What Do Radio, Gene Autry And Cars Have In Common?
September 10, 2013
There was an interesting trend, actually a tsunami that began in this country back in the '20s and '30s, the effects of which still reverberate in our industry. The proliferation of the automobile and of radios, quite before they began their physical attachment to each other, did two horrifying things to this country: They disaggregated the cities so people could travel to virtually any destination they wished without ruining their shoes, and we could hear WLS broadcasting from Chicago in Abilene, TX at the very moment Gene Autry was singing cowboy songs.
Now, why do you think Gene Autry was such a smash on the radio? He was able to reach millions in places outside the City of Big Shoulders and appeal to listeners everywhere, instantaneously. Ironically, once we could hear a radio in our cars, there was a boom in local radio, where we could hear local news, traffic and entertainment geared for our own towns. Radio could be portable while being more local. And we abandoned our horses.
The population shifted pretty dramatically back in the 1930s; suddenly there were more city dwellers than rural residents for the first time in our history, and the first radios fired up when many station owners were surely wondering, "Who cares about these hinterlanders when our giant cities are growing?" Of course, concurrent with this shift, the Great Depression smashed us in the face and more folks than ever flocked to the cities looking for work. Radio's powerful towers transported us back to Detroit, to Chicago, to New York with their words-eye-view of how glorious urban life could be. Movies brought us there with their visions of a stylish, glamorous life and of course, cars. Cars and more cars!
Thanks to wiseacres like Robert Moses and someone called "Ike," these very cars cranked into reverse and showed us a new, more expansive world outside of the very cities we had herded ourselves into, and someone had the clever idea to insert radios in these cars so we could say goodbye to WLS and hello to KYYW/Abilene.
We often think of network radio as a means for smaller, rural stations to save a buck and throw on programming from, well, the big city. This is not a novel concept, as we know, but I find it stranger than fiction that radio became more local as cars became faster and easier to navigate in and out of cities. We flexed with the times and didn't have two corporations running everything, so radio stations in our hinterlands multiplied and we needed to hear Tucson even as we worked in Phoenix. Even the original Clear Channel stations vanished into local-ness. Where's Rod Serling when you need him?! Odder still, radio networks grew at an astonishing rate; local stations couldn't hire Jack Benny and everyone loved to hear a strong talent. So a balance was struck, one that continues to this day. NYC vs. La Grange.
While trends can't be predicted any more than the number of M&Ms in this bottle on my desk -- although I know exactly how much weight I'd gain if I ate them -- we can be sure that radio will continue to make almost no sense to anyone but the listener, who depends on it for entertainment, news and information. Radio got loco, I mean LOCAL for a reason, because we have more locales and because they're easier to reach than ever, and if auto manufacturers and radios dissolve their marriage one day, we'll always wonder where the hell Gene Autry is.