Time Capsule

Today, no one would propose that professors could run a national radio program. But in the early years of radio, educators shaped the medium more than businessmen and corporate sponsors. Most stations were non-commercial, locally owned and linked to colleges or universities. That changed in 1926–27 as the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) and the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) began expanding, buying stations and helping affiliates upgrade.

From the start, radio offered a mixture of programs related to science and health. Some offered quack advice, such as The Medical Question Box of John R. Brinkley, a physician who claimed to cure impotency with goat prostate gland transplants.

Rather than offering accurate health education, this was part of what former APA President Joseph Jastrow called “cultist America,” a land of superstition and commercial exploitation. But other radio programs were more legitimate, and were given free air-time by local stations and networks and not required to carry advertising. Starting in 1925, for example, the Child Study Association of America sponsored talks on children by authorities such as Helen T. Woolley of Columbia University’s Teachers College. In 1929, journalist Albert Wiggam brought popular psychology to the nation on Friday afternoons with “Your Mind,” a show based on his 1928 book “Exploring Your Mind with the Psychologists.”

Networks were willing to offer such non-commercial programming to show the U.S. Congress that they deserved to remain independent corporations, rather than be part of a government-run system, like the BBC in the United Kingdom. In 1929–30, the networks established ties to organizations of academics and journalists that provided an aura of intellectual and social responsibility.

One such group was the National Advisory Council for Radio in Education, or NACRE, which organized its first two on-air lecture series in 1931. The first was on economics, unsurprising in the midst of the Great Depression. The second, funded by the Carnegie Corporation, was “Psychology Today.” Organized in cooperation with APA, it had a roster of speakers that included prominent psychologists such as Florence Goodenough, Walter Miles and Edward Thorndike. Broadcast weekly on the NBC network, it ran from October 1931 to May 1932. By its end, it was heard on 55 stations across the country.

Yale’s James Angell delivered the series’ inaugural lecture, explaining that “psychology has of late been extending its methods into various fields where it may be of immediate practical value.” This was a theme for the series, with psychologists attempting to explain how current research applied to modern life.

Another prominent contributor was behaviorist John B. Watson, who had left Johns Hopkins University for a career in advertising. The author of a best-selling book on child-rearing, Watson considered himself well qualified to speak on “How to Grow a Personality.” Citing his study of conditioned fear, Watson asserted that human relations were made contentious by maladaptive emotions. Never shy, Watson claimed authority over both social and international relations. “Fights between boys, fights between adults and between nations,” he claimed, were caused by “unnecessary restrictions on one’s movement and freedom.” This put a scientific gloss on a popular criticism of the Versailles Treaty, which restricted Germany’s military and burdened it with debt. It also editorialized against a popular left-wing viewpoint that capitalism was the root cause of war.

Response to the psychology lectures was strong enough to make a 21st century advertiser jealous. Thousands of listeners sent in money for “listener’s notebooks” and wrote supportive letters to newspapers. And according to The New York Times, the first 10 lectures elicited 100,000 letters written to NACRE. The series’ success also suggested that the networks could provide education without congressional interference.

Entertainment replaces education

Soon, NBC and CBS retreated and gave even less support to radio as an educational medium since entertainment proved more attractive to advertisers. Instead, they filled their schedules with radio serials and big band performances. Part of the entertainment was, however, psychological. As magazine editors had learned in the 1920s, radio executives found their audience eager to learn about themselves and human relations.

One psychologist who struggled to reach a popular audience was Joseph Jastrow, host of the 1934–35 radio show “The Herald of Sanity.” In his program, Jastrow denounced his non-PhD competitors and decried the public’s gullibility. This had little effect, as the public preferred more skillful purveyors of self-help. The most successful was “The Voice of Experience,” a human relations advice show created in the 1920s by Marion Sayle Taylor, who went from broadcasting on a few small stations to regional prominence in 1932 on WOR in New York — with the sponsorship of a patent medicine, “Haley’s MO.” His show then went national on CBS, and by 1933-34, such shows were so numerous that a new category was introduced in radio listings called “Human Interest Programs.”

The triumph of entertainment over education on the radio should not have been a surprise. As the president of the University of Wisconsin explained in 1935, “education may get away with dullness if it is dealing with prisoners in a classroom.” But “it cannot when men are free to turn from dull quality to interesting frivolity by a simple twist of the dial.”


Ben Harris, PhD, is a professor of psychology and affiliate professor of history at the University of New Hampshire. Stephen Underwood provided research assistance for this essay. Katharine S. Milar, PhD, of Earlham College, is the historical editor for “Time Capsule.”

References

  • Behrens, P.J. (2009). Psychology takes to the airwaves: American radio psychology between the wars, 1926–1939. American Sociologist, 40, 214–227.
  • Burnham, J.C. (1987). How superstition won and science lost. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
  • LaFollette, M.C. (2008). Science on the air: Popularizers and personalities on radio and early television. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Leach, E. (1983). Tuning out education: The cooperation doctrine in radio, 1922–1938. Washington, D.C.: Current.
  • Slotten, H.R. (2009). Radio’s hidden voice: The origins of public broadcasting in the United States. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.