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A Word from Our Sponsor

Admen, Advertising, and the Golden Age of Radio

Cynthia B. Meyers is an Associate Professor of Communication at the College of Mount Saint Vincent in New York City. She received her Ph.D. in Radio- Television-Film from the University of Texas at Austin.

Publication Year: 2013

During the “golden age” of radio, from roughly the late 1920s until the late 1940s, advertising agencies were arguably the most important sources of radio entertainment. Most nationally broadcast programs on network radio were created, produced, written, and/or managed by advertising agencies: for example, J. Walter Thompson produced “Kraft Music Hall” for Kraft; Benton & Bowles oversaw “Show Boat” for Maxwell House Coffee; and Young & Rubicam managed “Town Hall Tonight” with comedian Fred Allen for Bristol-Myers. Yet this fact has disappeared from popular memory and receives little attention from media scholars and historians. By repositioning the advertising industry as a central agent in the development of broadcasting, author Cynthia B. Meyers challenges conventional views about the role of advertising in culture, the integration of media industries, and the role of commercialism in broadcasting history. Based largely on archival materials, A Word from Our Sponsor mines agency records from the J. Walter Thompson papers at Duke University, which include staff meeting transcriptions, memos, and account histories; agency records of BBDO, Benton & Bowles, Young & Rubicam, and N. W. Ayer; contemporaneous trade publications; and the voluminous correspondence between NBC and agency executives in the NBC Records at the Wisconsin Historical Society. Mediating between audiences’ desire for entertainment and advertisers’ desire for sales, admen combined “showmanship” with “salesmanship” to produce a uniquely American form of commercial culture. In recounting the history of this form, Meyers enriches and corrects our understanding not only of broadcasting history but also of advertising history, business history, and American cultural history from the 1920s to the 1940s.

Published by: Fordham University Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 1-4


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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-ix

I am indebted to many for their help, both material and emotional, during the long process of researching and writing A Word from Our Sponsor. Books like this can emerge only from communities of scholars, archivists, students, teachers, friends, and family....

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pp. 1-12

In this 1948 broadcast, radio comedian Jack Benny, who specialized in self-deprecation, acknowledges the key role of an advertising agency in producing his show: ‘‘They do everything!’’ In fact, the majority of nationally broadcast sponsored programs on network radio during the...

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1. Dramatizing a Bar of Soap: The Advertising Industry before Broadcasting

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pp. 13-32

What is the significance of advertising, and why did it develop the way it did? Advertising industry critics often assume its role is to produce myths that might perpetuate power structures or to brainwash consumers into pursuing false desires.1 When the advertising industry...

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2. The Fourth Dimension of Advertising: The Development of Commercial Broadcasting in the 1920s

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pp. 33-54

According to adman Charles Hull Wolffe, advertising has always been available ‘‘on the air’’: ‘‘In the haze of prehistory, a savage beat out tomtom signals along a jungle-lined river and caused the magic of sound to rouse a distant audience of tribesmen.’’1 Commercial radio, implied...

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3. They Sway Millions as If by Some Magic Wand: The Advertising Industry Enters Radio in the Late 1920s

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pp. 55-77

In the 1920s unending economic growth seemed possible, and the advertising industry appeared to be its motor; would radio technology help fuel further growth? By the end of the decade, advertising industry revenues reached a record $3.4 billion.1 In claiming much credit...

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4. ‘‘Who Owns the Time?’’: Advertising Agencies and Networks Vie for Control in the 1930s

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pp. 78-102

Commercial radio developed in the 1920s amid a booming economy and progressive ideals. However, only a few years after the establishment of national networks, the Crash of 1929 and the ensuing economic crisis of the Great Depression severely challenged the young...

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5. The 1930s’ Turn to the Hard Sell: Blackett-Sample-Hummert’s Soap Opera Factory

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pp. 103-129

The impact of the October 1929 stock market crash was not immediately felt or understood by many in the advertising industry. ‘‘Business itself is healthy,’’ argued advertising columnist Kenneth Goode in November 1929.1 The president of the American Association of Advertising...

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6. The Ballet and Ballyhoo of Radio Showmanship: Young & Rubicam’s Soft Sell

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pp. 130-169

While the hard sell strategies of the Hummerts dominated daytime soap operas, with their slow, repetitive, didactic, hyperbolic narratives, other agencies tacked toward the soft sell. These agencies tried to build ‘‘showmanship’’ in radio to attract and entertain audiences in both advertising...

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7. Two Agencies: Batten Barton Durstine & Osborn, Crafters of the Corporate Image, and Benton & Bowles, Radio Renegades

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pp. 170-200

Successful advertising agencies differed from one another in more than just their advertising strategies. While the divide between the hard and soft sell is especially well illustrated by the contrasting practices of Blackett-Sample-Hummert and Young & Rubicam, many other...

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8. Madison Avenue in Hollywood: J. Walter Thompson and Kraft Music Hall

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pp. 201-224

In early radio networking, Chicago and New York were the centers of program production; well-known serials such as Clara, Lu ’n’ Em were originally broadcast from Chicago. Chicago production gradually shifted to New York, where facilities such as Rockefeller Center and its...

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9. Advertising and Commercial Radioduring World War II, 1942–45

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pp. 225-252

World War II, like the crisis of the Depression, forced the advertising industry to justify its methodologies, even its very existence, to critics and clients alike. Although the Depression had emboldened its opponents among the critics of capitalism, the rise of radio helped the advertising...

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10. On a Treadmill to Oblivion: The Peak and Sudden Decline of Network Radio

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pp. 253-281

The radio broadcasts of national network star-studded entertainment programs to nearly all American homes had its greatest reach during the 1940s. The war effort, rather than undermine radio, had helped make it even more central to American popular culture. Its strength...

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pp. 282-293

Radio became a national advertising medium and a platform for popular culture in the 1930s; by the 1940s, its centrality in American culture seemed assured. Yet, by the late 1950s, television had supplanted it. In cultural memory, radio’s seminal contribution to the development of...


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pp. 295-355


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pp. 357-370


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pp. 371-391

E-ISBN-13: 9780823255238
Print-ISBN-13: 9780823253708

Page Count: 288
Illustrations: 25 b/w
Publication Year: 2013

Edition: Cloth

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Subject Headings

  • Advertising in popular culture -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Radio broadcasting -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Radio programs -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Radio advertising -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
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