The world of commercial broadcasting during the “Golden Age”
of radio was much different from the one we know today. Back then, sponsors
didn't merely buy a few minutes of advertising during a program; they produced
the show. They created it, hired the talent, called the shots and paid the
bills. The networks simply broadcasted the shows produced by the sponsors.
Coca-Cola was in the game early, starting with a serial
called Vivian the Coca-Cola Girl in 1927. Vivian was a vivacious young lass whose adventures, according to Coca-Cola
archivist Ted Ryan, aired for 14 weeks in about a dozen major cities in the Midwest
and along the East Coast.
The program primarily featured Vivian and her beau, Jim,
"meeting in different parts of the country and enjoying an ice-cold
Coca-Cola," Ryan says. Promotional materials portrayed the show as
Vivian's "vivid romance with the public, personified by Jim."
From there, Coca-Cola ventured into musical and variety
shows, a niche it would occupy for decades. The company's long run showcasing
musical talent began in 1930 with the Coca-Cola Top Notchers, which combined chart-topping songs and performers with sports coverage. The
show's announcer was pioneering radio broadcaster Graham McNamee, one of the
dominant figures in the medium's first decade. Sportswriter Grantland Rice served
as host, interviewing Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth and other major sports figures. The
show's orchestral music was provided by Leonard Joy, composer of the theme song Coke would use well into the 1960s.
From 1937 to 1942, Coca-Cola sponsored Refreshment Time
with Singin' Sam, a syndicated program that featured the deep vocal stylings
of Harry Frankel. A few more short-lived shows followed, including a wartime
effort, the Coca-Cola Victory Parade of Spotlight Bands, which featured
the Glenn Miller Orchestra on its first broadcast in September 1942.
In 1943, Coke launched its first major series, Songs From
Morton Downey (later retitled The Coke Club), which, like the Singin'
Sam series, was a 15-minute, five-day-a-week broadcast. Known as "The
Irish Thrush," Downey was one of the most popular crooners of the era.
"Downey was a prototypical
radio host who latched his star to Coca-Cola and rode it for years," Ryan adds. His rendition of the Coca-Cola theme song was
associated the singer throughout the rest of his career, even long after his connection
to the company had ended.
Coca-Cola took a new track in the later years of radio's Golden Age, hitching its wagon to a star by sponsoring the long-running Edgar
Bergen and Charlie McCarthy Show in 1949. Bergen and his dummy had ranked
among the biggest names in the business dating back to the late 1930s, defying
all logic by turning a ventriloquist act into a radio sensation. When Bergen
decided he was ready to make the move to television, he did so with the help of
Coca-Cola, who sponsored Bergen and McCarthy's first TV performance on
Thanksgiving Day in 1950.
It was the beginning of a new era. Radio soon became an
also-ran as television swept into American households. Radio's secondary status
was clear even in Coca-Cola's approach. The company's new show for 1953 was an
updated version of its previous Coke Time broadcasts, which had
featured top singers like Mario Lanza. This time, however, the lead
role was filled by Eddie Fisher, a heartthrob for a new generation.
The most telling aspect of the show was that it wasn't
really a radio show at all. The broadcast was cobbled together from
highlights of the Coke Time television show. It was official: Radio had
become an afterthought.