"The Miracle of Radio": Dorothy Gordon Recalls the Early Days


In 1923 Gordon, a professional singer, found the medium of radio extremely puzzling, even alienating. But her agent, she relates in this 1951 interview with Frank Ernest Hill, saw radio's potential, and the station manager saw a commercial market for children's programming.

I started my concerts in 1923. Almost immediately after my first concert in 1923, because of the reviews and so forth, I was invited to give a concert of the folk songs on the radio. That was the first time that I did a radio program. That was 1923, and it was over WEAF.

In connection with my going into radio, as I look back I remember that it was the Women's League of the United Synagogues who put on this radio program. They invited me to do a recital of my folk songs. Actually I have the program of the songs that I did right here in my Press Book. I sang "Coming through the Rye," "Berceuse Bretonne,," "Ma Fille Veux tu un Bouquet," which was a great success. "Berceuse Bretonne" was a Brittany lullaby, a charming thing, too.

At WEAF there was a glass that separated the studio from a sort of waiting room outside.

My announcer was Graham McNamee. We were having a great deal of fun together before I went on the air because I was so frightened of this thing. There was this little tiny round thing in front of me. I said, "Well, what happens?"

He said, "Well, you just stand right there -- and you just sing."

I said, "Oh no, I just can't. There's no audience, no people."

I think a stage person always needs that relationship between an audience and the artist.

I was frightened to death--scared as scared could be, and I said, "But nothing will happen. Don't tell me that I sing into this thing, and then it goes out and someone hears it."

He laughed at me. He said, "Of course you will be heard. You'll be heard by more people than you realize."

All I could think of was that my boys, little youngsters, were up in our apartment with wires across the whole ceiling of the nursery and earphones on their ears desperately trying to listen to me. I didn't know at that time what they got. I found out later. They said they heard nothing but squawks and curious sounds that didn't sound at all like mother.

Suddenly I saw a great deal of excitement outside of the glass window which separated the studio from the waiting room. People running back and forth and signaling to one another. Graham McNamee, who wanted to know what it was all about, opened the door and went out. Being an artist I knew the show must go on so I went right on singing this soft beautiful little Brittany lullaby. All the time I was wondering what in the world was going on -- whether the place was on fire. My accompanist got worried but I went on nevertheless.

Out there in the waiting room was my husband whose face would sort of light up, and he had a grin from ear to ear, so I knew that there was no catastrophe of any kind. Something very pleasant seemed to be happening.

When I finished and got off the air, Graham McNamee walked in and said to me, "I have a very interesting thing to tell you. We had word that they heard you in Cape Town."

That thing did something to me which has never left me. I have never gotten over the miracle of radio. The idea that you can get up before a microphone and perform, sing or talk, and that while the engineers are able to channel your program into whatever direction they choose to channel it, they have absolutely no control of what happens to it outside of their channeling. It just goes. And yet my boys got nothing but squawks -- they may have exaggerated it as children do -- but they really did try very hard. They said they had a very difficult time, which may be due to the fact that it was a little crystal set which they made themselves. Thus they may not have been able to get it. This was pure mechanics, I should say, entirely beyond my knowledge.

But still, nevertheless, the thrill of feeling that thousands of miles away your voice was being heard is something that is to this day indescribable to me.

Well, that was my first experience. A month or so went by and then Bertha Brainard, who was one of the first women in radio and later on became Program Manager of National Broadcasting Company, got in touch with me. I met her through my own manager, Richard Copley. He had a telephone call from Bertha Brainard. She had heard my program, she had had no difficulty in getting it when I sang on WEAF. She wanted to know whether I would be available for a recital at WJZ. I balked at first, and I said, "I don't like this thing. I don't like singing without an audience and I'm singing without costumes and to me the whole thing seems so evanescent." There was nothing I could put my finger on, there was nothing I could touch and feel, "Well, this I can control." I felt with radio that something was beyond my control.

Mr. Copley prevailed upon me and said, "Well, you should do this. This is something that is wonderful."

He had the vision to realize the importance of radio.

And I said, "Well, all right." I had great respect for his judgment so I went ahead and did this program.

I had a full half hour and it was announced in the paper. At that time the newspapers gave a little tiny space to radio announcements. But the announcement of my program was there. It said, "Recital by Dorothy Gordon, soprano."

Well, I felt a little easier after I got started and did a complete recital. But I was very much interested in Bertha Brainard. I think that perhaps she had more to do with awakening my interest in radio and its possibilities than anyone else. She said to me, "This is really a fantastic thing and something that you really should get in to. You're a natural for it; you have the lightness and the brightness we need and there is nobody else that we can go to who has anything for children."

There was no children's program at that time at all. She persuaded: "There is nobody we can go to and you just must do this thing." I think I was influenced by her enthusiasm.

The Journal-American began to do a whole series of programs. This was later on in 1924. They did an evening program which was called the Evening Journal Variety Hour. This is the way it reads in the press -- "Dorothy Gordon, songs of Twelve Lands; Horace Butterfield, tenor; Miss Aviation, O. Levine Johnson; and Edward Dixon." Then some thumb nail sketches of Wall Street giants, -- whatever that was, I don't remember it at all.

I remember this about that particular program, because I had those other artists around me, I thought I would try to sing some of the folk songs that have choruses and get them to sing with me. They did this, and it livened up the program immediately. Then I got away from that feeling of extreme loneliness standing in front of this funny little instrument.

They had standing microphones. There was a round thing that was attached to the mike. They couldn't move the thing up and down the way they did later on. It all seemed so small. Now, of course, it doesn't make any difference, I use one of those salt-shaker mikes. I don't even know the microphone is there.

This is a very important point: the moment I learned to perform and to forget entirely that the microphone was there -- it was at that moment that I began to give my good performances. That is what happened that night. When I got these people in the studio to perform with me, and we were very gay about it and I was more interested in what I was doing, I became entirely unconscious of the instrument and anything mechanical that had to do with it. I knew then that that was the answer to doing a good radio show, to eliminate the mike.



"The Reminscences of Dorothy Gordon," Oral History Research Office, Columbia Univeristy, 1951