Radio and live performance

Vintage microphone with an American flag behind it

© Jennings

Today when we think of popular music on the radio we are likely to think of programming based on recordings. The broadcasting of records takes up a large percentage of many radio stations' airtime and has done for many years but in its infancy in the 1920s and early 1930s radio depended greatly on the live performance of music of many different kinds.

This was especially true in the US, where much of the early development of music radio took place. Following rapid growth in the 1920s there were many radio stations in need of material and they often turned to local live performers. The situation was never static however. Beginning in the late 1920s many stations joined centralised networks based in major cities, especially New York, and these provided them with much of their programming. What was lost in this process was the likelihood of new local sounds being heard; what was gained was the possibility of hearing sounds that local stations might have judged too unfamiliar. Overall there is no doubt that some form of homogenisation took place.

In the early years of commercial radio broadcasting in the US, live radio performances by major contemporary stars were often seen as a threat by theatre managers, who believed that their audiences would decline. But radio performances by vaudeville luminaries such as Eddie Cantor were more inclined to give attendances a boost, as audiences sought to add a visual element to the new sounds they had heard on the radio. Films posed far more of a threat to live performance.

With dance band music the situation was rather different. Dance bands were all over the radio waves for the best part of twenty years until the early 1940s. Live dance band renditions of the latest popular tunes had two linked purposes: to encourage people to dance at home (something that was especially valued during the economic depression in the 1930s); and to persuade them, if they could afford it, to buy that latest music on record.

In the dance band era American radio also invested in the technology to enable live performance via connecting telephone lines from remote locations - hotels, halls, churches, etc - away from the studio. Such programmes made much of the aura of the occasion, especially if the venue was a prestigious one. The importance of this aura was such that when a particular programme first started using records in any quantity in the mid-1930s, its presenter kept up a pretence of live broadcasting - hence the programme title 'Make believe ballroom'.

One of the most famous examples of US live performance shows is that of the US barn dance variety show 'The Grand Ole Opry', which featured a roster of country music performers. Initially a local show for the area around Nashville, Tennessee, early in its history (1928) it began reaching much of the country, thanks to station WSM's own powerful transmitter. In so doing it helped introduce the sounds of country music to many areas. During its long history (it is still broadcast today on television) the role of 'the Opry' was to change and it increasingly became a symbol of country music tradition, rather than a purveyor of contemporary sounds. As 'the Opry' became more conservative, other stations took up the role of broadcasting the latest country music sounds, often with the help of programme sponsors who recognised the power of the new music to attract audiences to their sponsored programmes. Some of the most outstanding examples of this were the various radio stations in Texas that featured the new mixture of country, jazz and blues, played by Milton Brown, Bob Wills and others in the 1930s and early 1940s, called 'western swing'.

In many different parts of the world live radio broadcasting had played its part in taking new musical sounds and turning them via repetition into well established ones. From 1937 to 1973 Radio Egypt, for example, broadcast monthly shows by the singer Umm Kulthüm. In the process she went from being a recent arrival to a position as one of the Middle East's most loved performers (Danielson, 1997).