At some period during my teenage years — late 40s, early 50s — there was a gospel quartet with a regional fan base via radio programs and small-town concerts. I remember its theme song, “Turn Your Radio On,” which ended with the call to “Get in touch with God; turn your radio on.” While confident in the Almighty’s capacity to use things for his purposes, I have not personally known anyone who experienced a divine epiphany channeled by radio.
On the other hand, it is impossible to overstate the impact of radio for inspiration, information and entertainment. Its outreach did indeed influence the realm of religion. Today’s world of popular televangelists had its roots in radio broadcasts. The old and otherwise informed could join in worship through radio broadcasts from favorite churches, as they do now through television. I was traveling with a brother minister years ago when he tuned in the Billy Graham broadcast. After George Beverly Shea’s powerful solo, he said, “If I could follow Bev Shea, I believe I could preach, too.” Epiphanies are rare, inspiration is not.
In the rural world in which I grew up, radio was almost a revolutionary force. It broke through our persistent isolation. Even before electricity came to country folk, some bought and listened to battery-powered radios. My father bought a 3-foot tall radio powered by three large batteries about 1938 to listen to college football (UGA and Tech), New Orleans music and the news. Distance could be defeated. Several 50,000-watt clear-channel stations were available, at least when weather conditions did not fill the broadcast with static interference.
WSB Atlanta offered college football, state news and network programing. WWL New Orleans featured that city’s famous music and live broadcasts of big-band popular music “from the ballroom of the Roosevelt Hotel.” While my parents’ musical tastes ran modern, most country folks looked forward to Saturday evening when WSM in Nashville broadcasted “The Grand Ole Opry” live. WCKY Cincinnati was an all country alternative. WGN Chicago — call letters from World’s Greatest Newspaper, the modest claim of its owner, the Chicago Tribune – could be picked up, but had few fans.
Southeast Georgia was also served by stations in Savannah and Macon, which had lower wattage. These carried both local and network programming for CBS and NBC with ABC a later arrival playing catchup.
The networks brought entertainment stars into the homes of people who would never see Hollywood or Broadway: Jack Benny for comedy, Bing Crosby and “Your Hit Parade” for music, anyone’s choice among the big bands and even radio dramas. Long before they were transferred to television, “The Lone Ranger” brought peace to the West to the strains of the William Tell Overture and Matt Dillon used “Gunsmoke” to deal with other killers and spoilers in the West. Voices that animated the characters of Matt and the Ranger on radio gave way to more photogenic actors for television.
However, the most important contribution of the networks was the collection and dissemination of news. Early risers might get valuable information from smaller stations. but 6 o’clock Eastern Standard Time brought rapt attention in millions of homes to hear national and international news from network broadcasters.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt used his “Fireside Chats” broadcasts to encourage and rally the people during the Great Depression. However, it was World War II that fueled a national thirst for information and focused attention on radio broadcasts. Information was under strict governmental control, primarily to keep potentially harmful information away from enemies. Some radio “personalities” gave the impression that they were sharing “hot news” when, in fact, they were not saying much of anything, drama without content. However, major events that were no secret to the enemies were released and reported. Edward R. Murrow’s broadcasts amid the bombing of London set a new standard for immediacy and relevance and set him on a storied career path as a television newsman. Today, TV news broadcasts bring us live battles and we view this as normal.
After World War II, radio entered a new era in rural Georgia. Many veterans exited the military with all of the technical knowledge needed to set up and operate radio stations. A robust economy made it possible to do so. Local stations — most of them small in power — cropped up in many towns. These did some of the things that larger stations did. They had wire services for Associated Press or United Press for national and international news, but they did many new local things, including some local news.
There were programs that showcased local talent. Local churches got involved. Hometown athletic contests were broadcasted, during which people behind microphones struggled with the challenge of transforming a visual event into a verbal motion picture. A few, like Nate Hirsch, became very good at it. Radio became part of the fabric of communities.
It is impossible to predict the role of radio in the future, but a sweep across the channels of stations serving this region next Friday from 8 until 10 p.m. will reveal that it is still live and well at local football games.
Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.