By Wayne Gilbert CRC Member
The Flash January, 2013
“Call for Phillip Morris!” Johnny Roventini’s call for Philip Morris was one of the shortest, and most successful commercials ever to air on American radio. It was repeated so often that it became embedded in the minds of a generation as the official voice for Phillip Morris, more recognizable to many than the first four words of the American national anthem.
How to fund radio broadcasts has been an enduring problem since the first radio stations went on the air, careening from the era when any direct advertising was frowned upon, until today, when it seems that commercials often are allotted as much, or more, time than the actual program being broadcast. Laws have been enacted and books have been written about how to control the number and content of product commercials, but little has been written about the evolution of how radio commercials are presented and the problems encountered by those producing them.
In the beginning, when stations were small, there was often just one person who made all of the announcements and introduced all of the performers or musical records. Audiences often could identify the station as much from the announcer’s voice as from the station’s call letters, and took little notice that the same announcer would advertise a number of different stores or businesses. Typically the station’s announcer announcer would finish up with the news or weather broadcast, and then casually mention, “The following musical selections were from records provided by Joe’s department store, down on the corner of 12th and Elm.”
Initially, stations were pleased to give free advertising for a store in exchange for the use of phonograph records from the store’s supply, and stores were thrilled just to have their name mentioned as a source of the new records being played by a broadcasting station. But soon broadcasters realized that airtime had value, and businesses found they had to pay to have their names mentioned on the air. But if they were going to have to pay, they wanted to have a say in what these commercial advertisements said and how they were used. Some businesses even demanded to have their product(s) pitched by a specific announcer, whose voice seemed to resonate with a specific product’s qualities.
As programs became more sophisticated, and broadcasting costs increased, businesses began to share or co-sponsor these costs. They also found that co-sponsoring several programs during an evening kept their commercials before the listening audience more frequently. With co-sponsoring, the station’s announcer might introduce an upcoming program, and then relinquish the microphone to ‘commercial’ announcers who would advertise products for several different sponsors throughout the program.
As more stations came on the air, busi-nesses often found themselves with com-mercials being aired on different stations during an evening. Since these commer-cials were all broadcast live, the commer-cial announcers were often required to race from station to station, often across town, during the course of an evening, just to give a brief 1-2 minute commercial for ‘their’ product.
Broadcasters found they could cut costs by broadcasting the same program over a net-work of stations, but this created a whole new set of problems. Joe’s department store saw little advantage in advertising to a customer located 100 miles away, while Sam’s Shoe Store chain agreed to co-sponsor the program, but only if it aired at the usual time and continued to use the same commercial announcers who the pub-lic had come to recognize with being asso-ciated with his shoes in each locality. Other, larger, advertisers often wanted the same commercial announcer to be the voice of their product, wherever it was advertised, and nearly all of them wanted local control of the script being read during the commercial.
To accommodate these needs, broadcasters began experimenting with pre-recording shows for later broadcast. This worked well for comedy programs, where an actor could often ad-lib out of a flub or blown line, but not so successfully for commer-cials, where sponsors wanted scripts to be strictly adhered to. And then there was the problem of the poor quality of sound asso-ciated with a disk transcription. Audiences just did not like to listen to transcribed programs, and poor listener ratings did not attract business commercials.
Radio transcription technicians tried sev-eral different methods to solve these prob-lems to the satisfaction of the sponsors, the performers, and the listening public. One method commonly used was to transcribe all of the commercials onto one disk and later dub them into the appropriate portion of a program. This certainly did nothing to alleviate the stress level for the ‘commercial’ announcers who were often required to record 10-12 perfect commer-cials onto one disk.
The dissatisfaction of sponsors and audi-ences continued through the 1930s, with broadcast technicians unable to come up with a satisfactory solution. It took Bing Crosby’s love of golf to make program and commercial transcriptions acceptable.
Although one of the country’s most popu-lar performers, Bing was known through-out the entertainment industry for his casual work habits, preferring to perform be-fore an audience only on rainy days when he could not be on a golf course. Although Bing knew the listening audience disap-proved of his programs being transcribed, he tried to use his popularity to force NBC to accept his programs as a dubbed disk transcription. But the quality of recorded transcriptions was so poor that Bing just didn’t sound like Bing! Both the listening audience and the network sponsors balked, and Bing was forced to leave the air for a whole season.
Eventually, Bing opted to move to the newly created ABC network, but despite his personal popularity his programs con-tinued to lose audience ratings. Finally, on Oct 16, 1946, Bing, broke the ‘sound bar-rier’ by pre-recording his program using a high quality commercial tape recorder that John Mullin had discovered in Germany, at the close of WWII, while serving as an officer in the US Army Signal Corps.
Although Bing was impressed with the quality of the recordings produced by Mullin’s tape recorders, he was not con-vinced of their durability. He felt it was to his best interest to work with Mullin to produce an American-made tape recorder to replace these war souvenirs.
With Bing’s influence and financing, Mullin, with a small company named Am-pex, developed and sold an order for 12 recorders to ABC at $5,200 each. Soon nearly all radio programs and product com-mercials were being recorded at such a high quality that it was nearly impossible to detect a transcribed program.
Was it Bing’s desire to record a high qual-ity, easily edited, program at a time of his choosing, or his commercial sponsors in-sisting that their advertising commercial be performed exactly as written, or perhaps even Adolf Hitler’s desire to fool the Ger-man people into believing he was broad-casting his speech to them live instead of on an edited tape, that led us to be inun-dated with product commercials, which quickly ended the golden age of radio.
Its hoped that even Bing might have had some regrets over what his enthusiasm for golf fostered on generations to come.
Cox, Jim. Sold on Radio, McFarlane & Company, Inc. 2008
Mullin, John. High Fidelity Magazine, April 1976. Creating the Craft of Tape Recording. Pages 62-67