Radio Broadcast, December, 1927, pages 140-141:
The Listeners' Point of View
By JOHN WALLACE
What We Thought of the First Columbia Broadcasting Program
SUNDAY, the eighteenth of September, witnessed the debut of the long heralded Columbia Broadcasting System. The evening of Sunday, the eighteenth of September, witnessed your humble correspondent, tear stained and disillusioned, vowing to abandon for all time radio and all its works and pomps. We have since recovered and will go on with our story. The broadcast divided itself into three successive parts, descending in quality with astounding speed.
PART ONE: THE VAUDEVILLE
This program came on in the afternoon, after a half hour's delay due to mechanical difficulties--a heinous sin in this day of efficient transmission, but excusable, perhaps, in a half-hour-old organization. This opening program, at least, was auspicious. The performers were of superlative excellence. Bits from a light opera were well sung. A quartet gave a stirring rendition of an English hunting song. A symphony orchestra played some Brahms waltzes. A soloist sang "Mon Homme" in so impassioned a fashion that she must have swooned on the last note. Then a dance orchestra concluded the program with some good playing. The offerings were of such high quality that it was doubly disconcerting to have them strung together with a shoddy "continuity"--especially with such stupid and overdone continuity as the "and-now-parting-from-Paris-we-will-journey-to-Germany" type.
Continuity is a device used to bolster up weak programs. It is a bit of psychological trickery designed to keep the listeners listening even while their own good sense tells them that there is nothing being offered worth listening to. A good steak doesn't need to be served with sauce, but there's nothing like some pungent Worcestershire for camouflaging the defects of a bad one. The items offered on this afternoon program were good enough to serve ungarnished, and were cheapened by the introductory blab.
PART TWO: THE UPROAR
"Uproar," let us hasten to explain, is Major J. Andrew White's way of pronouncing Opera. We seek not to poke fun at this announcer; he is one of the best we have. (Though we think both Quin Ryan and McNamee outdid him in the recent fight broadcast). But his habit of tacking Rs on the end of words like Americar and Columbiar doesn't fit into a high-brow broadcast as well as it does in a sports report. The Uproar was "The King's Henchmen" by Deems Taylor. Evidently no effort was spared to make the broadcast notable. A good symphony orchestra was utilized, capable singers were employed, and Deems Taylor himself was intrusted with the duty of unfolding the plot. But after all it was "just another broadcast." Musical programs into which a lot of talk is injected simply will not work. One or the other has to predominate. Either make it a straight recitation with musical accompaniment--or straight music with only a sparing bit of interpretative comment.
Mr. Taylor's music for this opera is delightful, the singing was admirable, but the total effect was disjointed and unsatisfactory. The composer outlined the story, but, enthralling as it may be on the stage, it was impossible to visualize the action with any degree of vividness from his words. We felt continually aware that there was really no action taking place, and the effort at make believe was too strenuous and detracted from an enjoyment of the music. It was less effective, even, than a broadcast from the regular Opera stage. Here the piece is likely to be more familiar and it is possible to conjure up its pantomime from remembrances of performances seen.
It is our humble and inexpert opinion that program designers are barking up a wrong tree and wasting a lot of energy in their unceasing attempts to fit spoken words into musical programs. But if they will persist let us suggest that they are going about the job in a blundering way with no proper realization of its difficulty. All present essays in this line fall into two classes: those which attempt to relate starkly the necessary information in a minimum number of words, and those which attempt to give a spurious arty atmosphere by the meaningless use of a lot of fancy polysyllables.
Neither method works. The first is distracting and effectively breaks up any mood or train of thought that may have been induced by the music The fancy language system, besides being obviously nauseating, takes up too much time.
Program makers may as well realize soon as later that the simple possession of a fountain pen doesn't qualify a man for writing "script" or other descriptive text. It is a job calling for the very highest type of literary ability and one that can't be discharged by just anybody on the studio staff. The properly qualified writer should be able to state the information tersely, but, with all the vividness of a piece of poetry. Each word he uses must be selected because it is full of meaning, and of just the right shade of meaning. Any word not actively assisting in building up a rapid and forceful picture in the listener's mind must be sloughed off. A further complication: the words can't be selected because they look descriptive in type, but because their actual sound is descriptive. Altogether an exacting job; it would tax the ability of a Washington Irving.
It is highly improbable that a genius at writing this sort of stuff will ever appear; the ether wave is yet too ephemeral a medium to attract great writers. But there is no question that scriveners of some literary pretensions could be secured if the program builders would pay adequately for their services. This they will never do until they realize the obvious fact that the words that interrupt a program are just as conspicuous as the music of the program itself. It is incongruous, almost sacrilegious, to interrupt the superb train of thought of Wagner or Massenet to sandwich in the prose endeavours of Mabel Gazook, studio hostess, trombone player and "script" writer.
PART THREE: THE EFFERVESCENT HOUR
O dear! O dear! Whither are we drifting!
You have all heard the ancient story of the glazier who supplied his small son with a sack of stones every morning to go about breaking windows. Comes now a radio advertiser who deals in stomach settling salts with a program guaranteed to turn and otherwise sour the stomach of the most robust listener. The Effervescent Hour was the first commercial offering of the new chain and far and away the worst thing we ever heard from a loud speaker. We thought we had heard bare faced and ostentatiously direct advertising before, but this made all previous efforts in that line seem like the merest innuendo, The name of the sponsoring company's product had been mentioned ninety-eight times when we quit counting. An oily voiced soul who protested to be a representative of the sponsoring company engaged with announcer White in sundry badinage before each number, extolling the virtues of his wet goods and even going so far as to offer the not unwilling announcer a sip before the microphone. Stuck in here and there amidst this welter of advertising could actually be discovered some bits of program! But such program material it was. First the hackneyed "To Spring" by Grieg. Then "Carry Me Back to Old Virginia." Next some mediocre spirituals followed by a very ordinary jazz band and culminating with a so-called symphony orchestra which actually succeeded in making the exquisite dance of the Fée Dragée from the "Nutcracker Suite" sound clumsy and loutish--no mean achievement.
One long interruption occured while special messages were given to soda jerkers the country o'er, inviting them to enter a prize contest for the best encomium to the advertiser's wares. But the most aggravating interruptions were the frequently spaced announcements: "This is the voice of Columbia--speaking." This remarkable statement was delivered in hushed and reverential tones, vibrant with suppressed emotion, a sustained sob intervening before the last word. It was positively celestial. We have given a rather complete résumé of this program, but it may be warranted by the fact that probably not a dozen people in the country, beside ourself, heard it. No one not paid to do so, as we are, could have survived it. Perhaps this indictment of Columbia's opening performance is unkind in the light of subsequent offerings. Our stomach is still unsettled. Furthermore we will not make use of any of the Effervescent Hour's salts to settle it!