"Radio Is Bringing the World to Their Feet": Letters to an Early Broadcaster

 


Graham MacNamee, a radio pioneer, narrated sports, news, and entertainment in the 1920s from radio station WEAF in New York City. Recalling his career, MacNamee was astonished at the "intensity of feelings" in the thousands of letters he received over the years. In this excerpt from his 1926 book, You're on the Air, MacNamee quotes some of these letters.

"I COULD write you in ink, but you ain't worth it."

So wrote a fan in pencil on bright pink paper with a pinker border.

Ordinarily, one would think, little attention would be paid to such a missive, but the fact that it, and others of the same type, are in our files and carefully classified indicates the close inspection we give, and the importance we attach, to the daily mail from the "fans."

The average letter of 1923 was usually some informal note scribbled on any old paper, and, too, frequently revealed the sender as ignorant not only of grammar and rhetoric but even of the simplest spelling. The few that came in from persons of education were just hasty notes written on the spur of the moment at the close of a program.

Gradually, however, the mail increased in quality and constructive criticism, showing a real, and, in many instances, an intelligent desire to help in program building. Many of the daily letters now are carefully typewritten, are dictated to stenographers, and not infrequently display at the top a very well- known letter head. . . .

And while this mail improved in tone, so, also, it increased in bulk; until now we have a whole room devoted to the files, all carefully sorted and arranged. Many of the more important we have bound up in leather; and even the abusive ones are carefully kept, like the one quoted at the head of this chapter and the card which came last Christmas morning:

"Holiday greetings to the smallest, meanest- principled man in New York, is the wish of one who holds for you nothing but contempt!"

After reading that one over several times I came to the conclusion that the sender didn't think so very much of me. Still, out of it I really got a big kick. Radio, I thought, must be pretty powerful to arouse such feeling. . . .

Not only are the abusive letters startling, but also the requests we receive by mail and often by telephone to broadcast the deaths of loved ones, or to advertise on the air for relatives that have disappeared. Frequently the voices pleading with us for such services are actually incoherent from grief.

Some have a more humorous note, even though they are sincere enough, when they ask our help in locating missing dogs and cats, pet ponies and goats; or garnet pins, engagement rings, sets of false teeth, and stolen tin lizzies. Such requests, needless to say, we cannot heed.

One distracted person asked us to find someone who could tell of an effective remedy for hiccoughs from which her husband was suffering. One could easily imagine the result, for everyone has a pet remedy for this affliction --and our mail would have been swamped, our phone system absolutely stalled, with recommendations for standing on one's head, kicking one's heels in the air, and so on.

But it must not be supposed that these letters are as a rule frivolous; the great majority are written in deadly earnest, as witness those referred to above and the hosts that come in trying to use our services as a matrimonial bureau. Here's one chap that asks for "a single maiden never wed." It, that is the letter (we couldn't supply the other), follows:

"Dear Mr. McNamee:

"Knowing that your great station and its very pleasing official voice reaches into many homes and distant places, it occurred to me that, in view of the fact that I have given the early years of my life to educational advancement by studying nights and working by day, I am now in the thirties, in the best of health, with several degrees and now completing a course in Radio Engineering.

"I own a farm on the highway to--, built my own home and garage, but am waiting for a suitable bird to put in the nest. I have partitioned off nothing so far, but want a Protestant girl of settled habits, strong moral fiber, of German, Scotch, or American parentage of the old school, who can cook the old- fashion way, loves children, nature, flowers, who will be a real mother and home- maker.

"Probably among your many listeners there is a single maiden, never wed, who is looking for such an opportunity, for I am a bachelor self- made in every sense.

Yours,

"P. S. You may read my letter to your listeners.". . .

But the World Series letters are, perhaps, the most human of all. Here are some cue lines from a few we have selected at random, showing as motley and picturesque an assemblage as one could hope to picture:

I. A farmer in Vermont: "Listening through a regular blizzard."

2. A veteran of the civil war: "I ran the bases in fourteen and a half seconds. Tim Murmane held the watch."

3. An Ohio Judge: "We adjourned court for fear we would get your report and mine mixed in a damage case."

4. A sailor at anchor off Pennock Light: "On an ocean- going barge in a howling Nor- Easter."

5. "Fifty pairs of head phones at Fort Monmouth."

6. "A veterans' hospital." (263 signatures).

7. A boy: "From the sound of your voice I was satisfied that you were coo- coo, too."

8. From George: "I bet you had a good soar throat when you were done talking."

9. "A bunch of T.B.'s who depend entirely on radio for contact with outside world" - signers all girls. A postscript, alluding to an incident in the World's Series is added: "How many quarts of water went down your neck?"

10. A Virginia Farmer: "Your allusion to rain was so real that my wife hurried out and brought in the cushions from the porch."

11. An old guide in a remote hunting lodge of the Adirondacks.

12. A man in bed with a broken neck.

13. "A hundred stranded hulks, all dry docked."

14. A good Samaritan who saw "three hundred men, all laborers, with dinner buckets in their hands, assembled in a street where a merchant had set up a loud- speaker."

IS A Massachusetts boy with infantile paralysis, for whom someone sent a wire.

16. From Corsopolis: "I don't know just what it means, but it's all about the 'World's Serious Games.' "

17. A cigar store in Rutland, Vermont: A word of thanks with many signatures written on wrapping paper.

18. A Past Commander of the G. A. R.: "I am eighty- two, but I never miss a ball game and I never miss a circus. Nigger- like I'll follow a brass band half around town and don't associate with Old Men. I keep young!"

19. A high school Junior Master: "I wonder if you know you used the expression 'who will he send out' instead of 'whom'?"

20. My grandfather- in- law in Missouri whom I had never met.

21. A Widow of Providence: "I felt like flying with red flannel for your poor sore throat. We love you.

"This is not a flapper, but a very comely widow who stands without hitching."

22. "I am sick, and a shut- in, and I like you."

23. A deaf man "whose life has been an eternal silence for twenty- five years, and who now, over the radio, hears every word."

In giving a rounded report one must not overlook the dissenting letters, many threatening physical violence.

A Pittsburgh fan wrote me: "We would appreciate it if you would not constantly remind us that the score was Washington 4; Pittsburgh 0."

Another appealed to the office: "For the love of mike" (an unconscious witticism), "take McNamee out. My batteries are valuable and I can get jokes from the newspapers."

The Washington fans took the series quite as much to heart. Wrote one:

"You utterly and miserably failed in your role. You announced, yes, but spent more time telling about your personal discomforts (as if we cared a damn) than you did about who was at bat and what he was doing.

"You failed in 1924, but, My God! you get worse as you get older! Stick to music and weather reports, but let the Chicago man handle the large athletic events for the good of us all."

An associate judge in the capital seemed to feel the same way, though he expressed his feelings in a little different fashion.

"It would have been excellent," he wrote, "had you been mindful of your audience and its divergent sympathies, and divested yourself of your very evident prejudice in favor of Pittsburgh.

"No doubt any complimentary letter will be exhibited to your employers. Will you be man enough to show them this too?"

Well, Judge, there it is.

Now these letters came in on all sorts and hues of paper, even on birch bark. They contained prose, poetry, and vers libre, and were done in script, pen, plain pencil, blue pencil, type; and not a few were printed by hand with marginal decorations.

But the one, after all, that I value most, is quite simple in character. It is from a hospital and significant enough of the pleasure radio gives so many afflicted millions to print in full:

"Mr. Graham McNamee,

Station WEAF,

195 Broadway, N. Y.

"Please accept our sincere thanks for your wonderful broadcasting of the first game of the 1924 season between the Giants and the Brooklyn Dodges. Your knowledge of the game and your colorful description made a hit here; and it was no ordinary bunt but a powerful wallop that has had us talking ever since.

"The Hospital is really a home for some eight hundred patients, a majority of whom are playing their last game and waiting for the exit gates to open. Their little Main Street is quite narrow, and the radio is bringing the world to their feet, as it were.

"I wish you could see all these helpless men listening to your voice; some are blind and many bedridden, but the smile on their faces as the game progressed certainly would repay you, had you any doubts as to the success of your reception.

"One old fellow remembers McGraw when he played on the Olean, N. Y., team, and another was the chum of Willie Keeler. Everyone, in fact, has a baseball remembrance, and whenever we want to start a fight we get Johnny and Jimmy, who are here twenty years, to talk about Merkle and the time he failed to touch second. Both claim the Cubs stole that game and none dare to dispute them.

"As Roxy would say, 'God Bless You.'"

 

Graham McNamee with Robert Gordon Anderson. You're on the Air, (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1926), pp. 172-73, 173-74, 175-77, 179-85