Monday, January 28, 2019

From the Top of the Hill # 13: January 15, 1948

Another edition of John D MacDonald's 1947-48 Clinton Courier newspaper column, From the Top of the Hill. In JDM's prior column he wrote about a radio show he was really enjoying in spite of himself. He prefaced his remarks with many of the reasons he did not like radio in general, characterizing it as a medium full of "oily commercials" and "a series of ragged puns which will curdle your day." This apparently upset one of his readers, who responded with a long, detailed letter full of facts and figures. Here MacDonald shares that letter, along with his responses. 

I think JDM is trying to be funny here, but his constant use of the terms "pal" and "son" when addressing the writer brings to mind a letter Dan Rowan wrote to MacDonald many years later. He, too, had gotten on JDM's wrong side and began his letter thusly: "When you ream someone, I can see that old Army background shining through... you do a fine job of it."

Look What We Found in the Mailbox!

We found a letter objecting to our unpremeditated and unprincipled attack last week on the great institution of American Radio. In fact, the guy sending us the letter also sent it to WIBX to be read over the Rural Editor Speaks Program next Saturday between 8:15 and 8:30 A.M.

We reprint the letter in full, except for a poem, but set the letter up here as conversation, a discussion if you will. Because his viewpoint seems to be that of the radio business, we will call him Broadcaster, and call us Listener.

He starts off with the poem, which mentions a hill-top and for that we thank him dearly, then...

Broadcaster: I am sending this along to my friend the Timekeeper at WIBX who is also the fellow who tries his best to keep radio in the groove and enables us to listen to the medium thru the kindness of some sponsors, who, mind you, in the final analysis only get a modicum of advertising from a maximum of expenditure and I am asking that he reads this over his Rural Editor Speaks column next Saturday between 8:15 and 8:30 A.M.

Listener: Buried in that sentence somewhere, pal, are some pretty broad statements. In the final analysis, you say. Whose analysis? And I wonder about that word "kindness." Maybe the sponsors I have known have been exceptions. When they spend money for advertising, "Kindness" is furthest from their mind. They want sales. Pretty hard-headed cookies, believe me. And bless me, what's a modicum of advertising? My dictionary says it means a little, a small quantity of portion. What have you got to back this up?

Broadcaster: "I have been keeping a very close count on the amount of commercial chatter over WIBX for a typical day, and from my record which I have before me, I find that out of a total of broadcast hours, from 6:00 A.M. till 12:05 A.M., a total of 18 hours and 5 minutes -- there were exactly a total of 3 hours and nine minutes, counting what are called announcements between programs, and those included in quarter, half and full hour programs."

Listener: Look! He's going to beat me to death with statistics? Son, you say only three out of seventeen hours are filled with commercials. To me, that is like having a man beat you on the head with a hammer for three hours and then spend the next fourteen hours trying to tell you it doesn't hurt. I wasn't kicking about the quantity of the commercials. I was kicking about the flavor of same. Unctuous voices quoting phoney statistics about doctor's preferences. Flat little female voices whining nursery rhymes about where to buy what. Commercials that bleat the product name at you nineteen times in sixty seconds. "Love that Soap."

Broadcaster: "In other words, listeners heard 14 hours and 56 minutes of entertainment such as Lux Radio Theatre, My Friend Irma, Screen Guild, and while these programs paid the talent at no less than $61,000 and $28,895 for station time on complete network they only received a total of 3 hours and 9 minutes commercial chatter."

Listener: Three hours and nine minutes of severe test of the gag reflex, pal. And what makes you think the programs you get are so good once you have staggered through the ripe, juicy commercials? Let me refer you to the Saturday Evening Post of January 10th, 1948 in which Paul Schubert has an article titled "A Radio Man Looks at Radio." Paul is one of the people on the inside of radio. He says, and I quote, "I do say, however, that taken by and large, radio in the United States is dull, stereotyped, unimaginative and depressing, a mechanical mental narcotic which fills the hours of the day and night for countless people only for want of anything better. It is tolerated and accepted, but it is not really enjoyed." Last week's column was written and in the Courier office before Mr. Schubert's article hit the stands. I politely suggest you read it.

Broadcaster: "These figures may sound fantastic to you, John D., but when you consider that some of these programs attract in the neighborhood of 40,000,000 people, the cost per listener is much cheaper than the rate your estimable newspaper charges its individual reader for such stuff as you write."

Listener: You can get the Courier 40 years for what a $100 radio costs, son. I am not one to low-rate the American people. Okay, so 40,000,000 of us listen to a program. How does that make it good? Maybe it is the best program available at the time. Or shall we say the least bad. Look at our culture, pal. Books, radio and movies have for twenty years been finding a level of intelligence that is an insult to the capacities of the American People. There are more man hours of leisure today in this country than ever before. Maybe this mechanization and mass production of simple-minded amusements to fill the leisure hours marks the beginning of the decline of Western civilization. May I suggest you read, or re-read, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. There you will see the inevitable end of mass production of narcotic-type amusement which puts no strain on the listener's intelligence. And about the stuff I write, I am a free agent. I am protecting nobody's interests. I am uncensored. I can say what I think. Can radio?

Broadcaster: "Listeners to radio have the ability and responsibility of twisting their dials to find what they want, but when they buy your weekly, these either read it, or use for the garbage collector to pick up the remnants of a meal."

Listener: My goodness! It's far better to line bureau drawers with it. After it's read. But to get back to the radio audience. Sure, anybody can turn a dial. To what? To a very, very few acceptable programs. I recommend, rather than the tinsel splendor of the programs you suggested, Invitation to Learning, CBS is There, Suspense, Chicago Roundtable, and, a comedian as yet unspoiled by radio, Abe Burrows.

Broadcaster: "Perhaps John D might become a listener to the new science in radio: FM... YOU TRY IT. BUY A PILOTUNER for listening musical thrills: your friend John Farquhar will sell you one for $29.75 and then you'll get a real kick out of radio..."

Listener: Hey! You slipped a commercial in there, pal. Unfair! And by the way, I understand that one of the reasons for FM popularity is because sponsors' dollars haven't yet forced mediocrity on it -- and there is a delightful dearth of commercials. Don't tell me that too...!!

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See you next week.

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