In the Depression years following the October 1929 stock market crash, numerous business firms slashed their advertising expenditures and radio felt the pinch along with other industries and individuals. Because sales personnel had been reduced, many stations — KTAB among them — welcomed additional revenue from time brokers.
The time broker was usually an aggressive man-on-the-run, often carrying his “office” around in a briefcase. Because his expenses were minimal, he could afford to put in most of his time calling on small businesses or large companies with small budgets for certain individual products, selling spot announcements at less than it would cost a radio station to send out a salesman to try to make a sale.
When the time broker had enough contracts in his pocket, he’d contact a radio station with a proposition to purchase quarter, half, or even full hour time segments “across the board” — usually Mondays through Fridays. Eager for additional income, many stations, including KTAB, would create a “wholesale” rate at a price the broker could afford. He, in turn, would supply his own announcer and programs — sometimes phonograph records, sometimes “live” talent.
An aggressive time broker would load his time segments with commercials, sometimes jamming in twelve to fifteen one-minute spots in a half hour. One such broker was a bright and happy little dynamo named Jack Hall. Jack had a thirty-minute time slot Mondays through Fridays on KTAB. He did his own announcing, and his talent was a nimble-fingered pianist by the name of Clem Kennedy.
Among Jack’s sponsors was a wine-grape grower located some fifty miles north of San Francisco in Napa County. Naturally, prohibition had imposed certain restrictions on the wine business, and the vineyardist, trying for an “honest buck” as the saying went in those days, turned to selling grapevine cuttings by mail. He advertised his mail-order business on Jack’s programs. Jack really put his heart into it while reading the commercials for this sponsor. I was soon to learn why:
One day he came to me and asked. “How’d you like to do me a favor and announce my program one afternoon this week?”
Jack explained that he had to pay a call on the vineyardist and, because the trip and the contract renewal negotiations would kill the better part of a day, he was afraid he might not be able to make the round trip from San Francisco and back in time to handle the program himself. Because he was a valued client, I agreed to help.
When the day came, I placed Jack’s loose-leaf binder with its typewritten commercial copy on a music stand and adjusted it into position before the microphone, signaled Clem Kennedy who sat at the piano in the same studio, and the program began. During the first half of the program, I did what I modestly considered to be an excellent job of substituting for Jack, until I came to a spot announcement for Ex-Lax, a proprietary medicine for the relief of constipation.
It was Jack’s custom, whenever pressed for time during his half-hour programs, to have the studio engineer lower the volume of the piano mike while he announced over the background music. Glancing at the clock as I began the Ex-Lax commercial, I decided we’d better save a minute or so, and signaled the engineer to fade the piano. I was well into the commercial when, over the top of the music stand, I glimpsed Clem grinning at me over his shoulder, his fingers still dancing along the keyboard. In the control room, the engineer was shaking with laughter.
For a moment I wondered what in hell they thought was so funny. Seeing my puzzled expression, Clem played” louder. Then it dawned on me: he was accompanying my Ex-Lax “fight constipation” pitch with a happy, up-tempo rendition of the then-popular song, “Runnin’ Wild!” I, too, ran wild. Sputtering in an attempt to control my laughter and swallowing every other syllable, I barely made it to the end of the commercial.
I was afraid Jack might have lost the Ex-Lax account because of my lousing up the spot announcement; however, on his return, Jack laughed like hell. I was somewhat petulant (wounded professional pride, I suppose) when I asked him, “Why did you have to drive a hundred miles to renew the deal? Couldn’t you have sent the contract to Old Joe Vineyard and had him send your payment by mail?”
Jack grinned. “He can’t send his payments by mail. He doesn’t pay by check. He pays by the jug.”
It was then I learned that this was one of Jack’s “swap deals”. Each time the vineyardist’s contract came up for renewal, Jack would drive up to Napa County and return with an assortment of gallon jugs containing port, sherry, “dago red”, and — especially appreciated during Prohibition days — grappa, that potent, unaged brandy distilled from grape pomace.
Jack presented me with a jug as a reward for services over and beyond the call of duty. It was good grappa, and it nicely salved my wounded pride.
Copyright © 1979 by Glenhall Taylor. All rights reserved.