The Billings Outpost

Long tracks radio’s past

By JANE WHITE - The Billings Outpost

The birth and maturity of radio guided Montanans from the discovery of radio waves to a multi-faceted communications industry, says Vince Long, a former technology teacher and a board member of Montana Council for Computers and Technology in Education.

Mr. Long, dressed in a brick red polo shirt and jeans, talked about radio at the Western Heritage Center’s High Noon Lecture series earlier this month. He included local information about the old Skyline Supper Club and lore from the early days of Billings radio.

His clothing blended harmoniously with a brick-hued background at the Western Heritage Center. That brick red, cobalt blue and cornflower yellow teased the viewers’ eyes up toward the large screen.

Dwarfed by the large screen, Mr. Long spoke from below it, saying that live news, first broadcast from radio, relayed terrifying reports from  disasters, such as the Hindenburg explosion - overwhelmingly upstaging print purveyors of news. Listeners could never forget the on-air weeping voice of Herb Morrison, a well-known broadcaster who had to ask his listeners for a moment off the air so he could compose himself before continuing to report about the terrifying explosion of the dirigible in New Jersey.

Some in the print industry reportedly were overjoyed when broadcasters received a reprimand stemming from Orson Welles’ infamous broadcast of the “War of the Worlds,” which the public believed was really happening. The seminal science fiction work featured Martians that landed on earth and began attacking humans. Enraged listeners called Welles’ stunt a hoax. 

In that era, the media people set a standard for the recording and playback of news about public disasters, like the Hindenburg’s, and also set out a code to prevent advertising claims of alleged guarantees of cures for medical problems.

Companies that channeled dollars into early radio advertising included Crisco, Lava, Jell-O, Wheaties, Bromo Seltzer, Chesterfield Cigarettes, Quaker Puffs, Wild Root and Winston’s.

Mr. Long guided the audience on a bumpy but interesting journey that started with the first patent purchased by someone other than Guglielmo Marconi, the Italian credited with developing long-range radio transmission and telegraphy.

Mr. Marconi received a Nobel Prize in physics, which he shared with German physicist Karl Fermann Braun. But a Mr. Defforest ultimately won the patent for the audion, which allowed the human voice to be recorded. Early machines could record only mechanical sounds like the sounds of spark plugs working. Fuzzy recordings Mr. Long played illustrated the weird sounds of the first waves in history.

Science made history and apparently spawned the beginning of one of the many rivalries between print, radio and other media outlets, laying the structure for a contentious free press with multiple means of communications springing to life around the world.

In 1939, the National Association of Broadcasters established a code of good taste, outlawing fortune-telling ads, and ads claiming to cure various maladies. For instance, Arrid deodorant had claimed it “helps … safeguard friendships.”

Comedy shows, said Mr. Long, were the most popular of all the radio genres. He said people stayed home during the Depression of the 1930s and radio became a big attraction.

“Everyone gathered together and listened to the radio in the ’30s,” said Mr. Long. “People thought radio was dead when TV came along. The internet is another mass communication to deal with, and there are only so many advertising dollars in the pie to go around.

“Newspapers are struggling with this question as well,” he added.

Found sounds are what Mr. Long refers to as old-time radio recordings he encountered during his collecting years of Billings radio lore. These decades-old recordings gave listeners a taste of life in Billings in 1950.

For example, a 1948 recording of the Rev. Rutledge Beale of First Congregational Church was just one of the many religious shows popular on old-time radio. Mr. Long said religious shows occupied call signs KGHL and KBMY and that in 2007, more than 700 religious stations still broadcast in Billings.

Briefly mentioning women in radio, Mr. Long said that Alma John, a pioneering black woman, along with Lucille Ball and Mary Margaret McBride – the “Oprah” of her time – dominated the feminine voices from the radio.

Other popular genres included  musical, dramas (Lux Radio Theatre is one example), game shows, pilot programs, interviews and homemaker shows. Finally, said Mr. Long, contests – like “American Idol” – featuring a famous star named Horace Heidt  recruited local talent. The chosen talent got a chance to travel with a popular band of the day.

The younger generation, he said, expects to be able to “click and get.”

“And that is the way things are going,” he said. “Pretty soon, we will be able to get anything that has ever been recorded, ever … . With the internet, TV does not even know where it is going.”

But Mr. Long predicted that radio will become more local. Mr. Long said he was a board member of the Montana Council on Computers and Technology in Schools back in the ’90s. Besides winning significant teaching awards, he created a popular and historical multi-media presentation on radio and raised two boys while married to a busy accountant. He said has been able to accomplish so much in his personal and professional lives by abstaining from TV. But not radio!

“Ozzie and Harriet” began as a radio show and later transitioned to television.  Mr. Long said that the preservation of entertainment and especially the folk songs in the National Recording Registry in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., are vital to preserving culture of the technological age.

Mr. Long strives to be a Renaissance man, according to the Senior High School website. A recipient of the Milken Teacher of the Year Award in 1999, Mr. Long also received a cash award of $25,000, which he invested for retirement.

He provided everyone who attended with an Old Time Radio sampler of MP3s that he developed. The MP3s include Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First?” and many old-time radio commercials with snappy jingles. He said he has been collecting old time radio since the 1970s.

and doing his presentation at the Parmly Billings Library, the Yellowstone County Museum and The Western Heritage Center for about 10 years.

Copyright 2012 Wild Raspberry Inc.

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