There was a time when much of what was on the air, first on radio, then on television, was live. Whatever drama unfolded, it played out on a stage the size of a nation. Nowadays, only breaking news can arrest our promiscuous gaze—the rest will have to wait until we are ready to take it in. With all the technology at our fingertips, we are in danger of losing that sense of sharing and partaking that is live theater. In an age when we can communicate with one another instantly while on the go, we are far less inclined to sit down and make time for anyone speaking to or performing for us. Sure, we all got our home theaters—but we pride ourselves on being able to determine just when the curtain is going up.
Broadcasters got wary of going live, and audiences are weary of waiting for the end of the commercial breaks that have gotten way longer than our attention span. Does anyone still watch American Idol without recording it first? I don’t have that option, mind, being that, here in Britain, the program is shown a day or two after it airs on Fox; but I surely could not be asked to set aside two hours for what amounts to, what, forty minutes of entertainment?
The only programming format not in danger of getting canned is the call-in, the kind of theatrical presentation that depends for its drama on the audience’s possibility of getting in on the act. You might say that audience participation programs like Stop the Music spelled the end of comedy on radio; but, aside from greed, what kept listeners glued to their sets was a sense of urgency and immediacy, of being in the here and now when it mattered, of tuning in at just the time when being live could change your life.
Seventy-five years ago, a man called Major Edward Bowes created a sensation by exploiting that very concept: give the audience a say, turn them into voters and judges, leave them with the impression that, should they chose to do so, they, too, could be on that stage, and phones will start ringing. The Amateur Hour, heard locally in 1934 on New York station WHN—of which the Major was the director—went national on 24 March 1935. “You within sound of my voice are just as much part of this show as the youngsters that come to the microphone,” the Major insisted, urging listeners to “telephone [their] choice, telephone early, telephone often. You decide the winners, and the winners will receive immediate professional engagement.”
And call they did. According to the June 1936 issue of Radioland, the program
brought a rush of business to the telephone company, which had to install 200 special lines to handle the vast volume of incoming phone calls registering the preferences of voters on the Major’s talent. Ordinarily this might seem to be a nice piece of business for the late Mr. Bells concern, but company officials earnestly deprecate any such assumption. Very few nickels roll into their coffers, they explain, for most of the incoming calls are placed by subscribers who are entitled to a minimum number of calls per month as part of their service charge. Be this as it may, there’s something heartening to watch 200 nimble-fingered young women registering votes quicker than you can say “Major Bowes”—all to the fatalistic end that a yodeler or a man who extracts music from a saw may have his chance at fame.
On that first national broadcast, at least, on the first anniversary broadcast (24 March 1935), the yodeler got the gong. “You mustn’t applaud too long,” the Major good-naturedly admonished the studio audience. “He was through the Boer War and we went through one of his yodels. So, it’s even-steven.” Winners during that first season included the Duchess of Torlonia, a Singing Garbage Man, a Chinese Hillbilly, and some Texas Cowboys from Norwich, Connecticut. The oldest contestant was 110.
Since the phone company had no stake in the matter, listeners could cast multiple votes with one call. Radio Guide put this to the test when, its representative claiming to be one of sixty-seven listeners at the Sinai Temple in Mount Vernon, New York, was able to cast sixty-seven votes all at once. The amateur for whom he voted was one Orville Edwards, an undercover Radio Guide reporter posing as a “corn-fed tenor” to investigate the audition process, which, from writing the application to being on the program, lasted a mere three weeks. Proving that “ballot-stuffing” was part of the game, Edwards came in third on the 23 February 1936 broadcast.
“The wheel of fortune spins,” Edward quipped, imitating the words made famous by Major Bowes, “‘Round and round she goes, and where she stops, nobody knows—except the Major, and Radio Guide.
The Major and his minions were amateurs compared to the folks operating Dame Fortune’s wheel these days. Whether or not every vote counts, they make sure that it costs. Meanwhile, the results, however quickly they are tallied, are being reported at a day’s delay.
I guess we owe it to the less than choice ingredients, and a ladle now firmly in the hands of those who hunger for profits, if we are no longer feasting together at the community table. It’s a pity, really. Canned goods may be convenient; but we are missing out on the flavor of the moment.