I am a Cincinnati radio personality. Not taking requests now, sorry. I’m happiest when huge numbers of people tune in or log on, but I would never strap a pair of Torture-Pro AirPods to your ears and force you to listen. How rude. How arrogant. My freedom of speech doesn’t mean I can compel you to hear me. What radio station would do such a horrible thing?
A Cincinnati station once did exactly that, and inspired others all over the country to do the same. Familiar expressions like soap opera, quicker picker-upper, and I thought turkeys could fly originated here, but we also invented the term captive audience. That was literally the sales pitch of Transit Radio, Inc., a local company that briefly became the nation’s Next Big Thing. Its ambitious proposal, blindingly obvious today, seemed edgy in 1947: Install radios and speakers in city buses and streetcars so America’s passengers can enjoy some music (and commercials!) as they ride. With so many ears held hostage, advertisers would surely flock to buy time. What could go wrong?
A handful of vehicles in Cincinnati were the first in the world to be equipped and tested. Results convinced everyone to pump up the volume (as nobody said then). The company quickly opened sales offices in other cities, and within a few months the concept turned into a marketing Beatlemania.
Municipal transportation systems stampeded to offer themselves up for installation. Local and national advertisers showered money on the radio stations smart enough to grab a city’s rolling monopoly. In less than two years, the captive audience of Transit Radio, Inc., had grown from the thousands into the millions, with dollars to match.
Three years later, they were out of business. Advertisers scattered, and vehicles went silent. The reason? Right here is where a radio DJ like me would say, annoyingly: There’s more coming up; stay tuned!
Two things about the 1940s are opposite from today. First, radio was the undisputed king of all electronic media. Second, one half of that kingdom was, ironically, an impoverished wasteland: the FM band. Today’s radio audience overwhelmingly chooses FM over AM, but that didn’t happen for many decades. FM was a latecomer, and the AM stations that first embraced it by investing in new licenses and transmitters came to regret it.
The young spectrum, for multiple complex reasons, failed to thrive. After World War II, radio not only found itself reeling from the onslaught of television, but it was also stuck with hundreds of these money-sucking sister stations.
A typical failing FM, just barely living on the air in Cincinnati, was WCTS. It was owned by the Taft family; perhaps you’ve heard of them. The Tafts had mountains of money and hated to see even one mountain eroding. Putting radios in mass transit wasn’t a new idea, but it was considered impractical—and you know the reason if you’ve ever gone through the Lytle Tunnel while struggling to hear a Reds game on WLW.
AM signals drop out constantly in a moving vehicle. FM, by contrast, has a more reliable signal along with much better sound quality. Like early oil prospectors seeking superior machinery for extracting black gold, the Tafts were first to see FM as their modern drill that could let loose a gusher of money. Investors were courted, and Transit Radio, Inc., was launched.
They were careful and methodical. Engineers were hired to design rugged FM receivers, no easy task in the days of glass vacuum tubes. The devices, tuned permanently to WCTS, fit under the bus driver’s seat. Test runs were conducted for three months on the routes from Madisonville to Mariemont and Bond Hill to Roselawn, with riders surveyed about what they heard. This helped the company set volume levels and—most importantly—musical content.
If you’re familiar with the pre-rock-and-roll era, you know that playing the top hits to a captive audience would have been a very bad idea. Music charts of the time were scarred with abominations like “Toolie Oolie Doolie”; “One-Zy, Two-Zy (I Love You-Zy)”; and “I Don’t Want Her, You Can Have Her, She’s Too Fat for Me.” Transit Radio’s music would be all instrumental and easy-going, thank you. And no DJs. Every few songs, just one dry-voiced commercial, maximum 25 seconds. Then back to music. Enjoy your ride!
“Buscasting” was an immediate success and instantly got noticed by America’s advertisers, mass transit companies, and FM stations. Coca-Cola, Ford, Sears, G.E., Borden’s, and many others lined up to sell stuff to their trapped audience. Transit Radio soon had franchises in St. Louis, Houston, Kansas City, Baltimore, Indianapolis, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., with several more towns ready to join. But stay tuned, there are more surprises on the way!
The system’s arrival in D.C. hit its first speed bump of opposition. Washington is, after all, America’s capital of obstruction. Only a small minority in some cities had grumbled about coercive radio, but the National Citizens’ Committee Against Forced Listening (NCCAFL; cute acronyms weren’t a thing back then) knew exactly which publicity buttons to push and legal levers to pull. At a public hearing they unearthed a Transit Radio sales brochure that bragged about its “voice emphasis circuit,” an invention that automatically goosed the volume when a commercial began. Ewww. Warnings went out that America was facing a much larger threat than simple annoyance over unwanted music: “What’s to stop a bus company from conniving with the Communists to bombard us with propaganda?” “Dictatorial regimes first seized the radio stations and, through them, scared the citizenry into submission!” “Thoroughly Hitlerian and Communistic!”
What had rolled out across the country in 1948 as a shiny Cincinnati innovation was pretty banged up by the time it arrived at the Supreme Court in 1952. All rise! Justice Felix Frankfurter, who happened to be a regular D.C. streetcar passenger, recused himself from the case with the following icy statement: “My feelings are so strongly engaged as a victim of the practice in controversy that I had better not participate in judicial judgment upon it.” Whew. Just imagine how much more “strongly engaged” Frankfurter’s feelings might have been had he been forced to hear a typical 1952 hit song, such as “Pat Him on the Po-Po.”
Don’t assume the collapse of Transit Radio’s business came from an unfavorable ruling. In fact, the Supreme Court declared by a lopsided vote of 7 to 1 that on-board broadcasts were completely legal. Shouldn’t that have meant an even bigger surge of signups from cities and ad agencies? The opposite happened. Growth slowed, then shrunk. Advertisers began backing away, as they often do when enough people create enough negative attention. Cities let their radio contracts expire.
That, along with the enormous legal costs, turned profits into losses. Transit Radio, Inc., eventually melted into a generic brokerage firm.
Even though this particular battle against sensory mugging was won, you have undoubtedly noticed that the larger war has been lost. Everywhere we look, listen, log on, ride an elevator, wait for a flight, pump gas, walk through a mall, or are told our call is very important, there is no escape from electronic commercial assault. The innovation born in Cincinnati may have sputtered, but it set in motion multiple industries that rudely interrupt almost every aspect of our lives.
We should be grateful that our city’s role in creating such cacophony has been forgotten, because things will probably continue to get worse. Thank goodness that at least here—in the comfort and silence of print—we can still quietly enjoy some. . .Don’t miss out on fantastic savings for a limited time, but act fast before it’s gone! Now, back to music!