“Jane Woodfin has worked for a West Coast radio station, in practically every known capacity, for more than twenty years—a period which almost spans the life of modern radio.” That is pretty much all I know about the wit that penned Of Mikes and Men, a narrative promising the “humorous inside story of early radio, when announcers doubled as soundmen and microphones went dead once a program.” I should not be quite so petty or perplexed—but the broadcast historian in me still doesn’t know quite what he’s reading. At least, “humorous” is an entirely appropriate tag for Woodfin’s tale, that, tall or not, was published in 1951, when radio was still the source of mystery, romance, and adventure, but only in a programming sense. Otherwise, it was a big business, a well oiled if somewhat past its prime machinery that bore little resemblance to the “anything goes”—or “nothing quite works”—broadcasting of the 1920s recalled by Woodfin.
Of Mikes and Men, which I picked up at a bookstore in Dryden, New York (aforementioned), opens like a prequel to Remember WENN. You know, the nostalgic sitcom set in a broadcasting studio, which aired on AMC during the mid-to late 1990s. Woodfin’s narrator, presumably the author, relates how she, penniless and none too skilled, got a job at a radio station in Portland, Oregon just after Wall Street laid that infamous “Egg.” Perusing the want ads, the young woman applied for the only position offered to female job searchers—that of “continuity writer” at station KUKU.
Not that she had any idea what a “continuity writer” was. She beat out a number of applicants and, being paid partly in cash, partly in the goods the station’s sponsors tried to peddle, was expected to deliver not only advertising copy and chatter (the so-called “continuity”) but also her own cooking program. That Jane, as her friend and neighbor points out, would be lost without a can opener, was something she kept to herself, until the audience, trying to follow her recipes, found out as much while gazing at the indigestible mess sticking to their pots and pans.
This is all rather jolly and preferable to leafing through I Hid It under the Sheets, the at times exasperatingly ungrammatical and disorganized reminiscences of journalist, sports writer, and radio listener Gerald Eskanezi, which I mentioned previously. At least, Woodfin knew how to turn a phrase and tell a story. So, why am I not just sitting back and enjoying that story?
For one, I am wondering just whose story it is. I mean, is it based on actual experiences? Is there anything between the covers that might tell me something factual about what it was like working in broadcasting before radio reached what is generally referred to as its “golden age”? Or is it a calculated, well timed antidote to the run-of-the-mill radio of the post-war years with whose Hucksterism Americans became so thoroughly disenchanted?
Playing it sly, Woodfin dedicates her book to those who presumable worked with her by stating:
To my dear friends and co-workers in early radio who will attempt in vain to find themselves in the pages of this book. You aren’t here. I couldn’t put you in because you are normal. But you may recognize some of the screwballs we both knew.
Station KUKU? I assumed Woodfin’s book to be an account of an early radio comedy of the same name. It was created by Raymond Knight, one of whose later Cuckoo programs you may find in the Internet Archive. According to the aforementioned Messrs. Gaver and Stanley, Knight began broadcasting on 1 January 1930 and distinguished himself by being one of the first radio satirists to poke fun at the medium. Groucho Marx reputedly thought him to be “the best comedian on the air.”
Turns out, Of Mikes and Men does not concern Mr. Knight, who broadcast from the East Coast. Nor have I come across any names that I recognize as referring to an actual radio pioneer. Still, leafing through Woodfin’s book, wondering whether Jane ever aired, I feel not unlike the earliest reader’s of Jane Eyre, who assumed the novel to be a biographical account of a governess in love with her master. That Woodfin loved the radio, and knew it well, I do not doubt. I was just hoping for a bit of dirt I could trace to some of the real men and women behind those carbon mikes; but then I remembered my Aunt Ilse, the baby crier, bit my captious tongue, and let Woodfin keep hers firmly lodged in her unblushing cheek. Besides, those distinctions between fact and fiction, well nigh incomprehensible to today’s reality-TV audiences, went out of fashion in the days of the Spanish-American War . . .