THE coming of the automobile brought a great change to the American countryside. In my youth an occasional board fence promoted the virtues of the Kickapoo Indian Cough Cure, and a few farmers leased their barn-sides to proclaim the virtues of a laxative that worked while you slept, or the restorative powers of other less well remembered pills. The great spreads of billboard came with the automobile. Then the loveliest hillsides were redecorated to resemble, as closely as possible, the molding panels of the streetcars, so that a city automobilist might feel thoroughly at home, and not be able to detect any difference between a river valley and a subway.
The sign-builders worked while we slept; yet in the course of time a few progressive Americans woke up and wrote letters to the papers, and lobbied their legislatures, and built up that mysterious force which we call, in our ignorance, public opinion. The through highways were hopelessly lost; the highway between Philadelphia and New York, for instance, long ago became one long ribbon-like slum, resembling the conventional view of almost any American city from a railroad train: one mighty procession of slightly decayed billboards.
But the automobile public did not relish the prospect ; it began to insist on park-like highways free from billboards, and community after community across the once fair face of this land began to limit the ancient freedoms of property owners and to enact statutes against the desecrations of advertising. Some of these communities actually convinced their citizens that it paid not to advertise; people liked to gaze on green grass and green trees without being forced to meditate on bathroom functions.
All of which is merely an introduction to a meditation on the apparently hopelessly diseased state of the American radio public. Upon my return from six months overseas, where I had listened occasionally to the sedate programs of the British Broadcasting Corporation and the almost uninterrupted jazz of the American Army network, neither of which is punctuated by “commercials,” I took a two-week vacation in the country and got snowed in. So I listened to the home radio with somewhat fresh ears, and my ears were horrified.
I learned about something loudly described as “American stomach,” which I think my grandmother would have described, in a decorous family whisper, as biliousness; I gathered that it was virtually universal among American civilians. I heard enough laxative advertising to convince a visitor to this country, hearing our radio for the first time, that the chief wartime occupation of the U.S.A. was performed in its W.C.’s. I gathered that we were a nation of sufferers from acid stomach, chronic headaches, inadequate elimination, and general physical incompetence. The only way to escape the constant oleaginous chatter on these topics was to turn off the radio altogether.
I heard a stirring news broadcast slide into the disease mood with a slogan which appeared to be “Work, fight, give, make democracy live, do you feel tired when the alarm clock goes off, you need. . . .”And the name of the remedy which seemed to be destined to make democracy work and fight and jump up eagerly at the sound of the alarm clock was spelled out again and again and again.
It was, quite literally, sickening. Living with the uproariously healthy American Army at the front, I had forgotten all the vitamins and salicylates I had taken with me from America, had fallen asleep almost instantly every night, and felt huskier than I had felt for years. Returning to “ rest ” after this arduous life at the front, and listening to the radio, I found myself tossing in bed, getting up and searching the medicine closet, wondering if something might not really be the matter with me. If the U.S.A. has not in fact become a nation of neurotic, chronically hypochondriac pill-chasers, it certainly isn’t the fault of the radio. Radio is doing its utmost to make us such.
It occurred to me that when the healthy Army comes home, after years of listening to radio programs uninterrupted by insidious suggestions of liver, stomach, and brain troubles, it might be alarmed for the health of the home population, or it might just be plumb disgusted with radio commercials. I once put that suggestion in print, in a modest paragraph tucked into the middle of an article on the probable reactions of men returning from the battle fronts to the home front.
The rest of my article was ignored. But I was astonished at the reaction to that little paragraph. Apparently a lot of civilians who had never been off to the wars but had sat at home, night after night, listening to the laxative radio, felt the same way only more so. One veteran of the last world war seemed to feel the subject more important to the future of this country than the San Francisco Conference; he had written a blistering letter to his home-town paper and proclaimed: “I would be proud if shot for having written it.”
Still, he and other letter writers gave me fresh hope. Perhaps the radio commercials didn’t express the basic metabolism of America after all. Perhaps the public, instead of being sick at its stomach, was sick at the radio. Perhaps it would revolt. And then I remembered the campaign against billboards, and the serene billboardlessness of the new parkways all over the country, and the successful campaigns of Harvey Wiley, and Samuel Hopkins Adams, and others, which a quarter century ago blasted the nastier patent-medicine advertising out of the pages of the better magazines and newspapers. No self-respecting newspaper or magazine today would accept the stuff which is the every-quarter-hour diet offered by the radio.
Not that a little something might not be done in the magazines too. Just to check my optimism, I pick up a current issue of a relatively scrupulous weekly. I find headlined advertisements reading, roughly, “Don’t let infectious dandruff spoil your crowning glory. As a precaution, use Sizzler systematically.” “Underarm odor? You can’t count on your morning shower to keep you from the risk of offending. Get Dumb today!” “To combat bad breath I recommend Boldface’s dental cream.” “Soldier! Try NG for quick relief from headaches.” “Try improved corn plasters activated with Insane.” Perhaps the magazines need an anti-billboard campaign too, and perhaps the American Medical Association should be encouraged to give up its idiotic crusade against social medicine and to crack down on quackery instead.
When the boys come home, they may be too busy hunting jobs to worry about radio, but they’ll be aware of the perversion of it as never before. They’ve had their radio pure. They’re used to straight stuff. And they have cultivated, in the idle moments with which war is filled, the old American habit of griping. They might be ready to chime in with a revolt of the civilians.
I don’t know the answer. Perhaps it’s too late to hope for anything more than a few billboardless parkways of the air. Perhaps not. After all, commercial radio is still young; I discover that only twenty-three years ago a shrewd Republican businessman, then in the United States Cabinet, said: —
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.
Two years later, in 1924, the same great engineer remarked: —
I believe that the quickest way to kill broadcasting would be to use it for direct advertising.
And in 1925 he said: —
Advertising in the intrusive sense wi11 dull the interest of the listener and will thus defeat the industry. Furthermore it can bring disaster to the very purpose of advertising if it creates resentment to the advertiser.
Herbert Hoover was elected President even after he made those subversive remarks. I don’t recall that he continued that line of thought publicly after he became a candidate for public office, but he may still be thinking along the same lines. I suspect that a good many million Americans are doing so. And if more of us stood up and shouted what we feel as we hear, night after night, the shoddy nastinesses of everyday radio commercials, the industry would listen. It’s worried. And the highways of the air might he made pleasanter traveling—which, even when we again have gas for our automobiles, will still be important.