This is the story of a film about a radio show, produced by a sponsor hoping that people who saw the film would be encouraged to listen to the radio show, and then after hearing the commercials on the radio show be encouraged to patronize the gas stations owned by the sponsor.
One only has to peruse the list of the most popular radio programs of the 1930s to see a pattern: Lux Radio Theatre, Kraft Music Hall, Fleischman’s Yeast Hour, and so on, all shows named for their sponsor. These shows were typically produced by advertising agencies–J. Walter Thompson was responsible for Kraft Music Hall, for example–and the network’s role was to sell studio and broadcast time (“four walls and air,” in the parlance of the time) to the agency. It’s important to note that companies took it as an article of faith that name association with a radio program was crucial to improving brand recognition and sales; musical variety was the most popular genre since that format allowed for numerous opportunities to mention the sponsor’s name.
Sponsored news shows, however, were rare; the networks typically produced their own news programs on a “sustaining” basis, that is, with no advertising at all, although there were exceptions such as Lucky Strike News Parade and Camel News Caravan. Another was Your Esso Reporter, which was notable for not being a network program, but rather a five minute show packaged for broadcast on individual radio stations four times a day in markets when Standard Oil gas stations were located (“Esso” derives from the company’s initials; we know it today as ExxonMobil).
Your Esso Reporter was structured such that the ad breaks could be tailored to the region in which it was being broadcast, while its news content came from United Press International with the occasional insertion of a local story. A 1938 promotional film produced by Esso called News in the Air does a good job explaining how the program was put together, although being a product of its time one can only ruefully acknowledge the film’s illustration of drum beating and smoke signals as primitive precursors to radio news. Our 16mm print comes from the J. Fred and Leslie W. MacDonald Collection.
News in the Air (Esso, 1938)
If you want to download this video, right-click here and Save As
Of course, Standard Oil didn’t present Your Esso Reporter out of a sense of civic obligation; their goal was to sell more product. So, just like Blame It on Love and The Ordeal of Thomas Moon, two other “sponsored” films we’ve featured in “Now See Hear!” posts, News in the Air was shown to community organizations like the YMCA in an attempt to bring more listeners to Your Esso Reporter, and hence to Esso service stations. Standard Oil’s overall strategy for the program is explained quite thoroughly in the March 1947 issue of Sponsor magazine; it’s worth reading to see how the company used the sponsorship of a localized radio news program as part of its national advertising campaign.
The last six minutes of the film were especially interesting! So many “golden nuggets” in here about news production at wire services and on radio.
While most advertisers, believing in the strong effects of sponsor identification, may not have wanted to be associated with bad news, I think that other advertisers may have considered news to be similar to advertising: as an information service that benefits audiences. I wonder if this may have been the case with Esso.
Thanks for posting!