Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Rise And Fall Of The Soap Opera On Old Time Radio

As radios became more prevalent in homes during the 1930's, businesses realized the potential to gain new customers using this medium for advertising. The networks realized that the man of the house would be working, the children at school and the housewife was in the home, listening to the radio, as she did her housework. The advertisers realized that the housewife could be a huge marketing force, therefore, these daytime radio shows and advertisements were produced with her in mind.

National Photo Company Collection,
 Prints and Photographs Division.
The first soap opera was created in 1930 and it was, Clara, Lu, and Em. It got its start as a sorority sketch that was written by three friends, Helen King (Em), Isobel Carothers (Lu), and Louise Starkey (Clara). Many of their friends told them that they should take the show to radio. WGN took on the show and the girls did the first few shows without getting paid. It wasn't long before Colgate-Palmolive became interested and started sponsoring the show. It was broadcast in the evening and then, moved to daytime radio in 1932.

The soap opera was most often defined by the sponsors, which mostly consisted of household products. These were geared towards the housewife. Soap operas are very often, associated with women and have a reputation of gaudiness. However, the listener needed a good deal of knowledge to follow some of these complex storylines.

Courtesy of Chuck Schaden Radio Collection
A soap opera consists of a series that has a storyline that continues on a day-to-day basis and there are usually a few storylines going at one time. A woman, Anne Schumacher, who was working for advertising executive, Edward Frank Hummert (Frank), recognized that women staying at home were the main decision makers of which household products to buy and that writing stories for the housewife, who could listen to these stories during the day, was an untapped market. Schumacher and her husband, John Ashenhurst came up with the serial, Just Plain Bill, who was a barber who married above his station, which was a success. They then produced, Ma Perkins and Backstage Wife.

Schumacher and Ashenhurst divorced and it was about the same time that Hummert's wife died. This left both Anne and Frank single and they soon began a relationship that led to marriage in 1935. The formula for most soap operas was perfected by this husband and wife team. They began a production company called, Air Features Inc., which churned out other daytime serials, such as, Stella Dallas, John's Other Wife and Young Widder Brown.

Irna Phillips
Another woman by the name of Irna Phillips created the Guiding Light in 1937. This was one of the longest running soap operas of all time and made the successful transition to television. Irna Phillips created the techniques that many take for granted in soap operas today, such as, cliffhangers and the organ music that bridges scenes.

Radio soap operas became a part of American culture, but in 1960, many of the radio soap operas were cancelled, as television became the new medium for the American public. Soap operas made the transition to daytime television and were successful for many more years.

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