series finishing with Goethe’s Faust and the poetic drama of D’Annunzio. The audience’s response was encouraging, though even the educators felt compelled to write, ‘Obviously the type of listeners interested would be unlikely to write letters of approval or disapproval to radio stations.’ As a result of the trials the teachers prophesied that such works as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales could be faithfully reproduced on the air, but indicated that the preparation of scripts was no easy task for those without training in the ether medium and that radio education should have its University Press, which, endowed by research organizations, might employ competent writers to prepare scripts for all interested broadcasting groups.
A popular presentation of history offered more difficulties. Objectivity is difficult on the air, and listeners are incendiary when prejudices are aroused. So the committee chose foreign backgrounds. With dictators as a theme, they illustrated the growth of dictatorship historically, employing the drama Octavia, sometimes attributed to Seneca, to portray Nero; source material on Savonarola; Carlyle on Cromwell, Marat, and Frederick the Great, ending with portions of Bulwer-Lytton’s Richelieu. Convinced that they must relate history to modern life, they then decided to concentrate on the economic and social phases of history, omitting the military and political side. Fourteen broadcasts chronicled the lives of ‘the Littletons,’ a representative middle-class family, from the time they were yeomen in the fourteenth century until they resided in the America of the sixteenth. ‘The results,’ says the report, ‘were not very different from ordinary historical dramas broadcast commercially.’
Experiments in discussing aspects of social science on the air proved intimidating. Too many Townsendites might be listening, and they are great letter writers. Art proved an impossible subject for popular treatment, also, though it was suggested that the educators might dramatize the building and decoration of a house and work it in that way. A programme of Oceanography, broadcast with the assistance of the Scripps Institute at La Jolla, found support, but the most successful of all efforts was the course in anthropology. This re-created actual field expeditions to various portions of the Southwest, and the ‘campfire atmosphere fitted in well with traditions of radio presentation.’
I have quoted the report in detail, not only because it is straightforward and honest, but because the results are typical of so many experiments of this type. These results have practically convinced the radio interests that educators are not entirely happy in the rapidly developing medium when given too much responsibility. When offered time for educational broadcasts, to-day, many schools are apparently restrained only by main force from broadcasting their own paraphrases of crooning, clowning, or capers à la Cantor, which lack merely the necessary talent to duplicate the fare that they decry in convention halls.
Radio has never been morally reprehensible; its chief offenses have been against good taste. Voluntarily it has banned much objectionable material that once cluttered up the air, and although the most recent housecleaning may have been prompted, in some instances, by the Federal Radio Commission, the industry’s leaders attribute self-imposed reforms and improvements to the listening public. The educated, cultured minority that takes pride in its intellectual standards deserves no credit for better programmes, except in rare and isolated instances where individuals have replaced the usual reticence with active coöperation. The audience that has done most for radio has been the larger one: people who originally, at least, preferred light entertainment, but who soon developed keener perceptions and a more critical attitude toward programmes in this category. Since these listeners were not afraid to acquaint the broadcasters with their preferences, there has been general improvement in the quality of popular presentations.
Large groups have responded warmly to programmes coupling Ed Wynn, Beatrice Lillie, and Alexander Woollcott with products of the companies which signed their checks. Because of the definite reactions of audiences the trend is now toward inoffensive and telegraphically brief commercial announcements; if every listener will take the trouble to register disapproval, progress in this direction may be hastened. Radio dramas for the most part are still poorly written, but the serials patterned after a successful formula seem to please the large audience which scans the comic strips day after day. Thousands of that audience say that they are pleased. If people who relish classical drama or the best modern plays take the trouble to do likewise, they may hope to hear Cymbeline or Back to Methuselah. To-day radio is not afraid to broadcast Mahler or Bruckner symphonies, but it first had to be shown that there was a public for such works.
Some way must be found to combat that inattention which is the most demoralizing effect the little box in the corner has had on most of us. How often we dial in merely to obtain an obbligato for other activities! We listen with one ear only, are alternately vexed or vaguely pleased with what we half hear, until some sonata twanged on a musical saw or something of the sort rouses us to action. Because people have their radios turned on constantly, the broadcasters must follow the clock, grinding out sound, hour after hour. No agency on earth can provide worthwhile entertainment from dawn until midnight, or later. We want good programmes, but they cannot be produced in gross lots. ‘ Radio consumes words with unexampled voracity,’concluded the educators; and they are right.
Ultimately it may be necessary to make listening cost more. If you paid a tax each time you bought a new detector tube, whose life might be limited to one thousand hours, you might learn to discriminate as carefully between radio programmes as you do with everything else costing money. When your favorite station disappointed you, or if the sponsor of an eminent artist nullified your enjoyment of the concert with obtrusive comments, you would be likely to retaliate. Stations cannot operate for long if you and your friends tune them off. Merchants would not knowingly irritate even a small fraction of their customers through tactless radio blunders. But you must let them know!
If the majority of our discriminating listeners express themselves, they will do more to improve the standards of American radio programmes than any number of commissions and committees. Evolving programmes that are wholesome, entertaining, and of cultural value amounts to a large order. Slow progress, trial and error, active cooperation between anxious broadcasters and every element of their vast audience, must precede standards of uniform excellence, which lie a long way ahead. My hope resides in the dialing fingers of every responsible listener, reflecting the quality of his tastes as well as the probity of his indignation.