St. Louisan Was A Radio Soap Pioneer
He was a newspaper man in St. Louis. She was a much younger woman who had never heard of him until she started working with him later at a Chicago ad agency. They became the husband/wife team who literally set the broadcast standard for a programming genre.
The two were depicted as “run-of-the-mill types” in the book “Frank and Anne Hummert’s Radio Factory” by former professor and radio researcher Jim Cox.
Frank Hummert decided to leave his job as a “journalist” with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1911 to form his own ad agency in St. Louis. After a couple more professional moves, he took a lucrative writing position in the Chicago agency Blackett, Sample & Hummert. Anne Ashenhurst was soon hired as his assistant. Six years later they were married, and the two started Hummert Productions, which was responsible for the creation of over 30 well-known radio soap operas, as well as countless other children’s musical, comedy and mystery shows.
Surprisingly, their first truly successful soaper effort was introduced to the radio audience as a nighttime drama. “Just Plain Bill” went on the air in 1932. Network executives had wrongly believed that women were so busy during the day that they couldn’t afford the luxury of paying attention to a radio show. Moving the program to afternoons proved that theory wrong. At the height of the Hummerts’ career, they had 36 different shows on the air, which accounted for one-eighth of all national radio advertising time.
The process, once put into place, was simple. The couple outlined each plot, then turned the outlines over to their stable of writers, who incorporated knowledge of each character, along with sponsor demands for inclusion, into the plots and finished the scripts. Frank and Anne watched over their empires like the proverbial hawks, sending memoranda when performances failed to meet their standards. Writing later in “Variety” magazine, Robert Landry nailed down one of the secrets of the couple’s success: “It appears that the Hummerts were extremely astute operators in terms of giving sponsors a simple, inexpensive, unobjectionable type of program.”
Anne Hummert told a Chicago Tribune reporter that it was her husband’s vision that was responsible for their success. “The technique of these serials, she ascribes to her husband. For it was he, she says, who perfected it, taught it to her and worked with her.”
For the most part, Cox writes, the Hummert operation was one in which pennies were pinched. The writing was done assembly line style, and the wages paid were below those of other program producers. The same held true for talent fees. On the other hand, it was solid, relatively secure work. And Cox notes that, during the blacklisting associated with Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Red Scare hearings, the Hummert’s company paid no attention to whose names appeared on the lists of purported communist sympathizers, putting the Hummerts in a distinct minority in the entertainment world.
The couple were, he says, dedicated, to and consumed by their work, “These people lived as recluses, in quiet solitude with few if any real friends. They weren’t invited to parties, they seldom appeared in public for such things as Broadway shows, and they evidenced a lifestyle that was built around 14-hour workdays seven days a week.” No one, not even the Hummerts, pretended to produce a highly intellectual product. It may have been mundane, but it was successful.
When network radio withered away in the shadow of television, no effort was made to move to the new medium. Their biographer, Jim Cox, notes that the Hummerts lived out their lives enjoying the wealth they had accumulated. They traveled the world until Frank’s death in March of 1996, a passing that was kept from the press for several weeks at the widow’s request. Cox says, “I think she probably didn’t want anybody to know she was going to have to face the world alone after he died. For maybe 35 years what they shared together had been her whole life. They focused upon building personal wealth at the expense of everything else.”
Their entire collection of scripts and personal papers is held at the University of Wyoming.
(Reprinted with permission of the St. Louis Journalism Review. Originally published 2/2007)