Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Radio Nature League Prehistory

In the June 1922 issue of The American Magazine, advertising hero Bruce Barton (the second B in BBDO), made a famous prediction about the future of radio:
[W]e may begin to picture for ourselves what radio will mean in our homes in the years to come. We shall all have receiving sets--there is little doubt of that. We shall come down in the morning to hear the newspaper headlines while we eat...and at six or seven, when the boys and girls have had their supper and are ready for bed, someone like Thornton Burgess may lift the transmitter in his home and broadcast a Bed-Time Story to a million youngsters all over the land. ("This magic thing called radio")
While Burgess never broadcast from his home (the Hotel Kimball studio of WBZ was about two and a half miles from his Springfield Washington Rd. home), his stories were already being read on the air, just two years into the radio era.

The earliest record I have is July 14, 1922. At 7:00 p.m., The New York Times lists "Final baseball scores and Bedtime Stories by Thornton Burgess" for WJZ, Newark. The Burgess story became a regular WJZ feature on Friday nights until mid-1923, when it moved to Monday nights at an earlier hour. Other stations followed suit with their own Burgess storytimes. The Hartford Courant, for example, announced on September 1, 1922 that its station, WDAK, would be sending out "the popular Thornton Burgess Bedtime Stories" every night at 6:10. There is no evidence that Burgess was directly involved in these broadcasts or even compensated (the Courant was running the "Little Stories for Bedtime" reruns during this era). [UPDATE: Burgess was directly involved.]

On May 25, 1924, The New York Times reports that arrangements had been made by WBZ to broadcast "Thornton Burgess' child and animal stories during the regular bed-time story period each evening." According to his autobiography, these stories were usually not read by Burgess himself but by a pair of "trained readers"--the "Dream Fairy" and the "Sleep Fairy." Burgess himself was granted a little time some evenings to talk about animals and host a guessing contest. By August, 1924, this apparently had become a very popular program. Here's an excerpt from a column in the Lewiston (ME) Evening Journal (8/14/1924):
It appears at present that Westinghouse station WBZ has been justified in broadcasting every night [6:30] except Sundays a short bedtime story for the children, besides other occasional features. The Springfield (Mass.) broadcasting station has seldom if ever omitted this story which is so welcome to the kiddies and the letters and cards of acknowledgment, so amusingly written by the children, are ample reward for having done so. The kiddies love these stories and the Fairy Band, the occasional guessing contest conducted by Thornton Burgess, nationally famous writer of stories for the young, and everything else radiocast for their benefit, and they are profuse in their thanks for the station.
There are listings for "Animal Guessing contests" on WBZ as early as Feb 19, 1923, but it is unclear whether Burgess was the host at that point.

Burgess admits in his autobiography that when he started in radio he didn't even own one. And his initial experience was not particularly positive. By 1924, Burgess was a reluctant but seasoned veteran of the lecture circuit (more on that in a future post). But radio was different. Burgess recalls that even the engineer in the studio didn't respond to his laugh lines. Ultimately it was his experience reading stories for records that proved the most valuable.

Next: Thornton Burgess the recording artist

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