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

1937 was a very good year for radio. It was estimated that over 80% of the population had at least one radio, and millions now had radios in their cars. There was a lot going on in 1937, and often, radio was a major part of it. Sometimes, radio's participation was accidental-- such as at the time of the tragic crash of the German airship, the Hindenberg. WLS and NBC announcer Herb Morrison had come to New Jersey to do a routine voice-over for a newsreel; suddenly, before his eyes, the airship exploded and burst into flames-- Morrison ended up reporting something that was far from routine-- an emotional on-the-scene description of a calamity nobody had expected. (In a foreshadowing of modern events, the newspapers immediately rushed to the conclusion that sabotage was the cause, and the tabloids printed numerous unfounded rumours for days...)

Radio was on the scene more and more by 1937, as technology improved and stations gradually were able to cover more news. The networks covered the coronation of the new king of England, George VI, and the disappearance of aviatrix Amelia Earhart was as big a story for radio as it was for the newspapers. Perhaps you listened to Lowell Thomas on NBC to get his opinion about the latest events. (On the other hand, if your preference was gossip, you could always count on Walter Winchell, who was also on NBC...) CBS had its share of news too (Edward R. Murrow, who had joined CBS in 1935, was now the director of the network's European bureau, and the legendary H.V. Kaltenborn still did news commentary); and 1937 was the first year CBS brought you newspaperwoman and magazine writer Mary Margaret McBride, who did a highly respected talk show. And one other word about news-- 1937 was the year Guglielmo Marconi died. In his honour, radio stations all across the country observed several minutes of silence.

1937 was quite a year for hearing some performers who would soon become stars, as well as some who had been stars in film or vaudeville and were now on the air. W.C. Fields made his radio debut in 1937 on the Chase and Sanborn Hour, and Red Skelton moved over to radio with guest appearances on the Rudy Vallee Show. Making their debut in 1937 on NBC were Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy-- although at first, the dummy rather than the ventriloquist got top billing-- it was first called the Charlie McCarthy Show. Arturo Toscanini became the conductor of the NBC Symphony Orchestra in 1937.

As for stars who were still on the air and doing well, you were very happy to hear beloved soprano Jessica Dragonette, who was on CBS in 1937 and sponsored by Palmolive Soap. Don Ameche, who had appeared in soap operas for a while, was now the MC of the Chase and Sanborn Hour. (Mae West made an appearance on the show in December and her risque dialog prompted hundreds of complaints.) A young man named Orson Welles took over as the voice of "The Shadow" in 1937. And if you lived in New York, you were especially grateful to radio and to Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia who read the daily comics over the air and also read some news reports during the newspaper strike. And speaking of New York, the Lincoln Tunnel opened in 1937.

In 1937, you were among the many who were impressed by the new Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco-- approximately 200,000 people crossed it the first day it opened. And speaking of modern marvels, several companies were now offering push-button radios; Motorola even offered this feature for the car radio-- no more turning the dials while trying to concentrate on the road.

Spencer Tracy won a well-deserved Academy Award for Best Actor in Captains Courageous. The Andrews Sisters had a huge hit with "Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen". Other hits in 1937 included "Muskrat Ramble", "In the Still of the Night", and "Pennies from Heaven." Walt Disney was having great success with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs-- and it was in colour! Margaret Mitchell won a Pulitzer Prize for her novel Gone With the Wind. The Yankees won the World Series.

1937 was the year when Robert Redford was born, as were Bill Cosby and Mary Tyler Moore. FDR was still president and still doing radio talks. The average annual income was now $1,788; a new car cost $760, a loaf of bread was 9 cents, a gallon of milk was 50 cents. Nylon was invented in 1937, and some rudimentary binary calculators were being marketed. Chester Carlson invented a method of photocopying, and in France, the first anti-histamines were developed.

Among the popular soap operas you might have heard in 1937 were The Romance of Helen Trent on CBS and The Guiding Light on NBC. Still popular (and in some quarters still controversial), Amos and Andy continued to get good ratings; also popular and far less controversial were Lum and Abner and Fibber McGee and Molly. If you wanted culture, CBS was offering Claude Rains in Julius Caesar while NBC brought you John Barrymore in Taming of the Shrew. And if crime drama was your preference, Phil Lord was on the air with Gangbusters. And there were westerns too-- perhaps you listened on Mutual to The Lone Ranger.

Although war was on the horizon in Europe, most Americans were feeling positive that the economy had improved. Radio seemed to offer endless variety (although few were aware of a man named Edwin Howard Armstrong who was busily perfecting his latest invention-- FM) and new experiments with television were beginning to show some promise. But in 1937, there wasn't much talk yet about TV-- it was another very good year to be a radio fan, and as you read magazines like Radio Guide or Radio Stars, you were glad to be a part of radio's Golden Age...

Fast Forward to 1939
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Text and images courtesy of Donna Halper

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