This story was published in Radio Recall, the journal of the Metropolitan Washington Old-Time Radio Club, published six times per year.
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A WORD FROM OUR SPONSOR:
ADMEN, ADVERTISING AND THE GOLDEN AGE OF RADIO
By Cynthia B. Meyers
Softback, 391 pp
Fordham University Press
Reviewed by Michael. Hayde
(From Radio Recall, February 2014)
Attendees of our September 2013 meeting will recall an excellent presentation by Jack French about the role of the advertising agency during the old-time radio era. Its thesis was that agency men weren't merely observers or the middlemen between sponsors and networks: they were in fact "the power behind the throne." Cynthia B. Meyers, Associate Professor of Communication at New York City's College of Mount St. Vincent, has authored a scholarly book that not only buttresses that thesis, but also explains how various agencies came to embrace radio as a model for their approach to advertising in general.
A WORD FROM OUR SPONSOR aims to challenge the general perception that radio programs, especially in the comedy-variety and daytime drama genres, were the creation of their stars and/or producers. Many, if not all, were developed by ad men. From radio's birth in the 1920's, stations - and later, networks - sought only to sell air time, leaving the headaches of creating the programming to others. Reluctantly but inevitably, advertising agencies stepped into that breach.
Meyers points out that, in radio's earliest years agencies were forced to establish "radio departments" to not only create commercial spots but also oversee the programs and talent that would deliver them. Wary of the new medium, they began by hiring men with programming experience from local radio or even theatrical backgrounds. By the end of World War II, as the networks began dabbling in television and sought more control over what they were airing, the situation was reversed and former advertising men such as Young & Rubicam's Sylvester "Pat" Weaver were hired and placed in charge of programming.
Meyers details the various advertising strategies of different agencies, devoting one chapter apiece to those who advocated the "hard sell" (or "reason why") approach, where the commercial explains in no uncertain terms exactly what the product does and why you cannot live better without it, and the "soft sell" approach that uses humor or human interest to depict the product's advantages. Both sides are presented with balance, with quotes from advocates of each strategy opining why the other's rarely works. Additionally, the book doesn't gloss over the figurative tight-rope ad men were forced to walk as they sought to please both their clients and the networks, each with agendas that were, more often than not, mutually exclusive.
A WORD FROM OUR SPONSOR is not for the casual OTA hobbyist. It is a scholarly reference tome that is exhaustively researched, impeccably sourced and contains a smattering of helpful illustrations. If it has one flaw, it is that the text is a bit too scholarly. The author begins with an introduction that summarizes each chapter. Every chapter begins with a summary introduction and ends with a summary conclusion. The final chapter summarizes everything that came before. These devices are fine if the author's goal is to please a literary professor, but are unnecessary even for a book that is solely destined for the reference shelves of university libraries.
Hopefully that will not be the fate of A WORD FROM OUR SPONSOR. Meyers has produced an important work that properly explains the place of the ad agency in the history of the OTA programs and genres we love, as well as the evolution of American advertising in general. It is surprisingly affordable for a university press publication and deserves a place in the book collections of all hobbyists with a thirst tor OTA knowledge.
MWOTRC member and club Treasurer Michael J. Hayde is the author of several books. His latest, CHAPLIN'S VINTAGE YEAR: THE HISTORY OF THE MUTUAL-CHAPLIN SPECIALS, was released in November 2013 by BearManor Media