During the 1930s, Americans’ main method of escape from war and poverty was radio. From thrilling mysteries to international news coverage, radio entertained and informed the American population like never before.
America’s Golden Age of Radio
The Radio Boom
The number of households in America that owned a radio grew exponentially during the 1930s. This boom in radio ownership was mostly due to the need for distracting entertainment during The Great Depression, as well as a desire to stay connected during the war.
- 1930: 12 million
- 1939: 28 million+
- 82 out of 100 Americans were radio listeners in the ‘30s.
Number of Broadcasting Stations
599: Number of broadcasting stations in the U.S. in the mid-1930s, many more than the rest of the world.
Country Number of broadcasting stations
$47: Average cost of a radio in the U.S. in 1933, a sharp drop from the $139 price tag in 1929
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Popular Radio Genres and Shows
Daytime Soap Operas
- The Smith Family
- Clara, Lu and Em
- The Guiding Light
Suspenseful Thrillers and Adventure
- The Shadow
- The Lone Ranger
- The Green Hornet
- Flash Gordon
- Buck Rogers
Comedy and Comedy Duos
- Amos ‘n’ Andy
- Jack Benny
- George Burns and Gracie Allen
Variety and Music Shows
- The Ed Sullivan Show
- Bing Crosby Entertains
- NBC Symphony Orchestra
- The General Electric Concert
- The $64 Question
- The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
- Dick Tracy
- Mel Allen, NY Yankees sportscaster
- Ted Husing, boxing sportscaster
- Graham McNamee, baseball sportscaster
Important Moments in 1930s Radio History
- Comedians like Jack Benny, Fred Allen, George Burns and Gracie Allen popularized situational comedies and vaudeville in the early 1930s.
- In 1937, radio listeners were horrified as the German airship Hindenburg caught fire and crashed. Radio journalist Herb Morrison’s words “Oh, the humanity!” would live on in infamy.
- In 1938, about 40 million people listened to the famous horserace between Seabiscuit and War Admiral. That was just over 30% of the U.S. population.
- Baseball stars Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio dazzled millions of fans who listened to baseball on the radio.
- Orson Welles would create real panic with his broadcast of H.G. Wells’ fiction novel “War of the Worlds” in 1938, leading many listeners to believe alien invaders were destroying Earth’s major cities.
Radio and WWII
- Radio shows were a great escape for Americans during the Great Depression, but quick radio communication also affected American soldiers during World War II.
- In 1939, full radio coverage of the invasion of Poland allowed those back home to follow the events of the war. Future coverage of the attack on Pearl Harbor and D-Day in the 1940s would unite Americans patriotism and grief.
CBS World News Roundup
- In 1938, CBS started the “World News Roundup,” a program that still exists today on CBS Radio.
- The first broadcast was on March 13, 1938, reporting on the rise of the Nazi party in Germany.
- Elmer Davis was CBS’ first news analyst to report on the war, and eventually he was appointed by President Franklin Roosevelt to head the Office of War Information.
For the Troops
Radio wasn’t just for terrified listeners back home in America. Soldiers looked to radio to keep them occupied while waiting for orders, as well as having a little touch of home with them in the barracks.
In 1942, the War Department created the Armed Forces Radio Service (AFRS). Favorites among the troops included Hollywood performers like:
- Bob Hope
- Dinah Shore
- Fred Allen
- Francis Langford
- Frank Sinatra
- Ginger Rogers
- Bette Davis
- Bing Crosby
These celebrities would perform for free for the AFRS, and soldiers were allowed to write in and request their favorite artists.
The Great Depression
Back home, people were facing the worst economic crisis in U.S. history. The Great Depression lasted from 1929 to 1939. In that time:
- Average income dropped by 40%.
- 24% of the labor force was unemployed at its peak in 1933.
- 5 million people fled to the Great Plains to start a new life.
So with everyday life full of hunger, poverty and stress, the average American turned to entertainment to get through the tough times.