On This Day in 1941: Radio Listeners Get a "Primer" on Their Favorite Pastime

Well, I really ought to have it checked. My memory, I mean. Here I am celebrating the wonders of old-time radio and plum forgot the birthday of the medium’s foremost writer. Poet-journalist Norman Corwin turned 96 yesterday. He had been on my mind, however, since today, 4 May, marks the 65th anniversary of one of his most enjoyable pieces for microphone and antennae: his Radio Primer. Here is how it opens:

Soloist: This is a Radio Primer. 

Quartet: Fa la, fa la, fa la. 

Soloist: The most elementary show you’ve heard 

Quartet: By far, by far, by far. 

Soloist: An alphabetical primer. 

Quartet: A, B C, D; F, E; 

Soloist: Degree by degree, 

From A to Z 

Our Primer will prim 

The radio industry! 

Quartet: The ra-di-o in-dust-ry!

In Corwin’s “Primer,” the letter A stands for “announcers” (the suave voices that cajoled listeners with invitations like “Why not try? Have you ever wondered? Won’t you ask?”). Announcers were the most highly paid men in the business, precisely because radio was business, and the announcer served as a mediator between the sponsor footing the bill for entertainment and the listeners who were expected to express their gratitude by buying the products advertised. The announcer’s spiel linked the commercial, which he read, with the play he introduced or narrated.

Manipulative, you say? Sure, but at least the audience was given a choice to resist such temptations, free of charge, whereas today, in the post-broadcasting age of cable and satellite, we are forced to pay for it all—including the dubious privilege of receiving the commercials.

B, according to Corwin’s “Primer,” stands for “Breakfast food.” What’s that got to do with radio, you ask? Clearly, after 65 years, some footnotes are in order. The radio industry was practically running on soap suds and cereals back then. After their mothers (and quite a few male listeners who may not have had the guts to admit to it) had tuned in for another chapter of their favorite daytime soap operas, the kids returned home from school for their daily bowlful of serial adventure, which, with some justice, might have been called afternoon cereals. Thanks to the sponsor’s spokesmen, Corwin’s “Definer” reminds us, children all across America knew that “Breakfast food is what you have to eat before you can be a hero.”

Another entry in the “Primer” is a gentle mockery of radio’s most notable ham. Yes, “O stands for Orson”: “Who is Orson? What is he, / That all the critics hail him? / Holy terror of the Mercury, / Publicity doth trail him.” And V, of course, stands for the trade paper that was a must for everyone in the industry. I’ve read it myself for years—or tried to decipher it—until I came to the conclusion that, not being in the biz, I really couldn’t justify my weekly fix of nixed polysyllabics like this:

The cinema is Pix.
The hinterland is Stix,
The people there are Hix,
And critics all are Crix.

Fa la, fa la, fa la. I’ve got it in my ears now, that eminently hummable score by Lyn Murray, one of radio’s most versatile composers. Indeed, I am so cheered and inspired by Corwin’s musical perusal of the dictionary that I will inaugurate my own “Old-time Radio Primer” tomorrow. I shall endeavor to go through the alphabet, letter by letter (if not as a daily, so perhaps as a weekly feature of the broadcastellan journal), and looking forward to the lexical challenge. Any suggestions? A and B are already accounted for, but there are a lot of letters left to mull over . . .

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