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Refreshing the Dial: Coca-Cola and the Golden Age of Radio

By:  Justin DeFreitas Mar 25, 2014
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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."

The Coke Club with Morton Downey

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.

Victory Parade

"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.