Bertha Brainard (died 1946) was a pioneering radio executive who became the first woman ever to hold an executive post at an American network.
Brainard's rapid rise occurred almost simultaneously with that of the fledgling medium itself during the 1920s, and in 1927 she became the first-ever head of programming for the newly created National Broadcasting Company (NBC). That same year, she wrote an article for the New York Times about the role of women in the new medium that was rapidly revolutionizing American life. “I have watched the increase of women's interest in broadcasting, realizing that it was one great factor which was working for the good of radio in general, demanding that the program managers arrange constantly better and more interesting programs,” she asserted.
Brainard was born in New Jersey to Henry and Ada Brainard, and attended South Orange High School and Montclair Normal School. As a teen she was an avid moviegoer, fascinated by the new form of entertainment, and she hoped to become a screen star herself. During World War I she drove an ambulance for the American Red Cross. Back in New Jersey after the war, she was perplexed by the fascination her brother exhibited for his new hobby, the crystal set. These early radios were assembled by mail-order kits, and the quality of sound was often poor; Brainard, however, was more annoyed by the programming, which she thought was terrible.
Began at WJZ
Deciding to seek a career in radio, Brainard contacted a New York newspaper journalist, Heywood Broun (1888-1939). Broun spent most of the 1920s with the New York World, and had a nationally syndicated column called “It Seems to Me.” Through his connections he set up an introduction for Brainard with a press agent for the Shubert Theater organization, a Broadway powerhouse. That person, in turn, knew someone at WJZ, one of the first commercial radio stations in the New York-New Jersey area. Located at 833 AM, WJZ was based in Newark, New Jersey, and took its call letters from the state's name. When it went on the air on October 1, 1921, its owner was the Westinghouse Electric Corporation. Four days later, it made radio history with its broadcast of baseball's World Series, the first ever to air.
Brainard finagled a meeting with WJZ executives and suggested to them that listeners might like to hear theater reviews. She offered to do the job herself, and by 1922 she was delivering a nightly program of theatre reviews and commentary called Broadcasting Broadway and had been made assistant manager at the station. A year later she became WJZ's program director, and in 1926 was made station manager. That same year, control of WJZ passed over to a newly formed parent company, the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), which was formed by a trio of companies with a common interest in creating a chain, or network, of radio stations. These were the Radio Corporation of America (RCA)—a manufacturer of radio sets— along with General Electric (GE) and Westinghouse.
Believed That Women Were Target Audience
From the start of her career, Brainard was firmly convinced that radio broadcasting needed to appeal to everyone in the household, not just the men. In the article she penned for the New York Times in 1927, she wrote of the medium's earliest era, when “women looked on the radio as something which occupied the entire attention of the men of the family while they were at home and kept them up until all hours of the night, making them cross and irritable the next day.” Those first radio sets were unwieldy pieces of furniture whose inner workings were sensitive and thus easily rendered temporarily inoperable if jarred while dusting, for example; moreover, the batteries inside sometimes leaked acid and ruined furniture. Once loudspeakers on the units replaced headphones, more women began tuning in. “Women discovered that during the day, while the men were out of the house, they could gain a wealth of diversion from their radio sets,” she wrote in the same 1927 article, adding, “I consider that [women's] opinions on broadcasting are very important … [and] I have found that most of them are constructive critics.”
WJZ's first headquarters were a makeshift rooftop shack on a building at Orange and Plane streets in Newark, but with the NBC deal it moved to New York City and rented offices at the Aeolian Building, a concert hall on Times Square, later moving to a more elaborate setup at the newly completed Rockefeller Center in the early 1930s. NBC officially came into being on November 15, 1926, and on the first day of 1927 it began operating as two networks: NBC Red offered music and entertainment programming, while NBC Blue Network devoted its broadcasts to news and cultural programming. Brainard's talents as a radio executive impressed David Sarnoff (1891-1971), the head of NBC, who made her the commercial program director for the new Blue network, with WJZ as the flagship station. The Red and Blue divisions lasted until the 1940s, when the Federal Communications Commission ordered NBC to divest, and the Blue network eventually became the American Broadcasting Company (ABC).
Conceived Innovative Programming
Brainard championed several innovations at NBC that laid the groundwork for the future of American broadcasting, in both radio and television, especially after she became chair of NBC's programming board—a powerful position for a woman in that era. The forerunner of the television sitcom was one of her early successes, in the form of The Goldbergs, a 15-minute drama centered on a Jewish family in New York City that began in 1929 and later moved to television. That same year she put The Fleischmann's Yeast Hour on the air on NBC, which later became The Rudy Vallée Show. Hosted by popular singer-bandleader Rudy Vallée, the show had Brainard's backing and made it onto the air only when she managed to convince fellow NBC executives that Vallée's voice had a unique appeal to women that men could not grasp. The musical variety hour soon took the number two spot in the ratings for NBC, second only to the comedy Amos 'n' Andy. On being a woman in a male-dominated field, she said in a 1939 New York Times interview with Kathleen McLaughlin that “you can't beat men at their own game. You can bang your fist on the table and swear,” she noted, but personally she found a softer approach worked best. Was it not wiser, she asked McLaughlin, to “be yourself and use feminine tactics? One of them I've always found effective in any impasse is to appeal for advice. What's more, I get it and like it.”
The same article noted that Brainard regularly put in tento twelve-hour work days, and managed to go for a daily swim at a summer house she owned in the countryside. In the city, she lived in an “uptown penthouse apartment she shares with a sister who directs the household and relieves her of domestic responsibilities,” according to McLaughlin. At the time, Brainard was one of the highest paid radio executives of either gender in American media. She retired in 1946 after 25 years in the business, and married advertising executive Curt Peterson. She died of a heart attack on June 11, 1946, at her home in Huntington, Long Island.
Brainard's influence on the medium stretched well into the next century in the form of weekly Saturday afternoon Metropolitan Opera broadcasts, which began in 1933. In the interview with McLaughlin, which mentioned that she earned a five-figure salary, she dismissed any notion that she had a gift for giving listeners what they wanted to hear. “The only smart thing I ever did in radio,” she joked to McLaughin, “was to decide sixteen years ago that it was going to be as big as it is.”
New York Times, January 1, 1922; September 18, 1927; January 22, 1939; June 12, 1946.
“Bertha Brainard, Radio Executive,” The Paley Center for Media, http://www.shemadeit.org/meet/biography.aspx?m=17 (December 17, 2007).