Discovering New Facets of Broadcasting History through the Media History Digital Library

Curator's Note

 Radio’s top comedian, Jack Benny, was powerful enough to dump his sponsor (Jello) and fire his program’s advertising agency (Young and Rubicam) in 1944 because they’d dropped the promotional ball and he blamed them for his declining ratings?

This was just one of the intriguing finds I have made through the MHDL’s archives that I would never have uncovered had I just listened to Benny’s 750 radio programs. The trade journals, industry annuals and fan magazines of American radio history hold significant insights into Benny’s career. Without the ability to easily conduct keyword searches using the Lantern software, I could never have found them. Living far from major research archives (as I used to), I was also out of luck!

Here are some unusual aspects of Benny’s impact on American broadcast industries, media history and fan cultures that I have discovered through the MHDL:

  • Fans who missed the live, never-repeated broadcast of the denouement of the famous Jack Benny-Fred Allen feud in March 1937, could re-experience it through Radio Mirror’s printed transcription of the program.
  • Fans wrote in that they organized "radio parties" and each took roles in re-enacting the scripts of favorite shows that Radio Mirror published here and over the summer when the popular shows were on hiatus. The radio fan magazines ameliorated the ephemerality of live radio broadcasts by making small bits of the programs available for repeat reading; their photographs of performers helped people the imaginations of radio listeners, and enabled fans to actively participate in their favorite comic narratives. Benny received fan letters and scripts from people who had developed Benny routines of their own, and articles like this may have encouraged them.
  • Benny kidded on-air about how fearful he was of his sponsor (phone conversations with angry Charles Mortimer of Jello or Vincent Riggio of Lucky Strikes in which he could only stutter "but-but-but-but"), but behind the scenes he grappled with them over program aesthetics and advertising content.

Comments

Kathy Fuller-Seeley's picture

MHDL is amazing!!!

I can’t compliment Eric Hoyt and his co-workers who have built the MHDL enough. They are revolutionizing media history research!!! With the ability to search rare publications, and to do it from anywhere with an internet connection, the MDHL is democratizing media history research. Still rooting for the Motion Picture Herald to join its ranks!!!! And Hollywood Reporter….does anyone else have recommendations of publications to search for?

Eric Hoyt's picture

Re-enacting radio

Kathy, thanks for digging up these great treasures! It’s great the way you excavate fan practices involving these magazines — like re-enacting episode segments based on the scripts sometimes printed inside them.

Thanks also for your compliments about the MHDL. I can assure you that Hollywood Reporter and MP Herald are both high priorities for David Pierce and me. I’d love to hear any other “wish list” titles for digitization from other readers other there.

EH

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