|One of the most beloved and popular radio programs in the history of radio is probably the one that is least spoken of because of its controversial connotations in today's society. And an additional irony is that the series was a comedy, a genre that most people think of as harmless. The series began as Sam n' Henry, but was later changed to Amos n' Andy. What gives the series its "off limits" tag is that the two characters are based on the minstrel blackface comedians that were so prevelant in Vaudeville.
In the early twenties, in broadcast radio's infancy, Charles Correll and Freeman Gosden were working at WGN in Chicago as "harmony boys;" that is, two singers playing ukelele and piano and singing along with their instruments providing song entertainment in between their "happy banter and jesting" for early radio listeners in the Chicago area. The station was owned and operated by the leading newspaper of the city, the Chicago Tribune, the "World's Greatest Newspaper," thus WGN.
Whose idea it was to change the format by adding dramatic dialogue is not clear. But the Tribune had been previously involved in promotion of serial based media mostly through film and comics. One source attributes the change to Ben McCanna, who was executive in charge of broadcasting for the paper as wanting to add "bits of drama and musically pictured incident."  Others attribute Henry Selinger, the manager of WGN, to wanting a radio version of The Gumps. But Gosden and Correll did not feel they could do a serial based upon married characters  and proposed to use their backgrounds in minstrel comedy by creating what Correll called "a colored comedy"  about two Negro characters called Sam and Henry.
WGN liked the proposal and the program debuted on January 12, 1926. The storyline was about two Alabama men who came to Chicago to find their fortunes. That the program was in serial form only sealed its popularity as listeners tuned in daily to follow the lives of both men. In addition the newspaper promoted its own program in ads urging listeners to tune into the daily adventures of the two hapless men.
By 1927, the program had become so popular through various promotional material (candy bars, short recordings, books and toys) that there was a huge demand well beyond WGN's listening reach. The station was not part of the NBC network and so Gosden and Correll proposed the relatively new concept of recording the program on disc and distributing it to radio stations around the country. But for reasons unclear, WGN refused permission for the two to do this.
But Judith Waller, program director for the Chicago Daily News' radio station, WMAQ, offered the boys a contract that included distribution rights. The two accepted, but WGN refused to give up the name Sam n' Henry, and so two new but similar characters were created called Amos and Andy.  The show debuted over WMAQ on March 19, 1928. This soundbite is from 1929 and gives an idea of the early Amos n' Andy.
All the material was written by Gosden and Correll. The characters came from Atlanta instead of Alabama and were members of the Mystic Knights of the Sea instead of the Jewels of the Crown. Beyond that, the storylines were the same as their previous series from WGN. The two men were said to prefer to be alone in a studio room when doing their routine so that they could concentrate solely on their parts. All the parts were performed by both men as they easily slipped in and out of each character.
Now that the serial was playing over NBC's network station in Chicago, the network executives became interested. Niles Trammell, NBC's head of Chicago operations wanted the series to be nationwide and the hunt for a sponsor began. Selling the comedy was not as easy as one might have thought. An employee at the Lord & Thomas advertising agency liked the show and felt that it would be a good one for toothpaste giant Pepsodent.  For the sponsor this would be their first network broadcasting venture. However, nine months passed before NBC began carrying it. The network was fearful of setting a precedent by allowing one of its shows to air six-days-a-week. No other advertiser was sold this way and besides they were used to selling in half-hour and hour units. But all of this worry was eventually overcome and the local show premiered over the NBC network on August 19, 1929 at 11:00 pm EST. Though the critics complained, the series was an instant hit. NBC was so pleased it moved it to 7:00 pm EST, but the listeners on the west coast protested so loudly because they now had it broadcast 4 hours earlier during the workday. This prompted the network to do a repeat broadcast for its west coast affiliates - the first time a regular program was ever performed twice.
The impact of the show was phenomenal. At its peak, it is said cities literally came to a halt while the show was being broadcast. Everyone wanted to hear their favorite two characters and their daily misfortunes. While the peak of their popularity came during the thirties, the series remained on the air for nearly 30 years. No other series ever came as close to being as popular.
Sources1 Daniel D. Calibraro & John Fink, WGN: A Pictorial History, Chicago Tribune Company, 1971.
2 Arthur Wertheim, Radio Comedy, New York, Oxford University Press, 1979.
3 Raymond W. Stedman, The Serials: Suspense and Drama by Installment, Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 1971.
4 Rockford Register-Gazette, October 5, 1926.
5 Other names were tried first, Jim n' Charlie, Tom n' Harry, but Amos n' Andy is what stuck.
6 Stedman, The Serials, p 229.
Created: Monday, November 03, 1997
Material in this web page, copyright © 2014 James F. Widner.
Photos courtesy Associated Press, Broadcast Pioneers