A Closer Look: Labor and the Blind 


Labor and Radio 
  From the outset of the radio boom, labor leaders had been interested in using radio as a means of furthering their cause.  The American Federation of Labor, rather than creating their own broadcasting station, advocated the use of existing broadcasting networks for their purposes.  The AFL believed purchasing air time on other radio stations would be sufficient to their purposes.  The Chicago Federation of Labor, an affiliate of the AFL, disagreed.  Led by Edward Nockels, the CFL established WCFL, Chicago's Voice of Labor.  This station would, according to Nockels, "awaken the slumbering giant of labor".  WCFL aired its first broadcast in July of 1926 after many months of petitioning for air time from the Federal Radio Commission.  The radio station was only part of a larger web of media, including newspapers and a magazine, WCFL Radio Magazine.  In its initial stages, WCFL was to serve as a publicity aid and channel for the labor party campaign.  However, when WCFL went on the air, the labor campaign had already fallen out of public notice.
    WCFL is an interesting case of the dynamics between trade unions, the corporate radio world, and the federal government.  When WCFL began, its broadcasts focused on popular entertainment as well as labor and public affairs programming.  Robert McChesney describes a typical day on WCFL as including "classical music, vaudeville and musical comedy, and dance music often broadcast live" by the WCFL Ensemble.  Furthermore, the station broadcast programs in 11 different languages to appeal to the growing immigrant population in Chicago.  And finally, WCFL "emerged as a pioneer in sports broadcasting, routinely carrying live accounts of home games of both the Chicago Cubs and the Chicago White Sox".  Labor related topics, of course, received significant coverage on WCFL.  Labor events, e.g. rallies, marches, and strikes, as well as issues of labor in politics were discussed at length.
    WCFL was hurt by heavy regulation of the Federal Radio Commission.  Limitations on broadcasting hours prohibited WCFL from broadcasting in its most important hours, after eight p.m. when workers came home.  The radio station also suffered financial setbacks as a result of decreased listener support.  In response, Edward Nockels began to promote the station as a good outlet for commercial advertisements.  WCFL discontinued its efforts to reach the public, even discontinuing the WCFL Radio Magazine.  The radio station eventually lost sight of labor interests as a result of commercial influence on the station.


Radio and the Blind 
  A major part of the Chicago Radio Show was its commitment to the blind. Sponsored by the American Radio association and conducted by The Tribune, the American Foundation for the Blind hoped to "place a receiving set in the home of every needy blind person in the country." As the sponsors billed it, they wanted to "let the sighted help the sightless." Part of the incentive for the drive was Joseph "Uncle" Bird, an electrical engineer who had become totally blind eight years before. A radio expert, Bird staffed the collection table at the Coliseum and devoted much of his time to "helping other people like himself."
    In 1924, there were close to 100,000 sightless people in the United States, living in "institutions, in cities, on farms, in out-of-the-way places, where they are scarcely ever heard from." According to Gilchrist, "it became apparent...that nothing short of a national campaign, backed up by thge press and the boradcasting stations, would bring about the desired result--that every blind person who couldn't afford to buy a radio set should be given one for free."
    Following this determination, the American Radio association, an organization of all radio editors, writers, and radio listeners was organized to produce the drive. "Gradually radio editors and listeners in all over the United States began to join in the movement." The ARA then affiliated with the American Foundation for the Blind, a national organization or organizations which work for the betterment of the nation's blind. Following the announcement of the radio association's effort for blind people, President Coolidge created an honorary national committee and the President accepted the invitation to head to head the committee. Many of the governors of the various states and a large number of the "country's leading citizens" also gave their endorsement.
    As Gilchrist writes, "Society leaders, radio manufacturers, jobbers, and dealers, and scores of others interested in the new science from one standpoint or another joined hands yesterday to pull over a gigantic auction sale of receivers and accessories on the main floor of the Coliseum for the benefit of The Chicago Tribune's radio fund for the blind. A total of $1,231 ("$10 of which was for a kiss donated and delivered on the spot by 'the Ultradyne Girl") and $6,000 worth of radio equipment was donated to the fund during the Chicago Radio Show.



  To return to the Chicago Radio Show, click HERE .