The affable host finished telling his last story of the day, wished a good night to all the children in his audience, and sang his familiar
hold the little bastards!” Unfortunately for the ill-fated host, the engineer was late in cutting to the station break, and the host’s disparaging remark was picked up by the still-open microphone and broadcast into millions of homes. The station was immediately flooded with thousands of telegrams from outraged listeners, and the humiliated host was fired before the day was out, never to broadcast again. Disgraced beyond redemption, he lived out the rest of his life in obscurity and died, an impoverished drunk, several years later.
Everyone has heard this story. And almost everyone who has heard this story has a friend or relative (a parent or grandparent, perhaps) who remembers actually hearing the infamous broadcast. At the very least, most everyone knows someone who recalls the national uproar caused by the incident, or who remembers reading about the firing of the hapless host in the newspaper. Very few of the people who recollect this event could tell you the name of that unlucky host, however, or recall the year the notorious broadcast took place. And even if you managed to find a few individuals who could supply some of these particulars, you probably wouldn’t get the same answers from any two of them. How is it that so few people can provide any specifics about such a widely-known incident? Why do so many people unquestioningly accept accounts of this event as true, in spite of all the disparities and missing details? The answer is that this tale is one of the most well-known pieces of modern folklore
To begin with, this story seems to have been attributed, at one time or another, to virtually everyone who ever hosted a show for youngsters on radio or television. Adults who grew up in America during the years of radio’s prominence between the wars tend to name whichever local children’s host they listened to or were most familiar with as the culprit. Those who grew up after television became a fixture in American households are likely to identify one of the many ubiquitous kiddie TV personalities as the guilty party. Folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand, in one of his popular books of urban legends, provides a prime example of this phenomenon. After devoting a few pages on the legend to letters debunking the notion that this incident took place on a Bozo the Clown television show, Brunvand offers his own recollections: “To tell the truth, I always thought that the host of my own favorite kids’ radio show, ‘Happy Hank’ (heard in Lansing, Michigan,
As radio rapidly gained in popularity during the early 1920s commercial stations began creating programming specifically for children, leading to the rise of numerous radio “uncles”, “aunts”, and “brothers”, broadcasters who related stories and songs and acted out skits with regular characters they invented for a largely preschool audience. These shows typically aired in the hours after school, on Saturday mornings, and in the early weekday evenings. 2 By far the longest-lived and most well known of these children’s hosts was
working as an announcer, vocal handyman, and stand-by pianist When a toy manufacturer came to WOR one day looking for a children’s show to sponsor, Carney was tapped to audition for them. The routine he threw together in a few hours impressed the sponsors, and Don Carney was soon launched on a new career as the beloved kiddie host
Even before we begin any investigation into a possible factual basis for this legend, we can already determine that the repercussion aspect of the legend
What if we proceed from the assumption that Don Carney somehow managed to avoid paying a price for his blunder? Perhaps he was too popular a personality
. . . [Uncle Don] would part with plenty to be rid of the persistent but apocryphal tale that one day, when he mistakenly thought he was off the air after a particularly luscious cluster of clichés and commercials, he sighed and said: “There! I guess that’ll hold the little bastards.” 7
An even earlier debunking of this legend appeared in an article written by Alton Cook, Radio Editor of The New York World Telegram, in the
The story has been told and retold but the whole thing is untrue. A Baltimore columnist made it up one dull afternoon and used
The most famous chapter in WOR history concerns
The story has been told and retold but the whole thing is untrue. A Baltimore columnist made it up one dull afternoon and used
Even if we take these samples to be nothing more than denials made out of professional courtesy to a fellow media figure, they clearly demonstrate that the
But what about the thousands of children and adults who claim to have been listening to the actual broadcast when
The contradictory nature of alleged personal accounts of the broadcast is further demonstrated by this excerpt from Sidney Skolsky’s syndicated column “Hollywood Is My Beat” of
It was back in the winter of On this particular occasion, I was to follow Well, he wasn’t off the air! The nation-wide reaction to his blunt statement raised a furor that impaired his celebrated program. Only after a
“I’ve just run across your reference to
It was back in the winter of
On this particular occasion, I was to follow
Well, he wasn’t off the air! The nation-wide reaction to his blunt statement raised a furor that impaired his celebrated program. Only after a
On the surface, this would appear to be a fairly credible account of the incident in question. It comes from someone purportedly in the broadcasting business, working at the same station as
Those who lived outside the
- The paucity of brand products aimed at young children and marketed on a national basis made finding sufficient sponsorship to keep the show profitable a continual difficulty.
- Broadcasting to large, geographically dispersed audience spread across different time zones fouled up the birthday mailings, hiding of presents by conspiring mothers, and other popular features of the show.
- The popularity of
Uncle Don’sshow was heavily dependent on local publicity and local interest (including his frequent and numerous personal appearances before listeners) that just could not be sustained with such a vast audience. 19
What have other researchers had to say about this topic? Given the tremendous number of articles, books, and encyclopedias devoted to radio that have been produced over the years, surely someone would have turned up information supporting the claim of the “little bastards” incident as a true one if it had actually occurred. It doesn’t appear that anyone has, however. Buxton and Owen, in their reference work on radio have this to say about the story: “None of it is true, even though you can find people today who swear they heard
More importantly, those persons who unquestionably know whether or not the infamous words were ever spoken on the
But if Uncle Don isn’t the source of the infamous quip, why has his name become so inextricably intertwined with the legend? One simple reason is that urban legends involving public figures or companies and their products, true or not, tend to gravitate towards the biggest and most famous examples of each type: thus any legend about fast food hamburgers eventually comes to be told about McDonald’s, and most of the racy anecdotes about talk show hosts that have circulated within the last forty years have been attributed to Johnny Carson.
The whole thing might have died down after Don Carney’s death
Uncle Don got his place in the sun on
One problem with Schafer’s “authenticity”: he didn’t distinguish between actual audio clips and recreations of broadcast events that were widely believed to have occurred, but for which no recording existed. The liner notes on his albums simply stated:
The material in this recording is authentic and was gathered from kinescopes, sound tracks, video tapes and other boni-fide sources.
Small wonder, then, that when Schafer fabricated an “authentic” recording of
Even if Uncle Don were not involved in the incident, what about the possibility that some other host actually was? Although the exact origins of the story may always remain unclear, it evidently dates back to the earliest days of radio, and even then it was told about a multitude of hosts and not one personality in particular. Carney’s biographer claims to have first heard the story in 1931, 36 and Don Carney himself said he first heard the tale told about Graham McNamee back in the late 1920s. 37 Buxton and Owen report that the same story was attributed to two other radio performers of the time: “Uncle John” Daggett of KHJ in
The true origins of this anecdote are made even murkier by a mysterious little article that appeared in the
A wisecracking radio announcer in a Philadelphia station lost his job about two weeks ago as a result of a stern reprimand of the station by the Federal Radio Commission. Announcer had concluded a bed-time story for children and thought the power was off. For the benefit of the control room he added: ‘I hope that pleases the little b______.’ This went out over the air. Within
A wisecracking radio announcer in a Philadelphia station lost his job about two weeks ago as a result of a stern reprimand of the station by the Federal Radio Commission. Announcer had concluded a bed-time story for children and thought the power was off. For the benefit of the control room he added: ‘I hope that pleases the little b______.’
This went out over the air. Within
This item looks as if it could possibly be the actual source of the “little bastards” legend. It is the only article to appear in a major publication and (claim to) report the event at the time it happened. Upon closer inspection, however, one notices that the wording contains several features typical of urban legends. There is a curious lack of detail for an event that supposedly happened only “two weeks ago”: no specific host is named, no particular radio station is identified, and no date is provided, even though the story is supposedly quite recent. Just enough information is supplied (an approximate date of “about two weeks ago” and the name of a city) to lend the story an aura of authenticity. Moreover, telegrams of protest allegedly started arriving “within
A few radio writers have suggested that the Variety article does in fact report a real-life incident, with the culprit being
- Where are the press articles about
Uncle Wip’sremark and his subsequent firing? WIP was a prominent radio station in a large city, and Uncle Wipwas a well-known character whose program had started way back in 1921. 44 Why is it that no publication outside of Variety — noteven one of the several Philadelphia newspapers of the day — reportedon the incident? The lack of press coverage is troublesome in itself, but even more suspicious is the fact that no one seems to have connected the name of Uncle Wipwith this rumor until twenty years later. 45 As mentioned earlier, such retroactive reporting is often a sign that the event being described is apocryphal.
- The phrase supposedly uttered by
Uncle Wiphas been reported as “I’m a s-o-bif this isn’t a hell of a job for a he-man”46 (or “I’m a bastard if this isn’t one hell of a job for a he-man!”).47 Not only are these not the words made famous by legend, but they’re not even the words reported in the Variety article. It’s hard to believe the story could have changed that much in the few weeks’ time between the actual occurrence and Variety’s coverage of it — eitherthe “little bastards” version was invented during that brief two-week period, or it was an extant legend. Since the Variety article is at odds with other accounts of what Uncle Wipallegedly said, and since the Variety article is the primary source for associating Uncle Wip’sname with the incident in the first place, the Uncle Wipvariant must be considered apocryphal as well.
If the legend isn’t based on any real-life occurrence, then just how did it get started? One obvious explanation is that it was made up out of whole cloth, an example of the “famous person is the opposite of what he appears to be” type of rumor. These kinds of rumors frequently arise about celebrities perceived by the public as having achieved tremendous success too easily, by blandly appealing to the lowest common denominator of popular tastes or by creating innocuous programming for children. (Prominent examples include modern-day rumors about popular singers John Denver and Mariah Carey.) Robert
Another explanation, perhaps far-fetched, is that this rumor might in some way have to do with a fear of technology. Horror stories involving technological mishaps (such as the infamous “poodle in the microwave” legend) often arise after inventions based on new technologies take hold in society. With the advent of commercial radio, it became possible for the first time for a performer to make an embarrassing (or career-ending) mistake live, to an audience of millions. A flub committed while shooting a movie could be eliminated merely by filming another take; a gaffe made on the stage was seen by no more than a few thousand people. This new radio technology was dangerous, however: an unfortunate remark could instantly reach huge audiences over wide areas, and once it was said there was no way of retracting it. The “little bastards” rumor may not have ruined Don Carney’s career, but it certainly has unfairly sullied his reputation for nearly seventy years now.
Last updated: 5 August 2007
1. Brunvand, 185.
2. MacDonald, 43.
3. Boemer, 201.
4. The New York Times, 16 January 1954.
5. Buxton and Owen, 246.
6. The New York Times, 16 January 1954.
7. Time, October 9, 1939.
8. The New York World Telegram, March 2, 1935.
9. Variety, April 23, 1930, p. 71.
10. Treadwell, p. 77.
11. Treadwell, p. 55.
12. Skolsky, July 24, 1957.
13. Dunning, p. 622.
14. The New York Times, 16 January 1954.
15. The New York Times, 16 January 1954.
16. Treadwell, pp. 55-6.
17. Treadwell, p. 79.
18. Variety, April 23, 1930, p. 71.
19. Treadwell, pp. 55-6.
20. Buxton and Owen, 247.
21. St. John, p. 180.
22. Dunning, p. 622.
23. MacDonald, p. 372.
24. The New York Times, 16 January 1954.
25. Dunning, pp. 622-3.
26. Treadwell, p. 77.
27. Treadwell, p. 76.
28. Treadwell, p. x.
29. Treadwell, p. x.
30. Miller, p. 92.
31. Buxton and Owen, 246.
32. Dunning, p. 623.
33. The New York World Telegram, March 2, 1935.
34. Buxton and Owen, 246.
35. Treadwell, p. 78.
36. Treadwell, p. 78.
37. Treadwell, p. 77.
38. Buxton and Owen, 247.
39. Taylor, p. 20.
40. Variety, April 23, 1930, p. 71.
41. Taylor, p. 20.
42. Miller, p. 93.
43. MacDonald, p. 43.
44. Miller, p. 93.
45. MacDonald, p. 373.
46. Miller, p. 93.
47. Gross, p. 93.
48. St. John, p. 180.
49. Treadwell, pp. 78-9.