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Radio Days

Sex sells the new medium

Nov. 17, 2008
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Sex sells, they say. Selling sex also sells, according to Anthony Rudel's entertaining and informative Hello, Everybody! The Dawn of American Radio (Harcourt).

Three or four people stand out among the scores who were prominent in the growth of radio from a hobby and fad in the second decade of the 20th century to a big business by the mid-1930s, but none more so than "Dr." John Romulus Brinkley. Brinkley's exotic, lucrative career plays a major role in Rudel's book.

A snake-oil salesman, in essence if not in fact, Brinkley bought his "medical degree" from something called the Eclectic Medical University of Kansas. He landed in Milford, Kan., in 1917, Rudel says, after "years of learning, traveling and avoiding arrest." While there, he stumbled across the dubious medical procedure that would make his name and fortune: helping men complaining of "flat tires," known today as "erectile dysfunction," by implanting goat glands into them.

Brinkley found immediate success, which skyrocketed even more when he began to sell his sexual-rejuvenation procedure over the airwaves from KFKB, the radio station he built in Milford.

Rudel, a novelist as well as a classical music and broadcasting specialist, gives a lively, rambling account of his subject. At first, he explains, the interest in radio resided not in broadcasting as we have come to know it, but in wireless communication point to point, roughly like cell phones. As one RCA executive said circa 1920, "Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?"

Well, as we know from roughly 90 subsequent years of broadcasting: practically every business in existence. But this didn't occur for many years, after a period of haphazard transmissions and indifferent regulation as entrepreneurs and government struggled with how to use this new medium and how to pay for it.

Herbert Hoover, with his gift for organization as President Warren G. Harding's secretary of commerce, was instrumental in regularizing radio. Hoover saw radio as a public service and warned against "advertising chatter." (So much for that warning.)

The author arranges his book partly by subject, and religion forms one of the biggest sections. Evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson and reactionary "radio priest" Father Coughlin have starring roles. Rudel shows that radio personalities back then skewed much the same way they do today: right-wing and often bigoted.

Radio's popularity, like film, was built on vaudeville-"anyone who could make an interesting sound" was added to the mix. Rudel efficiently covers the usual suspects, such as "Amos 'n' Andy," "The A&P Gypsies," opera and dance bands.

A not-so-usual suspect is Samuel Lionel ("Roxy") Rothafel, whom Rudel considers one of the leading radio innovators and whose radio sign-on phrase he took as his book's title. As a showman and impresario Rothafel was involved with, among other venues, his own Roxy Theater and Radio City Music Hall.

But the man "who really changed radio," says Rudel, was Rudy Vallee, "the first pop-singing idol." After Vallee's initial exposure to radio audiences in 1928, he quickly spread over the air-and to every other form of entertainment. Rudel credits him with bringing about the variety show; Vallee's program debuted almost simultaneously with the stock market crash, and fared much better during the next decade than did Wall Street.

As for Brinkley, when the authorities succeeded in exposing him as a quack, he simply moved his broadcasting operations to Mexico and his medical shop to Texas, shifting his focus from testicles to prostates. The money-up to $12 million-continued to flow in (though litigation eventually caught up to him).

Like Vallee and other innovative broadcasters of the early years, Rudel writes, Brinkley understood that "radio enabled them to bond with the masses by speaking to the individual."


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