Amos and Andy Popularity

Was Amos ‘n’ Andy as controversial as it was popular, or the other way around? Both the large listenership the show enjoyed and the blistering criticism in endured date almost to its very inception.

But perhaps part of the fuel for the fires of controversy was the fact that the program was more than a popular entertainment. It was an American institution.

The show was designed to run nationwide--Gosden and Correll had that goal for its predecessor, Sam ‘n’ Henry. Legalities caused them to change that show’s name, and when they did, they hit the ground running, quickly licensing their hit show Amos ‘n’ Andy to forty stations nationwide. It wasn’t long before they’d be picked up by NBC. In less than three months, 60% of all radio listeners were tuning in to Amos ‘n’ Andy. By 1931 it commanded an audience of 40 million listeners, one-third of the entire U.S. population.

The program boasts dozens of stories of rabid behavior testifying to its grip on the Depression-addled nation. Not only did it garner numerous mentions in The Congressional Record, a daily log of U.S. Congressional debates and other activity, but it was reportedly so dear to President Calvin Coolidge that he often ducked out of state dinners to catch broadcasts. One doctor is said to have written a letter to his patients asking them not to disturb him during the broadcasts, while movie theatres and department stores piped the show through their p.a. systems. And though this may stretch credulity, reports say that various municipal sewer pipes saw a drastic decrease in labor between 7:00 and 7:15 p.m.

Amos ‘n’ Andy may have been popular for reasons other than sheer comic output. NBC president Merlin H. Aylesworth said of Gosden and Correll, “[t]hey’re great; but there’s one thing odd about them: they don’t have any jokes.” Gosden’s own take was, “we were after the creation of characters, not gags.” John F. Royal, an NBC exec during part of the show’s run, added, “[y]ou could relax listening to them. They didn’t force a lot of humor on you.”

The show instead gave listeners relatively likeable characters, with the calming continuity that comes from knowing what to expect from night to night. Gosden and Correll can be credited with pioneering the concept of causing listeners (and later this would apply to viewers) to consider characters to be family, or at least nightly guests in their home.

Further, the empty-pocketed nature of Amos and Andy, which they tended to suffer with good humor, was a comfort to an American public white-knuckling its way through a busted economy.

Clearly, by doing something unthinkable in today’s culture, white actors voicing down-and-out black characters, they struck a few chords. White listeners may have, for various reasons, enjoyed having Amos and Andy as guests in their homes, feeling they were getting a peek into a world that in many cases was otherwise unavailable.
A percentage of Black listeners apparently appreciated the portrayals, even though we are aware of the protests and the disapproval the show would later get.

And perhaps the controversy itself drove many listeners to the show, listeners primed to be moved one way or another.

While ratings would dip, the program enjoyed a tremendously long run on both radio and television, and went down in history as one of the most famous radio programs of all time.

  • Andrews, Bart and Ahrgus Juilliard. Holy Mackerel. New York: Dutton. 1986.