About 10 years ago, I was hired by a multinational consumer electronics corporation as their first social media marketing employee. Social media technologies challenged existing advertising paradigms because, unlike broadcast commercials or print ads, they allowed the customer to “talk back.” Armed with a staff of zero, no proven strategies, and no market data, I did what any other marketing manager would do: I called a digital advertising agency. While they too were struggling to navigate this uncharted territory, they could boast a research department, data experts, and some expertise based on previous work for other clients. Advertising and marketing blogs, email newsletters, and forums exploded with talk of how social media would turn the industry on its head. But, as I discovered when I returned to academia, media historian Lisa Gitelman reminds us, “all media were once new.”1 Social media was not the first to pose new challenges for advertisers, publishers, and audiences. In A Word from Our Sponsor, Cynthia Meyers traces the emergence of broadcast advertising back to its roots in the golden age of radio beginning in the 1920s and describes the key role of advertising agencies in developing this format for advertisers who were struggling to adapt to the new medium of radio.
Despite the ubiquity of radio in American homes in the World War II era, relatively few scholarly texts are dedicated to understanding the place of radio in the history of advertising. Moreover, the contributions of advertising agencies to radio broadcasting in this time period remain practically invisible. Meyers’ book fills this gap with an engaging account of how American radio emerged as a commercial medium beginning with AT&T’s early attempts at “toll broadcasting” through to the nationally sponsored star-studded entertainment programs typically associated with radio’s golden age.
Based on historical analysis of industry documents, broadcast archives, and trade publications, Meyers argues that advertising agencies played a key role in carving out American radio as a commercial medium and in developing sponsored programming as an advertising format. By the early 1930s, advertising agencies conceptualized, wrote, directed, and produced legendary golden age radio programs, including Kraft Music Hall, The Jack Benny Show, and Amos ‘n Andy, on behalf of national advertisers, such as Kraft Cheese, Jell-O, and Pepsodent. In Meyers’ view, the primary reason agencies’ key role in developing radio programming has gone unnoticed is due to the fact that they were never credited on air so as not to distract from the advertiser’s message. It is important to note that this study is a business history of radio advertising, not a sociocultural history of radio listening, such as the one that Hilmes has written.2 Instead, Meyers orients the lens towards “backstage” conversations, and this approach provides insights that can be used to inform future social histories.
The argument unfolds chronologically. The book can also be divided conceptually into three distinct sections that trace the rise and fall of sponsored radio programming. The first section details the challenges presented by the new radio medium, the second section describes the development of popular program formats during radio’s golden age, and the final section outlines the backlash and resulting demise of sponsored programming. Most readers will benefit by reading with an eye to grasping the larger context of the argument and not struggling to process all of the intricate details. The first section (chapters 1-4) is a story of the struggle between advertising agencies, broadcast networks, regulators, and radio manufacturers as they wrestle to define (and to profit from) this emerging medium. The narrative develops slowly, often cycling back to the key problem radio presented to advertisers: whereas print ads could easily be skipped or ignored, radio listeners were required to sit through ads. Advertising agencies struggled to navigate the conceptual leap from print ads to radio programs which could be deemed offensive (by invading private family time), written off as puffery and ballyhoo (too reminiscent of traveling patent medicine men), and easily forgotten (due to the ephemeral nature of...