During the '30s: Finetuning radio, art on display

With passage of the Radio Act of 1927 came the establishment of the Federal Radio Commission, which then was given the authority to regulate previously bestowed upon the Secretary of Commerce. “Formed out of chaos,” the FRC “faced the daunting task of cleaning up the airwaves,” often without sufficient financial resources (Benjamin 77).

The National Association of Broadcasters adopted a “code of ethics” in 1928, in which it declared that:

  • Broadcasters [need to] pay conscious attention to their audiences' different backgrounds to guard against offending any sensibilities.
  • Because radio came into the home as an ‘intimate friend' and helped mold the minds of children, all programming should reflect this reality.
  • Station owners also should consider radio's development as a part of bettering living conditions and cultural standards. (135-36).

The hit radio program “Amos 'n' Andy” pushed racial and therefore taste boundaries, and caused many station owners to carefully monitor their program content. They worried about the consequences of indecent content, which could be getting their license revoked. Church groups and other such listeners complained at “radio horrors” from as serial thrillers to suggestive songs and censors from both the station and network “modified songs and skits” in order “to ward off church or mothers' crusades against indecent radio programming” (143). The result was the outright banning of some songs and the modification of others. Censors barred Cole Porter's 'Love for Sale ' in 1932, and changed the song title 'Let's Put Out the Lights and Go to Bed' to 'Let's Put Out the Lights and Go to Sleep.' Lyrics also faced alterations:

From “I Love Louisa”: “Ach! when I choose ‘em, I love a great bosom” became “Ach! when I choose ‘em, I always hate to lose ‘em.”

From a performance of “ 42 nd Street ”: “Sexy ladies of the eighties who are indiscreet” became “Lovely ladies of the eighties give your eyes a treat” (143).

The passing of the Communications Act in 1934 led to the formation of a committee of orchestra leaders and broadcasters designed to engage in self-censorship. As a result of its work, by the committee's second meeting, “the members announced that no major networks were broadcasting indecent song lyrics” (144). The design of radio monitoring was to protect the relationship between broadcaster and listener, which was forged, again, by that “intimate friend” the radio. This included the regulation (or outright barring) of speakers that discussed birth control unless all sides were considered. Morris Ernst of the American Civil Liberties Union (who later fought to for the U.S. publication of Ulysses) urged station owners to give time to both birth control advocates and religious leaders with opposing viewpoints (165). Put in a position of protection, station owners frequently cut off guests with dead air as a last effort to halt the transmission of controversial thoughts to listeners.

Literature, movies and the radio were not alone in their battle with obscenity standards of the 1930s. Art of all kinds faced the scrutiny of organizations like the vice societies. In October of 1931, John S. Sumner complained about the display of a 16 th century Tintoretto painting in a window of the E. & A. Silberman Galleries on 57 th Street . He entered the gallery and asked how the worth of the painting and, upon answer, declared “Well, then, you wouldn't want to lose it by having the police remove it, would you?” (NYT 10/24/1931). The gallery refused to move the painting, and Sumner declined a request to bring his wife to view it and judge its status as objectionable.