Donna L. Halper
Asst. Professor of Communication
Lesley University Cambridge, MA

It was quite a year, 1934. The Great Depression was still a fact of life, and people continued to depend on radio for escape and companionship in those difficult times. Broadcasting Magazine wrote that 60% of U.S. homes had at least one radio; there were even 1.5 million car radios. Despite the poor economy, radio had continued to grow. Its growth was so dramatic that a new federal agency became necessary, one that had more authority than its predecessor. As a result of a piece of legislation called the Communications Act of 1934, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was created; it replaced the Federal Radio Commission (FRC) as of July 1st.

In 1933, the country had elected a new president, and because he frequently spoke to the nation via radio, Franklin D. Roosevelt became known as the first "Radio President". His use of radio was so impressive that the editor of "Radio Guide" wrote a full-page editorial in the May 26, 1934 issue, praising Roosevelt and praising radio: "...Radio has given to the president a weapon such as no ruler has ever known. It enables him instantaneously to answer, overthrow and defeat any false statement concerning himself, his government or his plans... Radio [is] a servant of justice...taking knowledge everywhere." With the president so accessible thanks to his popular "Fireside Chats", you trusted radio to bring you information as well as encouragement. Encouragement was very much needed in 1934: the average income was only $1,601 (Roosevelt devalued the dollar to 60 cents), while a new car cost $625. But FDR had a plan-- his "New Deal" was being implemented, and despite some setbacks (the midwest was hit hard by droughts), the public seemed reassured. Meanwhile, overseas, Hitler was predicting that the Reich would last for 1000 years, while Mussolini was ordering all schoolteachers to wear uniforms. But the big news story for most Americans was that there was a suspect (Bruno Hauptmann) in the Lindbergh baby kidnapping-- the fascination (and near-obsession) the public had with this case parallels the overkill on coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial.

In 1934, you would have opened up your latest issue of "Popular Songs" Magazine-- perhaps the one with Dick Powell on the cover (you were very happy that he was doing the "Hollywood Hotel" show on CBS), to learn the words to your favourite songs. That year, some of the hits included "I Get a Kick Out of You", "Blue Moon", "I Only Have Eyes for You", and "Santa Claus is Coming To Town".) Radio was definitely the place to hear those great songs, performed by the biggest and the best stars. Even composer George Gershwin had his own show-- it started in February on WJZ/NBC and was called "Music by Gershwin" (Feenamint was the sponsor). Also in February, you had heard comedienne Talullah Bankhead make her network debut on Rudy Vallee's show on NBC.

"Amos and Andy" were still on the air, while their show remained a source of controversy in the black community. Black newspapers had been editorializing against this show since it first appeared on NBC in the mid 1920s, but its popularity with the majority of listeners continued-- to give one example, Broadcasting magazine noted that a survey of farmers in 42 states showed "Amos and Andy" as their #1 choice (Eddie Cantor was their second favourite program.) Ethnic humour was a fact of life on radio-- another popular show with a long history was "The Goldbergs", starring Gertrude Berg. In 1934, you would have heard Benny Goodman and his orchestra on NBC for the first time; you could also still hear such famous bandleaders as Abe Lyman, Paul Whiteman and Fred Waring.

If you lived in New England, you were part of news history. John Shepard 3rd, the president of the Yankee Network (and WNAC Radio in Boston), began the first local news network for radio, the Yankee News Service, in March of 1934; it competed directly with the newspapers, and the competition for stories was quite intense. And speaking of local networks, out on the west coast, the founder of the Don Lee network, who had expanded his ownership of KHJ in Los Angeles into a 12-station web, died suddenly. Don Lee was only 53. Also dying far too young in 1934 was the talented vocalist Russ Columbo-- he was only 26.

On a happier note, radio drama fans rejoiced when a new network, Mutual, was founded in the summer of 1934. Mutual would become famous for such shows as "The Lone Ranger". Cincinnati's WLW briefly became a superstation, operating with 500,000 watts. Edwin Howard Armstrong had begun to demonstrate something new-- FM, which promised an end to static and noise in radio reception.

If you lived in 1934, it cost 3 cents to mail a letter (six cents for air mail). The launderette was invented, as was freeze-dried coffee. Fluorescent lamps were almost ready to be mass marketed. If you could afford a movie, you saw Clark Gable in "It Happened One Night", for which he won an Oscar for Best Actor; Claudette Colbert, his co-star, won Best Actress. Comedian Joe Penner (whose catch-phrase "Wanna buy a duck?" swept the country) won the award for Outstanding Radio Comedian. And while experiments in television continued, for most Americans it was radio that helped them through the day; few Americans could imagine being without it.

Fast Forward to 1937
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Joe Penner and Dick Powell GIFs: Donna Halper
FDR image and soundbyte: Adventures in Cassettes
Amos & Andy poster GIF: Bruce Rudesill