In the early 1930s radio was still much in its infancy as both an entertainment and advertising medium. Most of the ‘serious’ creative work was being directed towards what would become known as the “prime-time hours,” that period of the evening when the entire family would gather around the glowing set and listen to their favorite shows together. The daytime hours were thought to be unimportant for some time, until it was realized that housewives would be at home, often alone or with small children. These women would make most of the purchasing decisions for their families, and they happened to have the radio on during the day for company.
Starting in the Chicago market, stations soon began developing programming for these stay at home women. Initially this took the form of Variety and News/Information programming, but very soon the Daytime Radio Serial format came into being.
Early serials from the Chicago area included Clara, Lu, and Em, the product of three sorority sisters from Northwestern University who initially worked for free; Painted Dreams from Soap Opera Pioneer Irna Phillips (Phillips would create many of the most beloved Soaps of the Radio and Television Age, including The Guiding Light and As the World Turns,) as well as Just Plain Bill and Ma Perkins created by prolific radio producers, Anne and Frank Hummert.
The term Soap Opera has always carried sexist and classist baggage. It has always been a “Women’s Genre,” not only marketing towards housewives, but often it was programming created by and for women. The pace of Radio Soap Opera was often deliberately slowed so the busy housewife could follow while doing her household chores and not worry about missing anything important. The Soap in Soap Opera refers to the cleaning and beauty products that were advertised by the serials. Procter and Gamble, Lever Brothers, and Colgate-Palmolive sponsored and produced Soap Operas.
The Operatic tradition implied in the name should not be discounted. The programs usually tried to be about “everyday” families and problems, but the plot devices and conventions of the Radio Soap Operas took great flights of fancy. There was the escapism of hearing tales of glamorous characters. Often life and death situations occurred in hospital dramas or shows based around the legal profession. Amnesia became a plot device well out of proportion to its occurrence in medical records. Deceit, jealousy, family and financial crisis, even murder became part of the Soap World.
The stereo-type of the housewife allowing the dishes to stack up in the sink while the kids run amuck as she indulges her addiction to Soap Opera stories may or may not be justified. However there is no denying that even today it is great fun to listen and experience these charming and addictive dramas.