February 1937 – Farm Radio’s Window on the World

Schulstadt Boys Listening to the Radio, Aberdeen, South Dakota

Schulstadt Boys Listening to the Radio, Aberdeen, South Dakota, 1940
(Photo Credit A.)

In the 1930’s, radios and radio broadcasts were becoming increasingly available to rural families, bringing a new audio window into the broader nation and world. Radio provided useful weather and market reports and USDA-produced agricultural programs such as the noon-hour National Farm and Home Hour, but national entertainment programs were also very popular among rural listeners.[1]

Here’s a taste of some of the national programs the rural listener might have picked up 75 years ago, in February, 1937.

At the end of January, 1937, severe flooding of the Ohio River and into the Mississippi River valleys, in places the worst flooding of the Ohio on record,[2] reportedly displaced a million people from their homes, from Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, to Cairo, Illinois,[3] at a time when Federal Depression-era resources were already stretched thin.  National radio broadcasters responded with some special Red Cross fundraising and variety programs, broadcast early in the month (February 1 and 11).[4]  Listeners to the Tommy Dorsey orchestra on The Jack Pearl Show (February 1) were reassured that the extensive flooding in Louisville, Kentucky, had not affected sponsor Raleigh Cigarettes’ manufacturing facility at that location.[5]

President Roosevelt, in a speech to Congress (February 5, 12 noon),[6] requests passage of a bill that would allow the President to appoint additional judges to the Supreme Court for each justice over 70 who does not retire—allowing up to 6 additional justices beyond the existing nine.  This proposal, unexpected even among congressional leaders,[7] proves controversial, with several interview-and-discussion shows dedicated to the debate cropping into the evening radio schedules over the course of the month. [8],[9]

1937 Feb 8 - President Roosevelt and Scouts at radio address

Seated, left to right: Walter W. Head, President of the Boy Scouts of America; President of the United States Franklin D. Roosevelt; and James E. West, Chief Scout Executive.  (Photo Source: [10])

On February 8, in another national radio address, President Roosevelt announced from the Oval Office the first national Boy Scout Jamboree, to be held in Washington D.C. (with Scouts camping around the Washington Monument) later that summer.

Jack Benny fans get a double serving this month.  It seems that Lux Radio Theater thought Mr. Benny was just the person to play a man who had to spend one million dollars within a year in their 1-hour radio adaptation of “Brewster’s Millions.”[11]  Jack also makes a guest appearance on Fred Allen’s Town Hall Tonight on Wednesday, February 10.[12]  Other nights he and Fred Allen spar at each other from their own separate programs (Jack on The Jello Program, Sunday nights), each vying for the best joke at how anemic the other appears.  In just about every radio appearance (including the Lux Theater) Jack–under an apparent challenge by Allen–threatens to give a violin performance of Schubert’s “The Bee.” He finally makes good on this threat during his own program at the end of the month (February 28).[13]

On Wednesday, February 17, listeners staying up late can hear a blow-by-blow description of a fight between Joe Lewis and Natie Brown from Kansas City’s Municipal Auditorium, aired by WREN Kansas City over the Blue Network.[14],[15] Those who strive for a more conservative education could have checked in earlier on the Blue Network for a program from the National Congress of Parents and Teachers on “How Children’s Minds Grow.”[16]

The National Barn Dance–broadcast live on Saturday nights from WLS (“The Prairie Farmer”) in Chicago and transmitted by regional NBC Blue Network affiliates across the country[17],[18]–was ranked the fifth most popular radio show among rural audiences in the 1930’s.[19]  The Grand Old Opry, broadcast by WSM live from Nashville, could also be picked up in far off locations if the weather was right.[20]

Modern listeners can go back in time to hear some of these radio shows, free of charge, at http://www.archive.org/details/oldtimeradio.

–Contributed by D.

Photo Credit A: John Vachon, “Schulstadt Boys Listening to the Radio, Aberdeen, South Dakota,” Nov 1940, Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives Collection #8c18174, Public Domain (cropped by PrairieYesteryear).

[1]Steve Craig, “ ‘The More They Listen, the More They Buy’ Radio and the Modernizing of Rural America, 1930-1939,” Agricultural History, Vol. 80 No. 1 (Winter, 2006), pp. 1-16.

[2] Webmaster of the National Weather Service Weather Forecast Office of Louisville, KY, “The Great Flood of 1937,” http://www.crh.noaa.gov/lmk/?n=flood_37.

[3] Summary flood notes from the pages of The Cincinnati Enquirer, http://www.enquirer.com/flood_of_97/history5.html.

[4] Sound ONline Inventory and Catalog (SONIC), Library of Congress Audio Collection, index records for Feb 1937.

[5] J. David Goldin., RadioGoldIndex.com, “February 1, 1937,” 2012.

[6] Sound ONline Inventory and Catalog (SONIC), Library of Congress Audio Collection, index records for 5 Feb 1937.

[7] “Roosevelt Asks Power to Reform Courts, Increasing the Supreme Bench to 15 Judges; Congress Startled, But Expected to Approve,” New York Times, 5 February 1937.

[8] Sound ONline Inventory and Catalog (SONIC), Library of Congress Audio Collection, several index records between 5 Feb 1937 and 28 Feb 1937.

[9] For more information FDR’s so-called “court-packing plan,” search on “Judicial Procedures Reform Bill of 1937.”

[10] White House photo (in the public domain), as printed in The National and World Jamborees in Pictures, New York: Boy Scouts of America (1937).  Online file courtesy of en.Wikipedia.org.

[11] “Lux Radio Theater 1937,” “Lux_37-02-15_Brewsters_Millions.mp3,” Archive.org.

[12] Jerry Haendiges, “Jerry Haendiges Vintage Radio Logs,” “Town Hall Tonight”  http://www.otrsite.com/radiolog/

[13] “Jack Benny 143 eps,” Archive.org.

[14] Goldin, “February 17, 1937”, 2012.

[15] Sound ONline Inventory and Catalog (SONIC), Library of Congress Audio Collection, index record for “Joe Lewis versus Jack Brown,” 17 Feb 1937, Call No. RWC 5697 B4-B5.

[16] Goldin, “February 17, 1937,” 2012.

[17] Scott Childers and Munchkin Studios, “The WLS National Barn Dance,” http://www.wlshistory.com/NBD/, 2007.

[18] “Billboard and Variety Magazine Country Music Index, 1925-1955” Popular Music and Culture Collection, Georgia State University Library, http://www.library.gsu.edu/spcoll/music/billboard/.

[19] Craig, p.7.

[20] “Billboard and Variety Magazine Country Music Index, 1925-1955.”

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