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The Rise of the Radio Expert

Radio posed significant challenges that upset established political practices, reordered political assets, and gave a powerful voice to political outsiders. More than simply “an amplifier for traditional oratory,” a loudspeaker that could reach a larger audience, radio was a novel form of political communication that offered opportunities for innovation but also posed distinct risks for those unable to adapt.25 In facing up to these challenges, politicians and party leaders turned toward a new source of advice—the radio expert—to help craft political messages in line with the demands of the new medium.

At first, neither party possessed experienced staff that could run the radio portion of their campaigns. Although dedicated personnel handled political broadcasts as early as 1928, many lacked practical skills in radio or were unable to keep pace with the rapid developments taking place. In 1928, for example, the Democrats chose a radio novice, Josef Israels, to oversee broadcast efforts for the campaign. According to the director of political programming for NBC, Israels’s only real qualification for the job was the fact that his mother, Belle Moskowitz, was Al Smith’s closest adviser. Similarly, in 1932, Democratic radio strategy fell to Ewing Laporte, a longtime party loyalist with no previous radio experience. Eventually, Laporte was replaced by Herbert Pettey, who was only marginally more qualified, having formerly worked in the film industry (Pettey was rewarded for his work with an appointment as the first secretary of the Federal Communications Commission). The Republicans did not do much better. Responsibility for radio in 1928 and 1932 was in the hands of Paul Gascoigne, a former telephone company executive whose duties ranged from the coordination of national broadcasts to introducing Hoover before his speeches. One senior network official complained that Gascoigne was “utterly incapable of managing such a broadcast.”26 Overall, as one executive noted in 1932, “The political parties have not learned how to use radio to the greatest advantage.”27

Four years later, both parties placed responsibility for the radio portions of their campaigns in the hands of experienced professionals. In 1936, the Democrats recruited a number of prominent NBC executives to supervise broadcast placement and publicity. The 1936 Democratic convention, in particular, was a “carefully conceived radio production” that reflected “a new awareness of the radio audience.”28 The convention was so meticulously scripted, in fact, that some delegates complained their only function was to “supply scenery and sound effects so that the home audience can hear the animals roar.”29 After the convention, the Democratic radio effort remained “aggressive and well-organized,” adding more hands from NBC to oversee the radio campaign. Their efforts helped execute “a more efficiently run and a more commercialized campaign.”30

Republicans also employed specialized staff in 1936, drawing heavily from the field of advertising. In a significant departure from previous years, the Republicans divided press and radio responsibilities in 1936. The Publicity Department was led by the managing editor of the Buffalo News and was staffed mostly by journalists. The newly established Public Relations Department, by contrast, was directed by Hill Blackett, founding partner of one of the largest advertising agencies in the country. Blackett’s firm was the leading producer of radio advertising; his partner Frank Hummert created the commercially sponsored serial, or soap opera. Upon Blackett’s installation, Republicans boasted of a new kind of campaign that would resemble “an intensive, subtle, highly organized salesmanship drive.”31 Accordingly, Blackett appointed staff experienced in radio time buying and program placement. Regional radio offices concentrated Republican broadcasts in areas deemed competitive, largely excluding the Democratic South. Campaign tactics conformed to what had become standard commercial practice: heavy repetition of Republican messages throughout the week and brief spot announcements that ran twice a day on the East Coast. However, the Republican division of press and radio responsibilities produced rivalries within the campaign, illustrating both the growing specialization of tasks and the competition between older and newer forms of political expertise occasioned by the new medium.32

Despite these difficulties, the 1936 campaign marks an important turn in American politics, as a new cadre of experts “modified the campaign to conform to radio, creating styles of political talk and amusement that were especially suited to that medium.”33 Speeches were shorter, scheduling was tailored to maximize audience size, and spot announcements became standard campaign fare. In part, the growing prominence of communication experts in campaigns and the greater sophistication of party political broadcasts reflected the continued penetration of the technology as more than 4 million additional households acquired radios between 1932 and 1936.34 As listening audiences grew in size, so did the commercial value of airtime. In 1936, the cost of an hour-long political broadcast on CBS was more than $18,000, and a combined evening network hookup was $52,000 per hour, up from $33,000 just four years earlier.35 As the cost of radio became dearer, presidential campaigns relied more on shorter, polished broadcasts. With considerable resources devoted to radio, both parties turned to advertising and network executives to run the broadcasting portions of their campaigns. In the hands of these radio experts, nominating conventions, spot advertisements, and other political broadcasts conformed to the tastes of the listening audience and the commercial demands of the national networks. A new, mass-mediated political style was beginning to take shape.

But the awesome power of radio also brought new challenges. Radio afforded politicians a much more intimate form of political communication to be sure, yet this new intimacy was in some ways artificial. “Radio may have brought the candidate closer to the people,” historian Gil Troy notes, “but the need for careful scripting had created a new distance.”36 In part, this reflected the handiwork of the new media experts, the advertising and network executives who orchestrated an “ever more elaborate show” during presidential campaigns.37 However, the distance to which Troy refers also reflected the challenges of a mass-mediated politics, especially the need to find new sources of information formerly derived from personal, face-to-face interactions with the voting public. Radio expanded the scale and scope of political communication, becoming a powerful instrument for political mobilization. But the effective use of radio also prompted a search for new sources of information about the effects of political communication.

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