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A review of radio coverage of health-related topics in the 20th century.

Abstract: Radio has been an important mass medium since its inception. The purpose of this study is to examine how radio broadcasts were used to disseminate health messages during the 20th century. The main focus is on radio coverage of health topics before television became the dominant medium. Published reports of the time and media histories were the major sources of information. Radio's depictions of health messages in entertainment and educational programming were examined. Implications are discussed for the use of radio by health educators in the 21st century.


It is generally accepted that radio broadcasting began in the United States in 1920 (Miller, 2003; Potter, 2001; Hilliard & Keith, 2001; Sterling & Kittross, 2002). This medium "made America into a land of listeners, entertaining and educating, angering and delighting, and joining every age and class into a common culture" (Lewis, 1992, p. 26). The purpose of this study is to describe radio coverage of health topics in the 20th century, focusing on radio programming from the 1920's through the 1950's, to provide insight into how radio educated (and sometimes angered) Americans about health topics.


In the early 1920's, radio in general was said to benefit people's health because it helped hospitalized patients deal with loneliness and boredom (Seeley, 1922) and "radio entertainment provided for the drug addict inmates of Riker's Island ... had a beneficial effect upon the discipline of the institution" ("Radio helps drug addicts," 1925, p. 9). From the 1920's through the rest of the 20th-century, radio programs were developed for educational purposes (Sterling & Kittross, 2002). The New York Academy of Medicine stated in 1945 that "from the beginning, those especially interested in education saw in the radio a very potent instrument ... (a) means for 'spreading knowledge'. Educators began to broadcast as soon as 'live' microphones were open to them" (p. 4).

Radio programming designed to disseminate health information also began in the early 1920's (Laine, 1938; New York Academy of Medicine, 1945). Criticism of the paucity of health-related coverage began soon after the advent of radio broadcasting. According to one source, "one possibility in radio broadcasting which has not been developed nearly as much as is warranted by its importance is the dissemination of information regarding health" ("Broadcasting health," 1922, p. 7). The New York Academy of Medicine made a similar criticism in 1945 by pointing out that "the development of the commercial broadcast far outpaced that of the educational broadcast, and among the latter the health education program lagged behind all the rest" (p. 5).

In 1935, Turner, Drenckhahn and Bates reported that dramatization was the most popular type of radio broadcast when it came to presenting health information, especially among children (p. 594). The New York Academy of Medicine (1945), however, was critical of these attempts at drama:
 It is in the utilization of this technique
 that radio health education miscarries
 most grievously. In most instances the so-called
 drama is not dramatic, but consists
 merely of a motley of situations represented
 in excited chatter. When, as rarely
 happens, the composition is truly dramatic,
 it is almost entirely devoid of health
 education (p. 26).

Willey and Young (1948) stated that, in terms of radio programming, "the responsibility of those sponsoring health education programs is to foster receptive attitudes and constructive health habits for a healthy individual and a healthy nation" (p. 308). While that may have been the goal, Galdston (1945) believed that the health-related programming of early radio generally fell short in these areas because objectives were not clearly identified, and that the broadcasts of the time were typically overloaded with information:
 Our tendency has been to "throw the
 whole book" at the radio listener. We appear
 to labor in the belief that if we can
 pour into the ears of our listeners all that
 we know, say about cancer or tuberculosis
 or ... nutrition, we have done our best
 to educate the public (p. 43).


One of the earliest reports of radio having an impact on individual behavior came in 1926, when an Alabama man entered a physician's office asking if anyone "'inspected the health of school-children'" ("Radiating health," 1926, p. 240). When the physician questioned the man to determine how he learned about the inspections, the man replied:
 Well, some time ago I bought me one of
 these here radio outfits ... and I heard Mr.
 Herbert Hoover in Washington deliver a
 speech on medical inspection of schoolchildren.
 He said that every community
 ought to have some one in it to examine
 the health of their children, to find out if
 there was anything the matter with them
 This struck me as a pretty good idea; so I
 thought to myself, 'The next time I am in
 Andlusia I will find out if there's any of
 these here health doctors who examines
 school-children', and so I have come to
 invite you out (p. 142).

In 1939, 4,000 New York City junior high school students took part in a study to determine if radio seemed to aid in learning about health; half of that group served as a control group. According to a newspaper article, "the health broadcasts, sponsored by the American Medical Association and the National Broadcasting Company, included thirty weekly dramatized health lessons" ("Radio-trained pupils," 1939, p.19). Students who heard the programs scored 3% better on multiple-choice exams than the control group. Radio was said to be more effective when used in classrooms as opposed to its use with larger audiences in an auditorium or gymnasium. The students also scored better on the exam if the teacher discussed the material with students before and after the program ("Radio-trained pupils").

Murray and Turner (1943) surveyed Boston area mothers who attended well baby clinics to determine their radio listening habits and their attitudes about health programming. Eighty-eight percent of the sample "expressed themselves enthusiastically in favor of a health program, 10% stipulating that they would listen if the program proved interesting and entertaining, as well as valuable. Only 2& of the interviewees said they would not listen to a health program" (p. 953). While their attitude toward a health program was positive, the listening practices of this group seemed to reflect something different. According to Murray and Turner, "a low number of interviewees, 9%, reported ever listening to any form of educational broadcasting" (p. 953). This led them to conclude that "there may be a sharp difference between what the mother thinks she might like and what she would listen to if it were on the air.... [T]heir expressed preferences do not square too well with their present listening habits" (p. 953).


The United States Public Health Service began broadcasting health programming in December 1921. The program was scheduled twice per week and gave "advice as to how the average man and woman may insure continued good health" ("Health hints by wireless," 1921, p. 3). The New York State Department of Health began airing health programming in 1922 via a Schenectady radio station (Laine, 1938). Although originally a five minute talk, the Health Department changed the programming format to 15-minute dramatizations in the 1930's. According to Laine:
 Among the topics dramatized [were] the
 following: self-medication and worthless
 patent medicine "cures"; facts and advice
 on measles; suggestions on healthful and
 economical foods; the importance of early
 diagnosis in tuberculosis; protecting public
 water supplies; the common cold and
 its transmission; and venereal disease and
 sex instruction for children.

 The last mentioned topic [was] ... a delicate
 subject in radio dealings. The New
 York State Department of Health, after
 various experiences with broadcasters, arrived
 at the conclusion that local stations
 generally, at least in New York State, [were]
 more ready to cooperate in the dissemination
 of social hygiene information than
 the national companies (p. 140).

The history in Illinois is similar to the history in New York. East (1942) writes that "in the early years of radio education ... the broadcasts were only of the lecture, or at most, interview variety" (p. 4). In the late 1930's there was a shift to dramatization. As the quality of the 15-minute plays improved, the popularity of the programs, also known as the "ILLINOIS MARCH OF HEALTH," increased. While acknowledging that it was difficult to determine the impact of the broadcasts, East held the view that improvements in the health status of Illinois residents in the late 1930's and early 1940's could be linked to radio programming. She summarized by saying "it is felt that in the achievement of these gratifying health records, the Statewide radio education activities of the Illinois Department of Public Health] are more than likely to have played a significant part" (p. 4).

The American Medical Association (AMA) was heavily involved in early radio broadcasts of health material, conducting educational programs on the radio in 1923 (Bauer, 1944). The AMA may have been the most active group in health education via radio (Bauer, 1944; Bauer, Martin, & McKeever, 1947; Willey & Young, 1948). Early programs consisted primarily of "information from HYGEIA and material furnished by the Propaganda Department of THE JOURNAL [of the AMA]" (Bauer et al., 1947, p. 1002.) Hygeia was a health magazine published by the AMA that was intended for the general public.

As with the New York State and Illinois broadcasts, the 1920% and early 1930's AMA radio programs largely consisted of monologues; however, the broadcasting style changed in the mid 1930%:
 In December, 1935 ... a significant alteration
 in the character of the radio broadcasts
 was instituted. It was recognized that
 the days of monologue presentations of
 health topics was past, and that the general
 public, with so much from which to
 choose on the radio dial, would not listen
 unless health education could be given in
 a more attractive form. AS a result, dramatization
 was introduced in AMA radio
 programs (Bauer et al., 1947, pp. 1004-1005)

The AMA also created several programs in the 1930's and 1940's. Your Health began in the early 1930's ("Broadcasting health material," 1937). The program's focus was changed in 1937 when the AMA decided to focus on high school students as a target audience (Bauer, 1936; Bauer et al., 1947; "Broadcasting health material," 1937). In 1939, Medicine in the News began. This program was "based on news contained in THE JOURNAL [of the AMA] and HYGEIA" (Bauer et al., 1947, p. 1005). Doctors at Work began in 1940, and Doctors at War was broadcast from late 1942 to mid-1943 (Bauer et al., 1947).

The AMA was also involved in the production of a 1952 radio program, hosted by Charles Laughton (Haendiges, 2002; "The Happy Ham," 1952). Medicine USA aired at least six times; the dramas dealt with alcoholism (AMA, 1952a); psychiatry in America (AMA, 1952c); the span of life (AMA, 1952d); the story of contagious diseases (AMA, 1952e); exercise and athletics (AMA, 1952b); and the family doctor (AMA, 1952f). The AMA was not the only group involved in health-related programming nor were programs limited to monologues or plays. Programs devoted to "calisthenics [and] health talks" were commonly aired in the morning during the 1920's (Douglas, 1987, p. 189). Sterling and Kittross (2002) report that "more that 1 1/2% of air time was devoted to health/exercise programs until 1932" (p. 138). Boand (1933) also notes that "the radio gymnasium class first saw the light of day in Chicago in 1923" (p. 523). In 1924, personnel from the YMCA were involved in the first broadcast of a daily exercise program on Chicago's (now Philadelphia's) KYW radio ("A brief history," 2003; Sterling & Kittross, 2002). Beginning in 1925, Metropolitan Life sponsored an exercise program that aired on stations in Boston, Buffalo, New York City, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Schenectady, Toronto and Washington, DC (Calderwood, 1932). Exercise programs began to fade in popularity in the 1930's "and by World War II there were very few early morning programs devoted to physical exercise" (Douglas, p. 188).

Radio was also used to promote abstaining from alcohol and prohibition. One article notes that "the Anti-Saloon League of New York adopted a dry campaign program for 1927 which include[d] the spread of propaganda in colleges and universities and the use of both radio and motion pictures" ("Dry league to use radio," 1927, p. 25). The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was also involved in radio programming in the 1930's. According to Kay (2001), "the FDA made effective use of this medium by broadcasting shows, news bulletins, and product warnings when necessary" (p. 454). The FDA used radio broadcasts to inform the public of its functions and how the agency performed these functions. Radio was also used to garner public support for the agency and for legislation that would increase the FDA's regulatory role. In addition, "speakers were reminded to emphasize the absolute necessity for improved consumer protection through legislation, and to highlight the public's role in the legislative process" (Kay, p. 467).

In the early 1940's NBC aired "Listen, America ... under the auspices of the Women's National Emergency Committee, the U.S. Public Health Service, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Federal Security Agency" ("Re: 'Listen America'," 1941, p. 1214). The Listen America broadcasts emphasized good nutritional practices, stressing "that good health and full strength are based on good food." (p. 1214).


Rural listeners closely identified with Lum and Abner, a popular series that ran for more than twenty years (Lackmann, 2000). The characters were described as "radio rural philosophers from Pine Ridge, Ark." ("Lum and Abner," 1939, p. 31). A 1939 Lum and Abner episode dealt with patient-physician communication. Readers of the AMA'S Hygeia were encouraged to listen to the program and given an idea of what the program was about:
 A feller who won't tell his doctor ever'thing
 that ails him ain't got much right askin'
 for help, says Lum. Ther's too much
 complainin' an' not enough thinkin' goin'
 on. Grannies, some folks 'pear to think a
 doctor ought to read their minds-an' then
 they get mad iffen he does'"("Lum and
 Abner," 1939, p. 31).

The American School of the Air (1930-1948) aired on CBS from 1930-1948 and reached approximately 20,000 schools in the early 1930's (Lackmann, 2000; Sterling & Kittross, 2002). This show offered "a variety of programs of value for the teaching of health" (Barckman, 1945, p. 71). Included among the health topics on this program were "disease prevention and control ... health protection [the role of the] American Red Cross in health education ... and safety & first aid" (Barckman, p. 72).

Cavalcade of America aired from 1935 to 1953 and portrayed individuals and events from history (Grams, 1998). Health-related stories covered in this program included smallpox, Walter Reed's efforts against yellow fever, the discovery of penicillin, the discovery of quinine's effectiveness against malaria, the discovery of anesthesia, and use of DDT (Grams). DDT was positively viewed as a treatment for typhus. In fact, the program was "originally titled 'DDT - the Powder of Life'" (Grams, unpaged).

In 1949 CBS broadcast Mind in the Shadow, a documentary about mental illness, featuring Eddie Albert. According to a New York Times critic (Gould, 1949), the program did
 not uncover any startling new information
 on the deplorable conditions prevailing
 in many state institutions. Rather it
 [hit] hard and often at the points which
 cannot be stressed too much and on the
 radio have been hardly said at all-the
 chronically overcrowded hospitals and
 woefully inadequate staffs which make a
 joke of society's presumption to being civilized
 (p. 11)


Concerns that programming promoted health-related products without first being introduced as advertising date back to at least 1925 ("Gas clinic failure," 1925). Concerns about radio programs being used to transmit quackery date to the 1920's as well (Benjamin, 2001; "Radio drive," 1929; "Seeks to bar radio," 1929). Radio was used to transmit quackery through the broadcasts by John Brinkley and Norman Baker, among others. Brinkley was well-known throughout the country for his claims that goat testes could restore a person's fertility. He used radio to broadcast these messages (Benjamin, 2001; Juhnke, 2002).

Commercial interests could influence what was broadcast in two ways. Brindze (1937) states that products of questionable value were advertised on radio broadcasts on a regular basis, because the makers of these products helped pay the radio station's bills while also improving the bottom line of the product's manufacturing company. Therefore, while radio station owners needed to be aware of the audience and of federal regulators, these stakeholders were not the station owner's major concern:
 There is no question but that the radio
 has given the medicine man's business a
 tremendous boost, and that the buying
 public, for whom the shows are put on,
 has been cheated both because of the exaggerated
 claims for the products and their
 exorbitant price.... The advertiser is the
 one who directly supplies the income [to
 the radio stations] and his interests take
 precedence over those of the public
 (Brindze, pp. 108-109).

The second method commercial interests used to influence radio's content was by controlling what was aired. Bauer (193611971) and Brindze wrote that speakers were sometimes prohibited from making factual statements (or what were considered facts at the time) about health topics if they conflicted with the interests of an advertiser. Brindze provided the following example:
 The U.S. Public Health Service made the
 following statement in a radio broadcast:
 Meat is an active heat-producing food, as
 shown by the fact that natives of the far
 North live entirely on animal products,
 and therefore, the amount of meat eaten
 during the hot season should be less than
 that eaten during colder months.

 The meat packers, who directly support
 broadcasting through advertising, and
 whose financiers are also in many instances
 the financiers of the radio stations, immediately
 protested against the "erroneous"
 advice of the government. Shortly
 thereafter the Department of Agriculture
 attempted to alleviate any harm that had
 been done to the meat interests by broadcasting
 that meat makes a perfect hot-weather
 meal (p. 193).

Much of the other debate in radio broadcasting revolved around discussions of sexuality. According to Benjamin (2001) "in the late 1920s and early 1930s, sex, including honest references to reproduction, was an absolutely taboo radio subject" (p. 158). In November 1929, NBC refused to "broadcast addresses delivered at the National Birth Control Conference" ("Birth control body," 1930, p. 18).

A major controversy in 1934 revolved around Dr. Thomas Parran, then the New York State Commissioner of Health in 1930 and later U.S. Surgeon General in 1936 (Snyder, 1995). In 1934, Dr. Parran was scheduled to speak on CBS Radio about "'Public Health Needs'" ("Syphilis & radio," 1934, p. 48). When CBS officials learned that Dr. Parran intended to discuss syphilis, they asked him to "alter his prepared text to conform with what the company considered good public taste" ("Syphilis & radio," p. 48). When he refused, CBS played music instead of broadcasting his speech (Brandt, 1987; "Honi soit qui mal y pense," 1934; Snyder, 1995; "Syphilis & radio," p. 48).

According to Brindze (1937), Parran had planned to say the following:
 We have made no progress against syphilis,
 though its end results crowd our jails,
 our poorhouses and our insane asylums.
 Yet there are specific methods of controlling
 it, better known to science than the
 methods of controlling tuberculosis. We
 need only to do what we know how to do
 in order to wipe out syphilis as a public
 health problem. In my philosophy, the
 greatest need for action is where the greatest
 saving of life can be made. I consider
 then, that our greatest needs in public
 health are first, the levelling [sic] up of
 present services so that every Radio Coverage
 community may receive the benefits
 that have long accrued to the learners; and
 second, a frontal attack by all communities
 against maternal mortality and deaths
 among new-born infants; against dental
 defects and faulty nutrition; against tuberculosis,
 where splendid gains have been
 made; against cancer and syphilis where
 we have done little or nothing." (p. 187-188)

CBS explained its decision to keep Parran off the air this way:
 Editorial responsibility for what the Columbia
 Broadcasting System puts out over
 the air must be assumed, and is assumed,
 by Columbia itself. In deciding what is
 proper for us to broadcast, we must always
 bear in mind that broadcasting
 reaches persons of widely varying age levels
 and reaches them in family and social
 groups of almost every conceivable assortment.
 For this reason we do not believe
 that it is either wise or necessary to discuss,
 and sometimes even to mention,
 some things which may more properly be
 discussed in print, where each person may
 individually and privately concern himself
 with the subject ("Dr Parran quits council,"
 1934, p. 20; "Syphilis & radio," p.

Parran responded to CBS's comments by saying:
 A hopeful view of relief from their dangerous
 malady might be more welcome to
 the half million persons in the United
 States who acquire this disease each year
 than the veiled obscenity permitted by
 Columbia in the vaudeville acts of certain
 of their commercial programs ("Dr.
 Parran quits council," p. 20; "Honi soit
 qui mal y pense," p. 1031; "Syphilis &
 radio," p. 48).

Things began changing at the networks in terms of discussing sexually transmitted diseases in the late 1930's. In November 1937, NBC refused to allow General Hugh Johnson airtime "to read a prepared speech, which he had submitted in advance, because it was a discussion of the ravages of social disease" ("Johnson speech banned," 1937, p. 11). Later that month, however, NBC asked Dr. Morris Fishbein, editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, to speak about STDs ("Gen. Johnson 'satisfied'," 1937). In response to NBC's invitation to Dr. Fishbein, General Johnson said that
 I intended to talk on the subject of
 social disease on my regular network
 broadcast. NBC would not permit me to
 do so. They now state that the highest
 authority should talk on it and, therefore,
 they got Dr. Morris Fishbein. This is satisfactory
 to me. I don't care who discusses
 venereal diseases with the radio audience
 as long as this subject is brought out into
 the open and given full discussion" ("Gen.
 Johnson 'satisfied'", p. 17).

In 1948, ABC Radio aired a series of programs about syphilis. This was "the first full network documentary on the problem of venereal diseases" ("VD," 1948, p. 9; see also Barnouw, 1948). The series was a collaboration between Columbia University and the United States Public Health Service (Barnouw, 1996; "Record Drive on VD,"1948). Originally, the programs were offered to NBC and then to CBS; both declined to air the programs. Eventually, the program was offered in 47 of the 48 states, excluding the state of Maine "which said it did not have a syphilis problem" (Barnouw, 1996, p. 104).

While radio programmers became more open regarding what could be aired as the century progressed, programmers still experienced problems regarding health-related topics. In 1989 ABC Radio began a program titled The American Agenda Radio Special (Lipman, 1989, p. B1). The program was intended to address various topics and would be hosted by different ABC News reporters. The first program, hosted by Barbara Walters, was about abortion. The network, however, had one difficulty, "advertisers [were] staying away from ABC's abortion program even though it [had] all the earmarks of a hit" (Lipman, p. B1).


Tapes and compact discs of radio broadcasts from the 1930's, 1940's and 1950's can be obtained and "used as teaching tools to learn about the period when radio was king" (Turner & Hickey, 1991, p. 6). Programs, newscasts and advertisements of the era can be played to provide students with insights into health issues of the time, how they were handled and how listeners might have responded to them. Yellow fever, penicillin's development and the use of DDT are among the topics that can be examined (see Grams, 1998 and Haendiges, 2002 for additional information about these and other programs). Newscasts may be difficult to obtain, but this idea could be applied to events such as early use of insulin as a treatment for diabetes, water fluoridation controversies, or the first kidney transplant (Means & Nolte, 1987).

A comparison of what topics could be discussed in radio programs and how what is permissible has (or hasn't) changed would be beneficial to students, especially when accompanied by a discussion of whether or not issues that cause controversy have changed. Partly in response to the Parran controversy mentioned earlier, a commentary appeared in Collier's in 1937 entitled "Are we a nation of prudes?" (p. 66). Harvey (1999) wrote that "the United States is among the more prudish of modern societies" (p. 48). Discussions about what topics could and could not be aired in the last century would help "students learn how radio reflected and influenced the tastes and even the moral character of the whole country" (Turner & Hickey, 1991, p. 6).

A discussion of how media (all media, not just radio) reflect our values today could also be held to discuss recent controversies such as the 2004 Super Bowl halftime where Justin Timberlake removed part of Janet Jackson's top and revealed her right breast, as well as the implications of this incident. Similarly, in February 2004 NBC deleted part of an ER episode where the breast of an older woman was visible (Bauder, 2004). In June 2004 MTV deleted a scene from the "2004 Movie Awards ... [where Eminem] pulled down his trousers and flashed his bare backside at the audience" ("Eminem's behind gets the boot," 2004, p. A-2). In October 2004 Howard Stern signed a contract effective starting in 2006 to leave broadcast radio for satellite radio. Satellite radio is not regulated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), though some radio executives recommend that satellite radio be regulated as well (McFeatters, 2004).

As television and radio programmers tighten standards and Congress and the FCC appear set to more strictly enforce regulations regarding indecency, points raised in Collier's in 1937 and by Harvey in 1999 are worthy of discussion (Ahrens, 2004; McFeatters, 2004), Are we a nation of prudes? What is prudishness and are the Super Bowl, ER and Eminem events examples? How does U.S. society compare to other societies in terms of what's considered acceptable? For most of the 20th century radio was a dominant mass medium. Radio broadcasts have served as "a major resource to inform and educate the public" about health (James, 1989, p. 66). Radio programs and commercials can be a valuable source of information to help students to comprehend how health issues were viewed in past decades.


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Responsibility 1--Assessing Individual and Community Needs for Health Education

Competency B--Distinguish between behaviors that foster and those that hinder well-being

Subcompetency 4--Analyze social, cultural, economic, and political factors that influence health

Alan J. Sofalvi, PhD is affiliated with the Department of Health at SUNY Cortland. Address all correspondence to Alan J. Sofalvi, PhD, Department of Health, SUNY Cortland, 104 Moffett, Cortland, NY 13045; PHONE: 607-753-2980; FAX: 607-753-4226; E-MAIL:
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Author:Sofalvi, Alan J.
Publication:American Journal of Health Studies
Date:Jun 22, 2005
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