Will Rogers Wasn’t Scared of the Radio

Willl Rogers
In 1930, Will Rogers radio show “The Gulf Headliners” was one of the most popular programs in the United States. Will Rogers Memorial Museum.

Radio was a revolutionary invention. But it could also be a scary invention.

By the late 1920s radio was more popular than ever. New shows were saturating the air waves and there seemed to be a program for every taste and interest all day long. But could the radio be dangerous? What were the risks of bringing a talking machine in to the home that seemingly had a mind (at least a voice) of its own? I recently came across an interesting story by Will Rogers that sheds some light on some of the fears Americans used to have about radio entering their home and changing their lives.

Funded by deep pocketed advertisers and growing networks, radio shows were becoming so popular in the late 1920s that it was hard to imagine life without the entertaining machine. “No home is complete today without its radio facilities,” one paper claimed in 1929, “that applies to the humble cottage or hall bedroom as well as the millionaire’s palace or his club room.” By 1930, radios were so popular and affordable that the national census even started recording how many Americans owned one (the answer was 12 million households).

However, there was also some uneasiness from Americans to how big and influential radio was getting. In 1938 Americans famously claimed that Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast tricked listeners into believing they actually were being invaded by an alien race (that wasn’t true). Other philosophers like Theodor Adorno and Rudolph Arnheim thought that radio was turning into invincible propaganda that could brainwash the world. Mothers fearing for their children’s innocence organized boycotts of radio stations that used profanity or discussed other taboo subjects.

Young man and woman listening to the radio, circa 1920-1930. Archives Center, National Museum of American History.

Unlike other worrisome critics, humorist and “cowboy philosopher” Will Rogers raised his radio fears in a fun and joking way. Ironically, Rogers was actually one of the pioneer radio entertainers of the 1920s, and helped popularize the device among Americans who made few luxury entertainment purchases before the 1920s.

I recently came across this short satirical piece Rogers wrote around 1928, where he tells a clever story (you might even call it a parable) about a man whose apartment is overrun by out-of-control electric devices. A short circuited radio seems to be the ring leader of this fearsome electrical invasion. The man and his guests are overwhelmed by haywire machines in a scene that looks like it could have inspired The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Without the aid of the authorities, the guests might get hurt, tricked by a talking iron, or worse. All control over these dangerous machines was lost. Sound to me like the same sorts of complaints others were having about radio in the late 20s and 30s.

Though radio did have its apparent dangers, Rogers doesn’t seem too worried about its danger to the home. Like many other alleged fears in society (I’m thinking about social media and mobile technology today), things can get out of hand really quickly if we let them. I’d prefer to stick with Rogers and let cooler, and funnier, heads prevail.

“The Worst Story I Have Heard Today”

By Will Rogers, reprinted in the Monsey Times (Pennsylvania), January 1928

They got so much electric stuff in the modern houses now that life is a lot easier to live. All the work just does itself by electricity and then there’s the radio. But I heard about a guy that had a general short-circuit in his house not long ago. He’d been entertaining some folks, but they’d all gone to sleep in their chairs and the host woke up when he heard an awful noise. He run out in the street and hollered for a cop.

“Say officer,” he says, “come up to my apartment quick! There’s something wrong with the wires or the static or something!”

“How do you know?”

“Well, the vacuum sweeper is going around in the living room singing alto, and the radio is all red hot on top and the refrigerator has burned up the meat in it. The sewing machine is telling a bed time story and Dr. Cadman is talking over the electric fan! You better come in before the electric iron gets to cracking jokes with my guests!”

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