The Past Was Not So Different: Spam Edition

So, I’ve always thought of the phenomenon of spam as a somewhat modern problem. I suppose there’s always been junk mail, but most junk mail seems to be of the coupons and contests variety. The quintessential piece of modern spam, on the other hand, is the Viagra or Cialis ad. We all get them, and no matter how good our spam filters are, one or two slip through. Would you like some Cialis? It’ll help please the ladies! Etc.

It turns out that the past was not so different. In Institutional Change and the Transformation of Interorganizational Fields: An Organizational History of the U.S. Radio Broadcasting Industry, Leblebici et al. discuss the birth of the modern radio industry. At first, most stations were paid for by radio manufacturers themselves, trying to increase demand (as there was excess capacity in the factories that had made radios for the military in WWI). A few large retailers joined in. But soon, as more and more people owned radios, and thus sales slowed for the manufacturers, new actors were needed to provide content and to pay for it. Several proposals were considered. The winners?

The prevailing idea, though, came from an unsavory group at the periphery of the industry. It was introduced by sellers of questionable commodities who could no longer persuade most print media to accept their advertising. They bought radio stations to offer services, ranging from fortunes in real estate to hair-loss remedies to fortune tellers. Prominent in this respect was “Doctor” J.R. Brinkley. He established Station KFKB in Milford, Kansas in 1923 to hawk his infamous goat-gland operations, of which he performed thousands, to revitalize elderly gentleman’s sex lives for a fee of $750.

That’s right folks, the modern radio industry was given birth in part by spam. And not just any spam, but by male impotence spam. And of course, once the spammers of the day showed the rest of the industry that direct advertising could work to fund broadcasts, major corporations moved in, and advertising agencies began to not just fund radio but to write and produce it as well.

The past is kind of awesome.

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  1. What was listeners’ reaction at the time? Was radio considered a “dirty” advertising channel?

  2. It’s not entirely clear from the article how listeners reacted. The article is focused on shifts the industry at large, and not audience reactions per se. We can probably infer that audiences weren’t too turned off by this shift because the trend in advertising funded programs took off like wildfire (although the advertising shifted to more mainstream national level stuff and then towards local spot advertising). Alas, that’s about all I know on the subject – I’m reading the paper as an example of organizational theory, and not as part of a larger interest on early radio.