Howdy, Thank You for Tuning In
Polkadate Feburary 2020. Continuing on this month with the thoughts of music a century ago. How did the fan who loved it access it? By pulling the music out of the air. We’ll take a brief look at this; some facets were the same for several decades after the Roaring Twenties.
Prior to the 1920s, music was heard pretty much only if you went to a concert, dance, or ball. In some European countries, you could hear a wide range of music, news, and commentary through telephone lines, if you were a subscriber and wore headphones (speakers had not been developed yet) that could transmit sound more than several inches. There was not a way to capture a symphony, or the plucking of a banjo or the squeezing of an accordion, or the greatness of vocalists except to go to a performance and capture it in your mind. With Marconi’s first successful voice radio transmission in 1895 in England, the doors opened, and experimentation with sending signals through the air that could be translated into comprehensible sounds was moving ahead. In the 25 years since the first broadcasts other scientists, who had been working on the same concept, made historic breakthroughs.
Prior to 1920, public radio transmissions were not yet organized into formats and most transmitters were owned by colleges and hobbyists sending out signals that were picked up on crystal sets, extremely cheap receivers that required headphones. Only very little scratchy music or voices were broadcast, mostly it was a lot of Morse Code being broadcast.
The advance of electronics, mainly vacuum tubes, allowed the development of the amplifier, thus enabling the use of speakers, so a room of people could hear the broadcast being sent. This triggered the increase of radio stations becoming very popular and more organized with scheduled shows and increased signal range. In today’s time, it is incomprehensible that only a hundred years ago, the rural population was so isolated, that the only communication a farmer had with the outside world was possibly a newspaper or word of mouth when they made a weekly trip to town. In the 1920s with the affordability of a cheap radio, news, entertainment, and crop prices could be heard without leaving the farm.
In the beginning most stations were owned by the government and for “community use”; it’s now known as public radio and advertisement was forbidden. As corporations saw a potential dollar to be made, they (RCA, General Electric, CBS) got their lobbyists in action and the laws changed to allow private ownership of radio stations, and it was off to the races as corporate chiefs and their lawyers began shaping the format of radio as to make them as much money as possible with little regard to the listening public tastes or the station employees' desires (disc jockeys which were called record shifters and show announcers).
As the medium became even more popular, entrepreneurs quickly began devising new ways to make money off of radio broadcasting. As competition increased new gimmicks were needed to entice listeners other than talking and playing music.
As far as music, in the early days, listeners heard only a melody that vaguely resembled the music that was broadcast. The music was from the use of extremely low-quality music rolls and early shellac 78 rpm records of which the recording tones were very “tinny” as that was the only way the music could be recorded. Musicians were placed in a room, a hotel room many times, and performed their music song facing a horn-like object which funneled the music waves, and were then etched into the thin metal or vinyl-like plastic. Vocalists had to sing through a small megaphone as that was the only way their voice could be heard over the volume of the orchestras. With the development of microphones, quality was dramatically increased so that various tones could be increased, and the original sound could be better understood.
One of the earliest broadcasting stations in the United States and the first in Texas in 1920 was WRR of the City of Dallas which was initially established strictly for fire and police dispatches. During these early days of broadcasting, many small, homemade radio stations went on the air on a non-commercial basis, primarily for the amusement of the operators and their neighbors. By the end of 1922, the year that commercial radio broadcasting began in Texas, and before there was a federal agency to regulate radio broadcasters, 25 commercial stations were in operation in the state. Among them were WBAP, Fort Worth; WFAA, Dallas; WOAI, San Antonio; and WACO, Waco.
WBAP in Fort Worth established the basic format for country music variety shows broadcasting (a format since taken over by Nashville's Grand Ole Opry and Chicago's National Barn Dance) with a "barn dance" program that began on Jan. 4, 1923, featuring fiddler, square-dance caller, and Confederate veteran Capt. M. J. Bonner.
IN THE DOUGH
In 1931, KFJZ in Fort Worth was the first station to broadcast the Light Crust Doughboys. The group, sponsored by Light Crust Flour company, played popular ballads, blues, and jazz of the day. This group contained Milton Brown and Bob Wills who went on to found the Western Swing sound which they developed from a polka beat. The Doughboys moved to Fort Worth's WBAP, a more powerful station, in late 1931. These broadcasts gained statewide popularity, and the Light Crust Doughboys radio program continued into the early 1950s. The availability of modern music styles to hundreds of thousands of people planted the idea of “I want to make music” into many young folks. These aspiring musicians went out and procured an instrument, learned it, started or joined a band and the next generation of music exploded along with the technology. All musicians credit radio broadcasts as being the inspiration for their music careers, just ask Alfred Vrazel and he’ll tell you about listening to polka music on their battery-powered radio in the cotton fields of Milam County when he was young. The ability to hear the Grand Ole Opry and the Louisiana Hayride in a small farm in backwoods America is a common reason why the country, blues, and rock musicians of the last half of the 1900s followed the music.
FIRST IN DALLAS
WFAA in Dallas, operating on 150 watts, held many firsts in radio broadcasting in Texas. It began operating on June 26, 1922. It was the first to carry programs designed to educate; first to produce a serious radio drama series entitled Dramatic Moments in Texas History (sponsored by the Magnolia Petroleum Company, later Mobil); the first to air a state championship football game; the first to join a national network (1927); and first to air inaugural ceremonies, those of Governor Ross Sterling in 1931. Money was scarce, particularly after 1929; WFAA carried no newscasts; and entertainment enjoyed top priority. Comedians and singers filled the few hours they were on the air, including Dale Evans, who would later marry husband #4, Roy Rogers, but few advertisers.
It was during this time that the marketing departments of stations came upon an idea that by blending a product name or reference to a band, who might have not existed yet, kept the regional music industry alive by providing jobs for struggling musicians. This gave rise to the Light Crust Doughboys (Burris’ Mills Light Crust Flour), the Musical Millers (Heart’s Delight Flour Company), and the Gold Chain Bohemians (Gold Medal Flour). It must be remembered that flour was a major industry as almost everyone baked their daily bread themselves. The bands would travel to grocery stores, play their music, or rather the popular music of the time, on a trailer, promote the flour, and either play a dance that night or head back to the radio station depending on their sponsorship. The flour companies analyzed the sales of their brand of flour the following week and that was the deciding factor of the band’s employment.
The Gold Chain Bohemians were based in the Von Minden Hotel’s theatre in Schulenburg. Once a week they would meet for a live performance which was transmitted by telephone (wire) to WBAP in Fort Worth, KPRC in Houston, and WOAI in San Antonio which would broadcast it over the air. These and several other stations composed the Texas Quality Network. This made possible that their show from Central Texas could be heard live over most of Texas and Oklahoma daily from 8 to 8:15 am and Sundays from 3 to 3:15 pm.
What is interesting is that the show was only for 15 minutes, which means that every morning they were at the hotel before their “normal” job and after a very late Saturday night dance far away, they had to get back to Schulenburg, get some sleep, go to church, and get to the Von Minden for the Sunday afternoon show. This was the schedule for the majority of the sponsored orchestras not just the Gold Chains. The reason for the bands' hectic schedule was the opportunity for free advertisement provided by the radio of their upcoming dances, which is how they made their money, as generally they played on the air for free or little compensation.
Some musicians served as disc-jockeys (Bob Wills, Willie Nelson, Hank Thompson, etc.) and would be allowed to perform in exchange for money. Some radio stations formed their own bands, such as Brenham’s KWHI AM station. In addition to performing in the radio studio, the KWHI Polka Band played local dances including double dances with the John Baca Orchestra and the Ray Baca Orchestra in the late 1940s. This band was lucky to have the radio station sponsor them; most bands had to find their own sponsors. Photos by Gary E. McKee
POLKA ON THE AIR
In 1933, CBSL (La Grange) The Havelka String Orchestra had a full hour time slot followed by The Happy Cousins Orchestra, a nine-piece group from “Fayetteville Route 3” with a half hour afternoon show. Niemeyer’s Entertainers also gave a performance to promote their dance that eventing when they came through on tour. Also in 1933 and into 1934, YOKM (Yoakum) had a contest where different area bands would perform for an hour and the audience would write in to vote for their favorite: Worthing, Pavlas, Patek, Migl Krystinek, Krhovjak, K.C. B., Janda, Fajkus, Clinton, and Baca Orchestras. Unfortunately, the results of the contest are not available.
Several months after the contest, apparently YOKM had been doing something that the Federals did not approve of and raided the station. From various news outlets across the U.S., when the Feds were walking in the station door, the song Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf was broadcast, the next song as the Feds were searching the offices was All I Have is Yours, and when the agents entered the DJ’s booth, he put on I’m Heading for the Last Round-Up. At least that’s way it was reported in the 1934 Hallettsville Tribune.
Sidenote: In the mid-1900s listeners were very enthusiastic about contacting the stations when they liked a performer, literally thousands of people that day would write a letter, buy a stamp, and mail it to the station with their opinions, and a majority of the musicians responded. One station manager thought a singer was not very good over the air, and was about to fire him several days later, when bags of mail filled the station office raving about the singer, changed the manager’s mind.
The mystery of radio, you sing into a microphone, it goes out over the land, but does anyone hear you? As technology developed, radio became a necessary marketing tool for bands and performers to get their talent put before the people to entice them to buy their records (if they had them) and come to the local dance that evening.
The story of radio’s immense impact on the music industry is a voluminous subject, so we’ll leave it at this short blurb. Next month, we’ll shine a gas-powered generator electric light on where people danced in the 1920s.