From Parody to Propaganda: Radio and World War II
Even beyond campaigns and commentaries on them, politics are still everywhere in these shows. For example, The Goldbergs and The Burns and Allen Program shifted their plotlines to reflect political situations in the mid-twentieth century. America’s entry into World War II is the most obvious example. When America went to war, radio did too. The government became a propaganda machine, and radio was its most useful mechanism for relaying important messages to the American public. Roosevelt continued his fireside chats throughout the war to update citizens on war happenings, advertisements for purchasing war bonds filled the airwaves, and radio programs that had already been broadcasting for years joined the war effort.
The Radio Division of the Office of War Information (OWI) worked to reformulate popular radio programs into effective war propaganda. To the radio industry’s relief, the OWI and its head William B. Lewis knew how to do this without causing too much trouble. Radio was valuable “only because of the enormous audiences it has created,” Lewis argued, and thus disrupting the format and schedule, which would diminish the size of the audience, was useless. Radio programs would have to seamlessly include the propaganda that the OWI insisted on; ultimately, “radio propaganda must be painless.” The radio war effort was the result of “intricate government-business cooperation that characterized America’s privatized war effort.” Radio programs were put on a rotating schedule of propaganda. Weekly shows like The Burns and Allen Program were to include a war message on every fourth show. Once a month, George and Gracie became cogs in the political machine working towards public cooperation and American victory in World War II.
Radio comedies like George and Gracie’s “went to war” by confronting issues that many Americans were griping or wondering about – war bonds, car pooling, rationing, the USO, and even the need for nurses – and ultimately explaining why they were important and reinforcing the initial message of the government. Often, one character would complain about the sacrifices the government was asking of them, but they eventually learned their lesson after realizing how important their actions were and how miniscule their sacrifice was in comparison to the soldiers’ war efforts. George and Gracie were no exception, and OWI documents show the propaganda schedule including The Burns and Allen Program. Unfortunately, few wartime Burns and Allen episodes have survived. Two specific, surviving episodes show that political issues did indeed become an important part of the show and that the radio stars were effective in persuading the American people to act a certain way.
[Propaganda Schedule from Gerd Horton's Radio Goes to War]
A 1941 episode, pre-dating American entry into World War II and official propaganda from the Office of War Information, addressed the high cost of living. The fact that these important issues were present on the program before their inclusion was forced implies not only that the shift to war propaganda programming could be seamless, but that the show was already political and not a simple comedy. The second relevant episode occurred in January of 1946, shortly after the war ended, and addressed taking in Veteran GIs who had nowhere to go. While it is unclear whether or not this message was suggested by the OWI or simply written in by the writers, it still symbolizes the political nature of The Burns and Allen Program and how easily propaganda fit into the already politically-conscious program.
The 1941 episode addressing the high cost of living puts a comical spin on a problem that had been plaguing Americans for years. The episode begins with Gracie bragging about fighting the high cost of living by avoiding paying for groceries – and purchasing them instead on credit or with a check. George criticizes Gracie for “using the high cost of living as an excuse” for paying too much for things, and vows to do the grocery shopping and pay less than Gracie had been paying. George finds the task more difficult than he first expected. The sirloin steak George requested is so expensive that the grocer asks if he is a veteran because he “thought [George] could finance it on a GI loan.” George decided to go without meat, and tells Gracie that “the only way to bring prices down is to refuse to pay what they ask of things.” But George quickly finds that his attempt is futile, and he does need to purchase food. Hilarity ensues as the price of his groceries rise in the few minutes that George is in the store. Gracie takes George to the movie theater to “get his mind off of the high cost of living – at least temporarily.” Gracie decides that she wants to make life easier by writing a play, but in a search for financial backing, she lies and says the money will be used to cure her “mentally unstable” husband. Of course, nothing works out right and the episode ends with lots of laughs in the face of a difficult problem.
["George Lands a Movie Role" can be heard below]
Because this episode was not a collaboration with the OWI, it does not give a clear answer to the problem or persuade Americans to act a certain way. However, the show still provides a worthwhile social commentary on the high cost of living. George serves as the relatable character, with whom Americans could easily identify. He is frustrated by the high price of living and tries to find ways out of it, like refusing to pay prices he considers to be too high. But in the end, there really is no way to avoid the problem; he ends up simply limiting the total amount he buys – a half pound of butter instead of a pound – and making similar conscious decisions to limit consumption to only what is necessary. Although Gracie’s behavior usually frustrates him, she entices him to escape from reality for a time in the form of a movie, just as the show itself served as an escape to thousands of Americans who turned in weekly to avoid their personal problems. The message was ultimately for Americans to relax, have a laugh when they could, and try to cut expenses during a tough time. Americans could also feel as though they were not alone facing these issues; even beloved stars George and Gracie were having difficulty dealing with high prices. By providing laughs and relating to familiar issues, The Burns and Allen Program could address and attempt to reduce relevant American anxieties.
In contrast to the 1941 episode, the 1946 episode is truly in the style of traditional radio wartime propaganda. George explains that “Los Angeles is filled with returned servicemen looking for a place to stay,” and that the couple should fix up their den for a deserving soldier instead of Gracie’s mother (who happens to hate George). Gracie’s character is unaware that this is a problem, but George directs her attention to personal ads in the newspaper featuring countless discharged soldiers looking for places to stay. When talking to other cast members who have sacrificed some of their living space to returning soldiers, Gracie intelligently responds with “you owe him something, while he was over there fighting and risking his life, you were home with your wife where it was safe.” Gracie becomes obsessed with giving all she can, determined to house a soldier’s whole family, which would affectively kick George out of the house. George serves as the voice of reason and tells Gracie that it simply will not work, and they continue their search for the ideal roomer. But George’s reasoning is, surprisingly, completely selfless; he is not worried that Gracie’s suggestion would force him to move out, but instead that serviceman and his family would be uncomfortable because the house is not big enough. The search obviously becomes a comedy of errors, but the end of the episode features a touching personal addition from George and Gracie. George begins, “although we had some fun today talking about the housing shortage, it really is a serious thing.” Gracie responds with a personal plea, saying “if anyone listening has a spare room or two that might accommodate a serviceman and his family, it couldn’t be put to a better use.” Although the distinction between actor and character is particularly difficult when discussing George and Gracie, this plea seems to be straight from the actual actors, forcing the audience to give the suggestion much more serious consideration than when the characters simply hint at the problem during the show.
["Taking in a Veteran" can be heard below]
This episode exemplifies a particular type of wartime broadcasting propaganda – “familiarizing” Americans with problems and “reinforcing” the importance of suggested sacrifices. The issue presented is especially important because it was a specific issue after the war effort, when most Americans assumed they would no longer be expected to sacrifice anything. The introduction of an unexpected sacrifice is welcomed wholeheartedly in the Burns household; in fact, Gracie is dedicated to giving literally everything that she can to the returning soldier, even if it means relocating her own husband. George is still the voice of reason, introducing Gracie to the problem and also suggesting that she think about her sacrifice more realistically. But again, all concern is about the servicemen and how much they sacrificed for the country; the sacrifice of George and Gracie is not even mentioned. The message is clear that taking in a returning serviceman is the right thing to do, and not a major sacrifice in comparison to what these soldiers did for the country. George and Gracie both accept this wholeheartedly without any deliberation, as the OWI surely hoped most Americans would as well.
George and Gracie certainly were not the only stars involved in government propaganda. The Rise of the Goldbergs also went to war. This time, however, the creator and not the government largely determined the politics of the show. Gertrude Berg was very publicly a fan of Franklin Roosevelt long before World War II, and reinforced this through her radio broadcasts, using “her celebrity to promote and effect political change.” In one 1933 episode when Molly is attending night school, she plays the part of Roosevelt in her school pageant. Much of Berg’s pro-Roosevelt propaganda occurred before World War II, and thus before radio listeners were used to their favorite characters being overtly political as they were when broadcasting wartime propaganda. As a result, Berg received some Republican criticism from fans who were “disgusted with the cheap publicity advertising of Roosevelt.”
As events in Europe escalated, Berg, who was always politically inclined, could not help but comment on them in The Goldbergs. After Kristallnacht, when Jewish shops and synagogues in Nazi Germany were stoned or burned, Berg wrote an episode where “a stone is thrown through the Goldbergs’ apartment window during the family’s Passover seder.” The Goldbergs’ connection to European Jewish refugees was an important point of persuasion. Americans were distraught to see their favorite family being vandalized, and that realization made it easier to relate to persecuted Jews in Europe.
Much like George Burns and Gracie Allen, when America went to war, Gertrude Berg did too. She did not, however, limit her political efforts to The Goldbergs. Berg participated in the “Register and Vote” campaign to increase voter participation, and “welcomed the opportunity to assist Roosevelt’s 1944 reelection campaign.”  Berg credited her public dedication to that campaign, which was unpopular with her conservative radio network, as the reason that Procter and Gamble did not renew her contract in 1945. She was also a strong voice for war bonds, showing up at luncheons and loan drives to help the cause. Berg appeared on other radio quiz shows like Double or Nothing and Guess Who “asking Americans to fulfill their obligations to the war effort” and buy bonds. Berg also “wrote and performed in a special Goldbergs skit at Carnegie Hall in January 1945 to entertain the troops.” Like Burns and Allen’s personal plea to the viewers coupled with their programmed propaganda, Berg used her character Molly and her own personal fame to support Roosevelt and the war effort.
Radio episodes of The Goldbergs remained political, with Molly telling audiences that the German acts were “evil… and that means we’re going to keep killing them until they stop doing what they’re doing… You’ve got to believe that you are doing is right. It is right. Completely right.” It is unclear whether the OWI influenced this message or if it was simply Berg’s own beliefs. Most likely, it was a bit of both. Berg was upset by Nazi Germany’s treatment of Jews, and came to view the war as “a necessary evil, the only way to keep the world safe from Hitler and his Nazi army.” Always politically minded, she used her celebrity every way she could to reinforce a political message and her own beliefs about the way things ought to be. While not always popular with the network, her political assertions were accepted after the United States’ entry into World War II, when her overt politics were just one small portion of the completely propagandized radio. In many ways, the OWI learned from Berg’s previous political forays; she proved that radio and comedy could be political and popular before the government viewed that as necessary to the war effort. Berg’s personal politics made political broadcasting seem natural, not forced.
 Gerd Horten, Radio Goes to War: The Cultural Politics of Propaganda During World War II (Ewing, NJ: University of California Press, 2003), 116, 124.
 Ibid., 126.
 Horten, Radio Goes to War, 127.
 Smith, “Something on My Own,” 76.
 “A Pageant in Honor of President’s Day,” in The Rise of the Goldbergs, radio script, April 28, 1933. As quoted in Smith, “Something On My Own,” 79.
 Smith, “Something on My Own,” 80.
 Ibid., 81.
 Ibid., 87.
 Ibid., 93.
 Ibid., 95.