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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,559

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This is the grave of George Arthur Richards.

Born in 1889 in Crete, Illinois, Richards did not grow up with much. He dropped out of school at the age of 14 to move to Chicago for work. He took a job as an elevator operator. For years, he bounced around all sorts of jobs. In 1911, he took a salesman job with Firestone, the tire company. He stuck with this and rose fast in the company. He became the manager of Firestone’s store in Columbus, Ohio the next year and then became part of its sales department in Detroit, which of course included all its best customers. He stayed with Firestone until 1921, when he left to start a series of dealerships for Cunningham cars, which is a long forgotten brand, having closed up shop in 1931. He also sold Oaklands, which was a GM brand that also ended in 1931, merged with Pontiac.

The point here is that Richards was creating himself a little empire in the car industry. But he wasn’t as excited about cars as he was about another new technology of the time: radio. He sold his dealerships in 1929 to focus on radio. Whether it was a good or bad time to sell in the car industry, I am not completely sure. Good I would think. But radio was most certainly a good financial move, as the Depression took away a lot of things, but people often held onto their radios.

Richards got into radio through realizing the possibility of advertising as a powerful tool. That’s how he built his car dealership. He also thought it would be interesting to make money on advertising rather than spend money on it. In 1926, he bought WJR in Detroit and by 1935, it was a 5,000 watt station with a clear channel signal. Then he created WGAR in Cleveland, named for himself of course. This made him one of the most powerful radio men in the United States. Using that power, he first created some very popular programs that could get a lot of listenership and thus make him a lot of money. That included Wings over Jordan, which was a program of Black gospel music using a choir that was extremely popular, broadcasting the already excellent Cleveland Symphony Orchestra, and comedy shows that included starting Jack Paar’s career.

None of this would be interesting enough to merit a post in this series. But Richards was the 1930s version of the Buddy Garrity Republican, the “self-made” white man who sees the world as filled with enemies trying to take what is rightfully his and willing to promote any politics that would stop what he really hated–the New Deal. In short, Richards used his radio empire to blast out Father Charles Coughlin’s fascist messages. Now, Coughlin was already on the radio in the 20s. But it was Richards who personally suggested to Coughlin that he make his show more political, at a time when the priest was wavering on that and considering just making it a show about Catholicism. Richards was effectively a fascist himself and so urged Coughlin to save the nation from the horrors of FDR.

Oh, and Richards also created the Detroit Lions. Whether that or Coughlin has been a greater curse on the history of Michigan is up to the reader. He sold the team in 1940 and it has been all glory ever since.

Richards moved to Los Angeles, which was a reactionary city at that time, or at least the elites sure were. So he fit in just fine. Now, Richards’ horribleness eventually did come back to haunt him a bit. He was a bitter angry anti-Semite, among his other charms. In 1948, Billboard ran a exposé of the way Richards slanted the news to promote his far-right ideas and his long habit of assuming every Jew was also a communist. He wanted his news team to find any story hating on Jews they could and promote the heck out of it. By this time, there were plenty of people willing to speak out against the fascist. Richards had fired a reporter for giving an unflattering view of Douglas MacArthur and said reporter was happy to talk about it. This led to the FCC getting involved and holding public hearings about Richards.

Now, it’s worth noting that this was a terrible time for liberals in American life. The McCarthy era was rising, even if he wasn’t yet famous. So it wasn’t necessarily expected that hearings against a powerful anti-Semite and reactionary in American life who was constantly attacking communism was going to work to hold the fascist accountable. But it did. Employees talked about Richards thought there was a giant Jewish plot against him led by media executives Bill Paley, David Sarnoff, and Robert Kitner. When his stations started playing be-bop, Richards personally intervened to stop the evil Negro music from affecting the ears of good white Americans. Now, Richards had his defenders. Styles Bridges, the right-wing senator from New Hampshire demanded an investigation into the FCC for attacking Richards over his politics. Plus it’s not as if Bridges saw anything wrong in anything Richards said or did. But others denounced Richards on the floor of Congress.

In 1951, this came to a conclusion. The FCC ordered Richards’ empire broken up, saying he had used the public airwaves to promote his own political agenda (my god, can you imagine this happening to Rupert Murdoch today). As it happened, Richards’ health had been terrible for years and shortly after this ruling, he died, at the age of 62. In the aftermath, his wife agreed with the FCC to run the stations in a more fair way and eventually the family sold off the stations.

George Richards is buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale, California. This grave is worth a discussion too. This is a special grave site in an area given over to the favorites of the people who ran the cemetery. It has the big beautiful stained glass windows and these special graves. We will get to a couple of other people here too. It’s a fairly random group, but I think it’s worth noting that a man like Richards really did fit in with the southern California elite, which was as reactionary as you could find anywhere in the country.

If you would like this series to visit other American reactionaries, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Charles Coughlin is in Southfield, Michigan and Robert Welch is in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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