A Word From Our Sponsor: Admen, Advertising, and the Golden Age of Radio.

A Word from our SponsorA Word From Our Sponsor: Admen, Advertising, and the Golden Age of Radio. By Cynthia B. Meyers, Fordham University Press, New York, 2014, 391 pages.

We all know advertising pays for much of our popular media.  Anyone in danger of forgetting this crucial fact is sure to be reminded by the television industry’s increasingly desperate efforts to make sure people are watching – and paying attention to – commercials.  Expanding video on demand services attempt to protect advertising revenues by allowing audiences to timeshift their viewing as they would with a DVR, while inserting up-to-date advertisements into commercial breaks and preventing fast-forwarding.  YouTube, once the great hope for alternative user-generated content, features increasingly intrusive ads that bookend and overlay videos.  Other supposedly new and innovative techniques, such as product placement and sponsored programs built around a specific product, hearken back to older advertising methods like those described in Cynthia Meyers’ fascinating new book, A Word From Our Sponsor: Admen, Advertising, and the Golden Age of Radio.  Meyers draws on extensive archival research to fill a hole in recent scholarship, outlining the intimate and complicated relationships between broadcasters and commercial interests from the point of view of the admen who were responsible for much of the program that constitutes radio’s golden age.  Throughout, Meyers demonstrates that commercialism was not “an outside force silencing the voice of the people but…a set of beliefs, practices, and economic incentives that not only created dominant institutions but also helped build authentic popular cultural forms” (5).

Building on the work of Susan Smulyan and others, Meyers begins by outlining advertisers’ conflicted views on radio.  Used to working in print – and wary of straining their close relationships with publishers who saw radio as a potential competitor – many of the most established ad agencies were slow to get into radio.  Newcomers like Benton & Bowles, who had to be mavericks to attract business in the early Depression years, were generally the first to make the leap.  Even after agencies established radio departments – often recruiting heavily from network production staffs – those departments were often marginalized within agencies more used to working with print.  Meyers argues that many of the agencies faced a steep learning curve as they adapted their print-based selling techniques to radio’s more intimate, conversational style.  While broadcasters actively courted advertisers, both groups engaged in active battles over time slots, program standards, and corporate philosophy.  Meyers also highlights the ways in which the networks’ institutional differences produced different corporate cultures.  Where NBC’s deeper pockets allowed it to maintain the first come, first served public utility approach to scheduling it had inherited from AT&T’s toll broadcasting model, CBS’s closer connections to the entertainment industry and Paley’s background as an advertiser led the younger network to re-assign prime time slots to the highest bidder.  Advertisers also negotiated with networks and their clients over content control, production facilities, and – increasingly – scheduling and program flow.

One of Meyers’ most interesting themes is that of authorship.  While much scholarship on radio – and especially television – has focused on producers’ ability to realize a personal artistic vision within a commercial system, Meyers rightly points out that admen were also authors, even if they were required to efface that authorship to help obscure the commercial nature of the entertainment they constructed.  Authorship caused a number of conflicts for admen, some of whom resented their anonymity, as well as the endless interference of clients and the networks’ attempts to censor their creative efforts.  Other admen questioned whether they should be producing entertainment at all.  After all, in the 1920s and 1930s, admen were still working to differentiate themselves the reviled and distrusted 19th century patent medicine salesmen, and many felt that links to the entertainment industry would undermine their new-found professional image.  Advertiser control of production involved a complicated and ongoing set of negotiations between the networks, who wanted someone else to pay for programming but needed to ensure that the content would not violate the terms of their affiliates’ licenses, the admen, who needed to satisfy their clients selling needs without offending audiences and sought to protect what they saw as their First Amendment rights to self-expression, and the sponsors, who often sought creative input and constantly needed to be reassured of advertising’s efficacy.

Meyers begins her work with a brief history of the advertising industry before broadcasting, focusing on admen’s efforts to prove their professionalism and efficacy.  She then turns to the development of radio advertising, covering its slow start in the 1920s and initial debates over time ownership and program control.  The chief strength of Meyers’ work is her series of case studies, which foreground the wide range of strategies employed by different advertising agencies.  While the Hummerts’ soap opera assembly line emphasized cheaply produced serials and the hard sell strategy that became more and more attractive to advertisers during the Depression agencies like Young & Rubicam favored a soft sell approach that emphasized radio as entertainment.  The Hummerts saved money by keeping a stable of actors and relatively unknown voice actors who could work on any of their series – they often moved writers between series to avoid having any writer be too closely associated with a single series.  Products were treated seriously and advertisements approached as a way to teach listeners about their virtues and potential uses.  Meanwhile, Y&R invested in big name stars that could be closely associated with a single product, drawing heavily on vaudeville-style humor and even allowing hosts like Rudy Vallee to joke about the product in an effort to make commercials feel less intrusive.  Y&R also worked to build shows that would appeal to a product’s target audience, showing that the nichefication associated with cable is not as new as we think it is.  Throughout, Meyers draws on a wide range of archival sources, especially the records and correspondence of the advertising agencies and admen involved in early radio.  These sources add a personal touch to her engaging prose.  This focus on the admen does appear to limit her perspective in the end, when she appears to buy into the commercial argument that advertising support is the only viable model for American media, she is probably right in her conclusion that we will continue to live with this state of affairs for years to come.  More importantly, she does an excellent job of complicating the picture of how we got here.

-Catherine Martin

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