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Mass Entertainment in the 1920’s

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    Radio dominated the Twenties, with roughly 3 million Americans owning radios by 1923. Most listeners still used crystal sets with earphones to receive news and bulletins, advertising and music. The appeal of the spoken word attracted audiences and advertisers, while publishers were forced to improve upon its image to retain profits. Television, capable of wireless transmission of moving pictures, was first demonstrated in 1926, combining sight and sound to rival radio. Tabloids continued being characterised by scandal and crime.

    Also termed “jazz journalism”, this style of media reflected the decadent lifestyle and adventurous spirit of the time. The press hounded Charles Lindbergh, the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic, from New York to Paris in 1927. His daring 3610-mile journey, completed in 33. 5 hours, made him an international hero. It was an era when anyone who appeared in the press became an instant celebrity. In this decade, termed the “Roaring Twenties”, jazz journalism was dominant. The press was often preoccupied with entertainment, rather than concentrating on reporting significant stories or intepreting news events.

    Typical stories glorified celebrities and built up sordid events, such as murder trials, into national sensations. The tabloids thrived on controversy. To gain readership and denounce tabloids, respectable publications would print opinions, such as: “Tabloids are turning readers into witless gossips, gutter vamps and backyard sheiks”. A variety of new publications emerged in the Twenties. To keep up with the face pace and maximize personal effeciency, De Witt and Lila Wallace started the Reader’s Digest magazine, a “condensation” of news and entertainment articles taken from other magazines and reprinted.

    The first issue was printed in a Greenwich Village basement in New York City, 5 Feb 1922, by DeWitt and his wife, on a borrowed $5000. By balancing national politics, health and social and business articles, the magazine reached out to a diverse audience. By 1996, Reader’s Digest was the world’s most widely read magazine…. over 27 million copies sold in 19 languages bought monthly. Time magazine made its debut in March 1923, as the first condensed weekly magazine, covering internnational affairs, science, religion, business and education, etc. with in-depth commentaries and photographs.

    Time provided for the busy man who had little knowledge of the various areas. Time developed an extensive research staff to supplement its stories with as much fact as possible. In the 1920s, came the most important innovation in cinema – the addition of sound to film. Until the late 1920s, films were silent, sometimes accompanied by live music from a piano or organ, or even an orchestra in the best cinemas; an actor might also speak lines live or a ‘lecturer’ explain the plot. The “Talkies” arrived in 1927, when Al Jolson sang “Mammy” in “The Jazz Singer”.

    In the 1920s, radio began being used for the promotion of newspapers, with news being read from the papers that sponsored time on the radio. In the mid-1920s, a significant portion of radio stations were operated by non-profit organizations, and college and universities. The first commercial broadcast of a commercial radio station was on November 2, 1920, at Westinghouses Corporation’s KDKA. Pittsburrg, Pennsylvania, airing reports on the Harding-Cox presidential election results. Scores of telephone calls came in the following day, confirming the success of the first radio broadcast.

    By 1922, there were 30 stations in America, growing to 550 stations in 1923. Other than music and news, radio programming expanded into stock market and weather reports, comedy and major sporting events. The first on-air celebrity was Graham McNamee, who received 50,000 fan letters a year. The 217-words-per-minute machine-gun delivery of Floyd Gibbons made him a celebrity as well. Radio brought politicians into people’s homes, and many politicians went to learn effective public-speaking for radio broadcasts. Talking movies or “talkies” emerged, destroying the successful careers of some silent movie stars.

    Thousands of actors and actresses returned to school to improve their speech, projection, presentation and vocal skills. Radio’s success as a tool for mass communication attracted advertisers to market their wares to a large and growing audience. Radio was perceived as a more effective communications tool compared to print. Firsly, it reached out to a larger audience. Secondly, even those who couldn’t read could probably grasp the spoken word. Many non-English speaking immigrants to America listerned to the radio to familiarize themselves with the language and customs.

    When AT&T’s station WEAF went on air in August 1922, it also featured the first paid advertisement. The Queensboro Corporation had purchased a ten-minute commercial to advertise its new real estate development. Print advertising experienced changes during the Twenties. Instead of soft ilustrations, realistic and bold graphics and photographs were used now. In keeping with tabloid jounalism of the time, advertisements presented false claims. A mouthwash claimed the approval of 45,512 doctors. Celebrity endorsements of products were used to induce people to buy.

    The use of psychology was dominant in this decade, emphasizing the need for self-improvement or to be fashionable. Great advertising had the power to bring instant success to businesses or salvage discredited products. As early as 1907, the Scientific American magazine used the word television to describe the transmission of moving pictures. Scottish inventor John L. Baird first telecasted an object in motion in England, 1926. On May 11, 1928, General Electric began the first regular broadcast station, WGY, in Schenectady, New York.

    These milestones paved the way for the coming television revolution. The high cost of the technology prevented the television from becoming widespread until the Fifties. The Twenties was a time of frivolity. As publishers and broadcasters feared that serious material would antagonize their audiences, much of what was printed or aired was trivial. Popular culture dominated the decade and established media as a powerful tool for influencing the ideas, opinions and buying habits of the public. The 1920s saw a big boom in the entertainment industry.

    With the post-war economic hike after World War I, many Americans had extra money to blow, and they turned to entertainers to help them burn a hole in their pockets. Broadway reached an all-time high in the 1920’s. With playwrights like Gershwin, Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein pumping out top-notch showcases like “An American in Paris” and “Show Boat,” it’s no wonder that a whopping 268 plays were offered in New York City in 1927 alone! Big-time stars like Helen Morgan and Fred and Adele Astaire helped bring in the crowds. The Astaires’ hit it big in “Funny Face”.

    The radio airwaves saw a big increase in popularity as well. By the end of the decade, nearly half of all homes contained a radio. The National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) and Columbia Broadcast System (CBS) both transmitted signals nationwide, reaching nearly every area in the US. This made it possible for the public to all hear the same programs, music and news stories, allowing nearly everyone in the country to share the same experiences. The nation-wide broadcasting also enabled national brands of products to aired, exposing everyone to their advertising.

    This exposure was the beginning of the takeover over nationwide products taking hold over the public, and the end for smaller, regional products. The 1920’s also saw the introduction of the Billboard music charts, with popular singers like Bing Crosby being able to be heard nationally over the radio. The movie industry was not about to be left out of the entertainment surge either! Silent films, that had been around since the beginning of the century, became more popular in the 20’s.

    The beginning of the decade saw the founding of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (M-G-M) and the popularity of silent film stars such as Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Clara Bow and Rudolph Valentino. Midway through the decade, film became the US’ fourth largest industry, and it was about this time that the first movies with sound were released. The 1920’s also saw the first appearance of Mickey Mouse in Steamboat Willie. The movies were more than just an entertainment medium though. Shows also had newsreels, which allowed the audience to see the going’s on in the news and view political leaders and other movers and shakers in action.

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