Monday, February 25, 2019

From the Top of the Hill # 15: January 29, 1948

Here's the next installment of John D MacDonald's 1947-1948 Clinton Courier newspaper column, From the Top of the Hill. Here he continues his rant on the low quality of commercial radio in the United States, obviously needing to get in the last word on the subject. His mention of the "race-destruction potentialities of the atomic bomb" is interesting, in that he had just seen his novella "And the World Will Die" published in the November-December issue of Doc Savage Magazine. It's very early JDM science fiction about nuclear proliferation in the early 1950's.

The Battle of the Airwaves

We've got another letter from that Friend of American Radio -- Bill Sykes. Sorry, Bill, but we can't use the letter. You see, in that conversational column we split the conversation between us. You had your say and we had ours.

In the latest letter of yours, you give both sides of a conversation, inserting a mythical Britisher in there to talk to you. Thus you put us on the side of being a Friend of the BBC. We're not. We think it's terrible.

You make the assumption that if we criticize American Radio, we must want government operation of radio. That's pretty fancy logic, Bill. We think it's up to American Radio, as free enterprise, to prove its right to lease the air waves by cleaning its own house.

So let's leave the BBC out of this. Neither of us like it. Okay?

Now to get to the additional points you bring up in your letter -- points which bear on our original argument.

You say that the British, or any foreign listener, is thrilled to hear J. Benny, F. Allen, Lux Radio Theatre. Agreed. So would anyone else be, if they were hearing it for the first time. It's novel, and, being novel, has a certain vitality.

But, on the basis of a decade, the same old formula gets a little tiring. Benny is right up there on top, but is his supremacy challenged by anything fresh, novel? No. The kids that try to steal from Benny's Hooper Rating do it by trying to copy Mr. Benny.

I gather that you want the dissatisfied listeners to gripe to the Federal Communications Division. Not with our complaint, Bill. That system is set up to handle gripes against individual stations and individual programs. We just feel that the broadcasting industry, as a whole, has too condescending an attitude toward the intelligence of the average listener, and could improve quality of programs. You can't send that sort of gripe to your Congressman or to the FCC. That kind of gripe has to be aired in something like the public press. The program quality will improve when listeners boycott the products of the companies who subsidize mediocrity.

You wonder, Bill, why we should complain when, as you say all we have to do is just "twist the dial". Twist it to what? Look back at our previous conversation.

You state that the broadcasting industry had sampled the public and found a strong preference for "Soap Operas" during the daytime hours.

We think that we could sample the third grade and find a strong preference for bubble gum chewing instead of arithmetic.

Not that we feel the public should be bound hand and foot and have "culture" fed to everyone with a tin spoon. No indeed!

But we do feel that the broadcasting industry should shoulder a small portion of our perpetual problem of adult education. Bill, a lot of the brightest men in this country are deeply concerned because the public cannot be awakened to the race-destruction potentialities of the atomic bomb. If, as a nation we are to survive, it must be through a constant, slow, steady increase in awareness and this awareness can only be achieved though education. All of us must become just a little smarter and a little better informed.

Radio can shoulder its share of the burden by raising its sights a trifle and making the average program of every variety a bit more mature.

It is so obvious that nothing will be gained by a perpetual maintenance of the insipid, flavorless and unrealistic antics of the soap operas.

Continue to have soap operas, Bill. But make them better, Make their little two dimensional pasteboard characters face honest and adult problems. This cannot be achieved by the mass-production writing methods used by the soap opera teams, It could be achieved by taking the strong, mature novels of the past and present, and presenting them in soap opera form, adapted for radio.

Take Ross Lockridge's recent novel, Raintree County. A soap opera on that could run two years five days a week.

Incidentally anyone who wants to inject their two bits in this little radio squabble is welcome to do so by writing us a letter.

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See you next week.

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