Friday, July 17, 2009

Turn It Off
John Crosby Column from August 4, 1948

Editor's Note: This timeless column from radio critic John Crosby called Turn It Off from August 1948 is a perfect summer radio criticism re-run. I've added a link here and there for additional context.

I read in the New York Times that show business has reached a nadir—well, one of its nadirs, show business being one of those professions where ultimates are attained every other day. Radio stars are fighting salary cuts. Guest stars will be eliminated or bought at bargain rates next season. Top stars are unsigned and programs are reducing their prices $3,000 to $4,000.

The profit margins on movies are down in some cases by as much as 50 percent. Sheet music sales are down 40 percent. Records are down 10 to 35 percent. On Broadway, Brock Pemberton, who has been prophesying disaster for the theater ever since I was a little boy, declared: “The financial slump is greater than anything since the pre-war depression.”

Exhilarated by these portents of doom, I had lunch with a publisher. “The book business,” he announced with unwonted zest, “is through. Nobody reads books any more and I’ve an idea that reading of any sort is on the way out. You want a brandy? Might as well make an afternoon of it. Nothing to do at the office.”

After digesting this information slowly, I rang the secret number of my spy in the picture magazine game, a character who lives on the Street with No Name: “We’re advertising in all the newspapers, but the circulation is going down anyhow,” he declared bitterly. “People just don’t seem to want to look at pictures any more. Makes a man think, doesn’t it?”

It certainly does. The Hooper ratings are as close to zero as they ever get. If people aren’t looking at the picture magazines, listening to a radio, reading the books or going to the movies, what on earth are they doing? My researchers are up in the Adirondacks fishing, so I paid a visit to Jim and Grace Mainwaring up in Bronxville. Jim and Grace, I ought to explain, are to statistics what guinea pigs are to science. If Gallup consulted them first, he’d save himself a lot of trouble. Whenever there’s a 30 percent slump in anything, you’ll find Jim and Grace involved in it somehow.

I found Jim, tanned and healthy, spraying copper and rotenone on the tomato plants. “The radio?” he said vaguely. “Well, I don’t know. Grace and I get pretty tired at night. We go to bed. No, we haven’t seen a movie in months. Books? Well . . . “

I looked up Grace and found her splashing waterproof paint on the bottom of the catboat. “The hell with the amusement industry,” she declared heartily. “Have you seen the new puppies? They’re out back.”

I withdrew and scrutinized the puppies, who had the unearthly sweetness of all puppies, reflecting that the amusement industry was up against some stiff competition.

This is the season when the joke about Harry Truman’s piano begins to pall. The simulated thrills of “Suspense” are nothing next to the bursting gladiolus in the backyard, the distant sails on the bay. “The Saturday Evening Post” romance has no charms comparable to the new girl who moved in four doors down the street, and neither has Judy Garland. The sports commentator chattering about the Dodgers can’t outtalk the tennis racket in the front hall closet.

This is not the time for vicarious thrills; this is the time for one’s own. In this curious age when the tendency is to sit passively and watch the professionals at work, this is one season when the amateurs avoid the movies, cast aside the book, turn off the radio, and—just for a change—participate. On these fragrant summer evenings, when conversation blooms shyly on the front porch, who wants to listen to the radio?

Or read a radio column?

Or write one?

From Out of the Blue: A Book About Radio and Television by John Crosby.
Originally published in 1952 by Simon and Schuster, New York.

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