All the Way to the Grave: Radio Laughs at Television

What do you think is the greater challenge to traditional blogging: vlogging or advertising? Like many folks who value their time and their eyesight, I try to look past commercials; if that is impossible, I will avoid the program or web journal in which they are embedded or pose as entertainment. At least, I still have a fighting chance to escape advertising on television by zapping or zipping through the image blitz that makes a rubble of storytelling by blasting holes into it so deep and for periods so prolonged that sometimes I find it hard to pick up the pieces and recall what happened just a few minutes earlier.

Advertising (and our savvy to get around it) may very well have “killed” television as many of us knew it. Yet what might have given it life (in America, at least) was the public’s resentment of the radio hucksterism that flourished at the end of World War II after years of relative restraint. It was on this day, 5 December, in 1948, that broadcast wit Henry Morgan appeared on the Fred Allen Show to tell its host that radio had “killed itself” with all those giveaway programs and “singing jingles.”

Radio was “all washed up,” Morgan declared. That’s why he was pursuing a career in television instead. To prepare for his move to the new and ostensibly superior medium, he had enrolled in a course at “television acting school.” All the “big stars of television” were in his class; among them “two trained seals,” a “dancing bear” and Ed Sullivan. Graduates would receive a PhD—a “Picture of Howdy Doody,” that is.

The less than flattering picture Morgan painted in quips was Allen’s personal and much publicized view of commercial radio. His own program would soon become a casualty of commerce, greed, and the promotional forces behind it. However dismayed at the developments in radio, which he described as a “by-product of advertising,” Allen did not have much faith in television, either, let alone a blind one. Together with Morgan, Allen sent up the media upstart that seemed to be copying what one of their contemporaries labeled radio’s “seven deadly sins.” Turning the threat of television advertising into a laughing matter, the two radio comedians seemed to be laughing at matter itself.

“The radio tells you all about a lot of things that nobody sees,” Morgan grumbled. Unlike millions of Americans lured into swapping their wireless consoles for a very small screen, Allen sensed this to be the non-visual medium’s greatest gift: “With the high cost of living and the many problems facing him in the modern world,” Allen later wrote in his memoir Treadmill to Oblivion, “all the poor man had left was his imagination. Television has taken that away from him.”

And yet, that very broadcast of Allen’s Ford motor company sponsored show pointed up how successful radio was at killing itself. Contrasting radio and television thrillers and commercials in their sketch, Allen and Morgan had the studio audience in stitches, no doubt by pulling out all sorts of props for their demonstration of television’s pull: you just had to see it in order to be relieved from the burden of having to believe.

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