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  • Children's Radio Programs and Their Impact on the Economics of Children's Popular Culture
  • Mark I. West (bio)

During the 1800s and early 1900s, the economic underpinnings of American children's culture could be divided into two basic categories. Most children's books, magazines, and toys were sold directly to adults who then gave the products to children. Under this system, children functioned as passive consumers. The products sold through this system were generally marketed as being "good" for children. With the emergence of dime novels in the 1860s, some children became direct consumers of children's culture. Dime novels and the other forms of children's popular culture that children purchased without the intermediation of their parents or other adults tended to reflect children's tastes and often met with adult disapproval. This basic division characterized American children's culture well into the 1920s. In the early 1930s, however, a number of advertisers began to view children as indirect consumers. These advertisers realized that children could influence their parents' purchasing decisions. This realization, combined with the growing popularity of radio, caused a number of manufacturers to sponsor children's radio programs.

Children's radio programs had existed prior to the 1930s but on a very limited basis. An analysis of all the radio programs aired over New York's nineteen radio stations during the month of February 1927 revealed that only 1.1% of their broadcast time was devoted to children's programming (Lundberg 323). The few programs that were aired usually had no sponsors. These early shows often featured an "uncle" who would tell stories and sing songs. Uncle Don, which aired over WOR in New York, was probably the most well-known of these shows (Buxton and Owen 365-66). Since sponsors showed no interest in children's programs, the radio stations put little effort into their production.

The first major sponsor to take a serious interest in children's radio programs was the manufacturer of Ovaltine, a chocolate-flavored milk additive. In 1930, the company's advertising executives decided to experiment with a new advertising technique. Instead of attempting to convince adults to buy Ovaltine, they decided to create a demand for their product among children. They thought that parents would [End Page 102] tend to buy an inexpensive item, such as Ovaltine, if their children kept asking for it. One way to reach large numbers of children, they determined, was to sponsor a children's radio program. They soon realized, though, that their plan had one major flaw; most existing children's programs had poor ratings. If their plan was to succeed, they had to come up with a new type of program. In their search for ideas, they turned to comic strips. The 1920s had witnessed a tremendous increase in the popularity of comic strips, especially among the young. Noting this, Ovaltine's advertisers concluded that a radio program based on a popular comic strip would probably attract a large following. Since they were trying to appeal to children, they decided to select a comic strip that featured a child as the main character.

After reviewing the most popular comic strips of the period, Ovaltine's advertising executives decided to base their radio program on Harold Gray's Little Orphan Annie. Gray's strip, which made its first appearance in 1924, was well-suited to Ovaltine's needs. It had a large and loyal following, it featured a child hero, and it usually had a strong story line. The task of converting the comic strip into a radio program was entrusted to Ovaltine's Chicago-based advertising agency. The agency's staff wrote and produced the shows under the leadership of Alan Wallace. Starting in 1930, Little Orphan Annie was aired over NBC's Blue Network during a late afternoon time slot. The program was well-received by youngsters, and it helped improve Ovaltine's sales figures (Smith 38-45; Harmon 102-08).

The success of Little Orphan Annie caused other companies to consider sponsoring children's radio programs. In 1931, the Kellogg Company began sponsoring a radio version of John Dille's comic strip, Buck Rogers in the Twenty-Fifth Century. The...


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