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The Nicest Kids in Town

Matt Delmont, Author

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Broadcasting from West Philadelphia, WFIL could not ignore the battles over segregation taking place around its studio and across the city. The station, however, had a vested interest in not presenting visual evidence of these local fights to its regional viewers. Like the Angora Civic Association, WFIL viewed the station’s neighborhood through the lenses of property values and race. Yet while the homeowners groups fought over individual houses and blocks, WFIL’s calculations included millions of homes in the Philadelphia region and the advertisers eager to reach this lucrative market. This meant that WFIL courted viewers not only in Philadelphia and the growing suburban counties outside of the city, but also those across a four-state broadcast region that included parts of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland.

The station called this area “WFIL-adelphia,” and in the early 1950s the station made this phrase the centerpiece of its marketing campaign. Radio and television broadcast signals, of course, do not conform to the geographic or political boundaries of cities, so WFIL was not unique in having a regional audience. WFIL’s use of “WFIL-adelphia” to bring the station, city, and region together under one brand name, however, illuminates the station’s approach to early television and is essential to understanding how Bandstand became segregated.

The “WFIL-adelphia” moniker was part of a larger campaign by Walter Annenberg’s Triangle Publications, Inc. to promote the Delaware Valley as a center for business and industry. In October 1952, the Philadelphia Inquirer (owned by Annenberg) featured an eighty-page pullout magazine on the growth and promise of “Delaware Valley, U.S.A.”

Aimed at the business community, the magazine’s inside cover thanked more than eighty companies for their advertising support. The report, extolling the virtues of the Delaware Valley port and the region’s “steel, oil, textile, auto manufacturing, electronic, and chemical” industries, recalled the nineteenth-century boosterism that helped draw industries to midwestern hubs like St. Louis and Chicago.[i] A full-page world map, for example, illustrated how “raw materials from at least 75 foreign countries funneled into Delaware Valley” port facilities, including cocoa beans and iron ore from Nigeria, marble from Italy, and lumber from Brazil. All routes on the map lead back to the Delaware Valley, the only site labeled in the United States. A large circle marks the region, covering the entire Eastern Seaboard.[ii]

While the Delaware Valley-centric worldview was undoubtedly exaggerated, promoting the Delaware Valley as a place of “amazing, breathless growth” and the “greatest industrial area of the world” also helped to promote the value of Annenberg’s media properties in the region.[iii] Indeed, two full-page advertisements described WFIL as the best way to connect people and potential customer across the Delaware Valley (or “WFIL-adelphia”) region. WFIL promised advertisers that the television station would bring them “5,869,284 customers” across a “27-county area.” The ads described these viewers in explicitly monetary terms: “Advertisers…there’s $6 Billons [sic] waiting for you in WFIL–adelphia. SELL ALL of America’s 3rd market on WFIL-TV. You can really go to town—to hundreds of towns in the rich Philadelphia market—on WFIL-TV…Get the most for your money, the most people for your money. Schedule WFIL-TV.”[iv] West Philadelphia may have been the station’s physical home, but this vast regional “WFIL–adelphia” consumer market was what WFIL sold to Bandstand’s advertisers.

These ads also cast “WFIL-adelphia” as the new “Main Street of Delaware Valley, U.S.A.”:
Turn statistics into people and you’ll find they have a common address: Main Street…MAIN STREET is every town’s link to the world. Today, thanks to electronic science, Main Street goes to the people. And from curb to curb of the Philadelphia Retail Trading area, the busiest Main Street is WFIL-adelphia. The population of this trading zone, as well as a vast area beyond, lives, works and shops in WFIL–adelphia. WFIL–adelphia is a market place—where America’s leading advertisers sell their wares, via WFIL-TV.[v]
In describing “WFIL-adelphia” in this way, the ads re-envisioned the “resonant and symbolic location” of Main Street.[vi] Historian Alison Isenberg has described how “varied downtown investors endeavored to make their own markets and to chart Main Street’s future in order to protect and enhance their stakes.”[vii] Isenberg notes how local newspapers and regional news companies, like Annenberg’s Philadelphia Inquirer and WFIL radio and television stations, had a vested interested in bolstering Main Street’s advertising value and frequently sponsored the Main Street postcards that were ubiquitous in the early twentieth century.[viii] “The ‘place’…illuminated in the postcards was not a brick-and-mortar location,” Isenberg writes, “but rather a territory within Americans' imaginations, a hopeful vision of urban commerce transformed.”[ix] WFIL’s ads imagined the place of Main Street in similar ways. The ads did not make reference to a physical Main Street, but rather to the “5,869,284 customers” in homes dispersed across a “27-county area.” With “WFIL-adelphia,” WFIL promised to use broadcast technology to further transform urban and regional commerce. If Philadelphia could no longer connect businesses, advertisers, and customers on Main Street, “WFIL-adelphia” would provide this safe and prosperous commercial space (Disneyland, of course, also made use of this Main Street ideal to promote a suburban and racially homogenous alternative to urban and multiracial commercial spaces when it opened in 1955).[x]

While not mentioned in the ads, the “WFIL-adelphia” viewers that WFIL promoted to advertisers lived in states that supported racial segregation by both law and custom. Both Maryland and Delaware maintained de jure segregated school systems until the Brown decisions, and resisted court ordered desegregation for another decade thereafter.[xi] Interracial marriage was also illegal in both states until Loving v. Virginia in 1967.[xii] For a station pitching itself as a regional Main Street, the existence of legal segregation in its broadcasting area offered a significant financial incentive to not upset anti-integration sentiment among viewers and advertisers. At the same time, the segregated housing policies in Pennsylvania suburbs also contributed to WFIL’s understanding of “WFIL-adelphia.” The Philadelphia Inquirer’s pullout magazine on the Delaware Valley offered pictures and glowing profiles of housing development under construction in Levittown, Pennsylvania and Fairless Hills, Pennsylvania as evidence that the region was “booming.”[xiii] These neighboring Bucks County developments had policies that prevented blacks from buying homes, making Levittown and Fairless Hills what Charles Abrams termed “closed cities.”[xiv] While “WFIL-adelphia” attempted to reconstitute Main Street in an era of suburbanization, the decision to profile Levittown and Fairness Hills as exemplars of the Delaware Valley re-emphasized that “WFIL-adelphia” would privilege the desires and attitudes of white suburban consumers.

In this way, “WFIL-adelphia” offers an example of how television helped reorganize urban and suburban spaces. As media studies scholar Lynn Spigel has suggested, many postwar commentators argued that television “would allow people to travel from their homes while remaining untouched by the actual social contexts to which they imaginatively ventured.” Television could act as a space-binding tool to promote public culture among viewers living in detached single-family, suburban homes, while also keeping “undesirable” people and topics out of the home. Spigel calls this a “fantasy of antiseptic electrical space.”[xv] “WFIL-adelphia” promised a version of “antiseptic electrical space” to both viewers and advertisers. To viewers, it offered the ideal of Main Street without upsetting their anti-integrationist attitudes. To advertisers, it offered access to a growing market of suburban consumers with disposable income. All the while, WFIL still needed Philadelphia—the economies of scale it provided, the size of its population, and the creative energies of its people—in order to promote “WFIL-adelphia.” The best place to see how WFIL navigated the conflicting demands of “WFIL-adelphia” is the show that became the station’s most popular locally-produced program, Bandstand.

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