The first radio commercial was in August 28, 1922, by Queensboro Corporation for condominiums in Jackson Heights, Queens, New York City. The buy was for $50 to play a 10-minute spot once a day for five days. They quickly sold three apartments, establishing the viability of the medium.
In the 1930s, radio hit the public by storm and ad agencies totally by surprise. Radio’s growth was fueled by advertising, just like magazines at the turn of the century. Similar to the bubble in tech stocks in the 1990’s, radio stocks also exploded. RCA went from $5 a share to over $500, and then back down to $5 by the time it was over.
The ad agency Blackett-Sample-Hummert had the idea for detergent companies to sponsor the radio theatre shows every afternoon. BSH rode these soap operas to the #1 position for radio agencies.
They brought to radio the newspaper practice of daily serial installments: new segments of a long-running show. There was Just Plain Bill, the barber who had married out of his social class. Ma Perkins was Just Plain Bill with skirts. Jack Armstrong, the All-American boy, hocked Wheaties to kids.
BSH hired writers to churn out soap opera scripts. They paid $25/script and often sequestered writers in hotel rooms until the work was done. At their height, they had 14 writers penning 50 scripts a week. Hummert paid himself well, too. His $132,000 salary, plus bonuses and share of the soaps, made him the best-paid man in advertising.
Brands generally produced and sponsored the radio shows directly. The A&P Gypsies, Fleischmann Yeast Hour (with Rudy Vallee) and Kraft Music Hall are just three examples. They were the show sponsors. This branding is more powerful than just buying ad time.
The Lucky Strike Dance Orchestra was popular and their advertising effective. The tagline Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco evolved into LS/MFT. The acronym was well leveraged, especially as a radio pneumonic. The catch phrase was so widely known that it entered the public lexicon, which is a brand’s often dreamt but rarely achieved goal.
Some ad agency players:
William Benton & Chester Bowles built their eponymous ad agency on radio. Benton & Bowles worked like dogs and then quit in their 30s. Must be nice.
Stirling Getchell worked like a dog because he had a bad heart and knew he’d die young. He was right. He mortgaged his house to help start his own agency. He could be outrageous: for General Tire, the agency staged an auto accident. His ad for Plymouth, “Look At All Three” (referring to Ford & Chevrolet), ignored the ad industry’s unwritten ban on competitive pitches. He loved photography in ads, eventually building up a file of thousands of shots. He spent lavishly on photographers, which eroded illustrators’ business. He said he wanted to highlight the news about a product in an honest manner. This is just like what Jeff Goodby and Silverstein says today: Tell the truth in an interesting way.
This era around the Great Depression is generally considered the Golden Age of Radio. By the the 1950’s, TV had emerged in full force to further crowd the field.