Cowcatchers and Hitchhikers: The Technique of Radio Writing

This one’s been around and seen hard times. A tattered dust jacket bespeaks much work and long neglect. And now that I got my hands on it, I expect it to be in my service for years to come. To be sure, Luther Weaver’s Technique of Radio Writing (1948) is no eye candy. It does not strive be shown off in talks around the coffee table. After all, its subject matter is the business broadcasting, of producing commercially viable scripts that, once flung out of the voice box and into the proverbial ether, come to the ears of the multitude who are to be coddled and cajoled all the way to the store. The Technique of Radio Writing is very much concerned with commerce. It does not wax philosophical about the potentialities of radio; instead, it provides information about the industry, its workings, opportunities and limitations. According to Luther, it is pointless to lament the fixed slots that make it easy for the networks to sell time for advertising. “Time, or the lack of it, is a great nuisance to new writers in radio,” he acknowledges; but writers who protest such limitations “might just as logically protest against the sonnet’s requirement of 14 lines.”

Weaver urges writers to

remember the value of Anglo-Saxon words, staunch and sturdy: they can be depended upon to make your meaning clear in the way a Grant Wood painting makes a corn shock stand out ion a rolling Iowa farm. Words of Anglo-Saxon origin are usually short, crisp, direct, easy to say, easy to listen to, easy to understand. You’ll find them valuable in your work.

Making things plain, Weaver does not shy away from the vocabulary of the trade, but explains the at times colorful jargon. A “cowcatcher,” for instance, is a

commercial announcement “coming on first,” that is, preceding the opening of the program itself. Note that it is on a different product or service from the product or service that appears in the commercials inside the program itself, but it is made or offered by the same sponsor. Frequently it is known as an “allied “ product. Similarly, a hitchhiker is a closing announcement, one that comes in after the regular program is finished. Both [. . .] are within the program time of the sponsor. They vary in length, but common practice usually holds them to less than 1 minute.

A “block” of sales patter could “easily run to 3 minutes or more,” considering that the various advertisements—even in the age of sponsorship in which a single product became associated with a particular show—followed “in direct sequence: closing commercial, hitchhiker, station-break announcement, cowcatcher, opening commercial of the next program.”

In the years after the Second World War, commercialization was a hotly debated and much deplored fact of American living. As Weaver reminds us, future President Eisenhower referred to commercials as a “language that clinks sweetly in our ears”; to “hear commercials on the radio,” he argued, “means America.” Citizens, on the other hand, were voicing their objections.

While the networks tried to “knit the hitchhiker into the show itself by recurring theme music,” “[s]ome stations,” responding to complaints, decided to “bar both cowcatchers and hitchhikers on shows under their own control.”

By today’s standards, broadcasters of the mid-1940s still showed moderation as they rendered their ostensible service to the public. According to Weaver, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) recommended that an hour-long program not exceed six minutes of commercial copy. The recommendation was followed by CBS, which stated the “length of copy regulations on the rate card of its company-owned stations” as being six minutes per hour after 6 PM, with nine minutes of commercials for each morning and afternoon hour.

Nowadays, it seems, the cow has run away with the boys and gals in the business of catching our attention while milking the tired medium of television for all it might once have been worth. Is it any wonder that so many of us are taking a hike and hitch alternative rides?

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