The Transformation of the Radio
A Review of Bruce Lenthall’s Radio’s America: The Great Depression and the Rise of Modern Mass Culture
Bruce Lenthall is the director of the Center for Teaching and Learning and adjunct assistant professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania. He earned a Ph.D. in American Studies from Penn and has taught in the history departments at Bryn Mawr College and Barnard College.
BY ERIC NONG
Today, radio is an afterthought of popular culture. Few today remember the origins of the single device which launched a revolution in mass popular culture – a concept that was still undeveloped in its time. Bruce Lenthall’s Radio’s America documents the radio’s impact upon American society during the Great Depression. Throughout the Great Depression, the radio provided a means of escapist entertainment, comfort, and political activism to even the most distant listener. The radio would become the first medium for mass-produced popular culture within the United States and opened several new means of expression for both the common and corporate American. It allowed for the rise of the Central Broadcasting System (CBS, which still operates dozens of radio stations across the United States) and the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) – two media bastions that continue to control popular culture today. Its controversial presence in Depression-era America and its continued relevancy today prove that it is, “the story of the century.”1 Met by vehement criticism and adulation from intellectuals and commoners alike during its speedy ascendance, the radio remains one of the most influential innovations concerning American popular culture.
By the end of the decade, radio would transform itself from a prophetic supposition vaguely introduced in Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward: 2000-1887 into America’s most popular form of communication and individual and familial entertainment. But for Bellamy, “the reality proved far more ambiguous than… anyone ever imagined.”1 No one could predict how consuming and how widespread the radio would become. The radio would provide the first collective medium for entertainment where all Americans – West and East, North and South, urban and rural – could participate and listen together. Radio’s homogenous character concerned a social commentator known as William Orton. Orton asserted that America consisted of a diverse melting pot of minorities with varying interests and necessities. He further attacked the concept of popular mass culture as a flavorless attempt to conform individuals to a mundane, uncultured taste. In addition, James Rorty, a leftist commentator, believed that the mass production of mass culture endangered the tastes and creativity of the individual. The centralized nature of the radio hurt liberals. Orton and Rorty were not alone in their criticisms. Liberal opinion journals such as the New Republic and the Nation also opposed the increasing mass production of entertainment within radio networks. Indeed, ninety percent of all radio stations in the United States during the 1930s were owned by either CBS or NBC – essentially monstrous monopolies. Both networks emphasized their desire to attain massive audiences for their programs. However, little planning was ever included to expand audience shares. In response, Orton suggested a nationalization of the radio industry, something akin to Great Britain’s management of the BBC. Popular culture spawning from radio also came under fire from African American intellectuals and the NAACP’s opinion journal The Crisis. For example, a weekly sitcom dubbed Amos ‘n’ Andy inspired resentment from the NAACP with its egregiously derogatory depictions of African Americans. These depictions were mostly the decisions of networking executives, federal regulatory agencies. Inter-network prejudice also contributed to the lack of African American presence on radio airwaves. Famed Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes would write: “‘[Radio] continues to keep alive the stereotype of the dialect-speaking amiably-moronic Negro servant as the chief representative of our racial group on the air.’”2 Historiography has allowed for the advent of dissenting opinions over the radio. As the radio’s popularity has dwindled since the 1930s, historians are more likely to look at the negative aspects of the radio. Social commentators like William Orton and James Rorty have been given more credence as time has progressed. Lenthall’s inclusion of diverging outlooks on the radio’s impact is an intriguing and refreshing aspect of his book.
Yet, radio’s listeners would admire the personalized nature of the medium. By 1940, eighty-six percent of American households had at least one radio set. Since New York City networks dominated their affiliates’ airwaves, Americans felt that they could participate in a national community through their radios. During the entirety of the Great Depression, CBS and NBC aired news segments nightly, allowing Americans to become more politically active than ever before. For the first time, they could participate in live events and enjoy performances from the same artists and musicians. Individuals like comedian Jack Benny, singer/actor Bing Crosby, NBC Symphony conductor Leopold Stokowski (who would be chosen to record Walt Disney’s Fantasia at decade’s end), and the controversial (and boisterous) Father Charles Edward Coughlin became household names. Quiz shows like Vox Pop and soap operas including The Story of Mary Marlin garnered passionate, devoted fan bases. Various characters from soap operas would be seen as fellow family members to dedicated radio families. In sports, boxer Joe Louis became a national hero throughout the mid to late 1930s with twenty-seven consecutive victories – twenty-three of which were knockouts. His twenty-eighth bout became the first instance of the politicization of a sporting event. But on June 19, 1936, Joe Louis faced Nazi Germany’s Max Schmeling for the World Heavyweight Championship in Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. Louis would be defeated to the unmitigated despair of the American people and to the ecstasy of the German people and the supposed triumph of Adolf Hitler’s racial theories. Louis and Schmeling would meet again in 1938 under the same circumstances – Americans backed Louis to avenge his, and their, defeat. In this second bout, Louis knocked out Schmeling in two minutes, four seconds. A black man and democracy had defeated a white man and totalitarianism – the result sent fanatic rapture across the United States. The 1930s inspired a, “new sense of personal connection and individual significance through the air.”3 As Americans listened to live sporting events, enjoyed the same soap operas and sitcoms, and listened to the same music. Though, radio did not solely provide a means of escapist entertainment for Americans.
Thus, Benny, Crosby, Stokowski, Coughlin, and Louis weren’t the only celebrities on American radio. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt – affectionately nicknamed “Mr. New Deal” – utilized the radio for his Fireside chats. Fourteen of Roosevelt’s thirty fireside chats took place during the 1930s. This became known as Roosevelt’s pre-planned “democratic theater” for America.4 Though FDR presented himself to the common American, the common American could not present himself to FDR. Despite the one-way nature of the people’s and Roosevelt’s relationship, it didn’t stop Americans from inviting Roosevelt into their living rooms and kitchens every several months. His optimistic and easily comprehensible speech appealed to a distressed American people. For Roosevelt, he had two goals in mind concerning his radio addresses: he wanted to expand his power and, most importantly, he wished to educate Americans to become more politically active. Roosevelt sensed that a majority of Americans felt that Washington was a cold, apathetical creature hundreds or possibly thousands of miles away, unable and unwilling to attempt to improve the lives of millions across the country. He shrewdly realized that millions of Americans were deprived of any information concerning the soon-to-be omnipresent legislation and details soon affecting their lives. Born into a wealthy New York family, Roosevelt decided to be involved with fellow Americans’ plights – he refused to be seen as an aloof figure to the common American. These common Americans could find a friend in Roosevelt. Roosevelt’s fireside chats inspired lesser-known politicians to deliver similar addresses over radio networks. However, Lenthall barely mentions these other political pioneers in his book. Nevertheless, these politicians and their radio addresses were crucial to the minds of millions of Americans. However, these radio addresses – especially FDR’s fireside chats – were best remembered for bringing an intimacy into a foreboding and seemingly disastrous future for the United States. But most importantly, these broadcasts offered comfort to down-and-out Americans where comfort was in short supply.
As the radio expanded into America’s favorite medium for mass entertainment and culture, the federal government realized that they needed to regulate radio airwaves. The Communications Act of 1934 (considered one of the final First New Deal acts) was intended to address the concerns about the quality of educational and social services offered by radio networks. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) – still regulating American forms of mass communication today – became the first instance where the government decided to intervene in the decisions of radio programming. However, the FCC should not be confused with having to intervene in the racial representation and depictions in several programs at the time. Mostly, the network executives determined how non-white races would be depicted. The FCC did little to address race. These radio corporations dictated what they would air – they held the right to refuse to air programs with questionable content. An inevitable clash of interests between reformists and corporations wanting mass audiences ensued. Thus, modernist screenplay writer flourished. Their narratives stressed conformity and not individuality. This is Lenthall’s most undeveloped section of the book. Phillip Napoli from Business History Review magazine claims that, “disappointingly absent from his account is any considerations of how early policymakers thought about the medium as they attempted to structure… [a] regulatory apparatus.”5 Lendol Calder of The Historian concurs; he also believes the legal implications of regulatory agencies such as the FCC are often understated throughout Lenthall’s book. Thus, the increased homogenization of the content of radio programming contributed to the strength of pro-American messages. Political philosophy – though apparently absent in most radio programming – and entertainment were not so easily separated. Anti-fascist programs like Orson Welles’ production of Julius Caesar engaged audiences and became extremely popular among many Americans. Hitler’s actions in World War II further strengthened antifascist messages. The FCC’s regulatory policies may have contributed to the demise of some narrative genres (the most notable being the gangster narrative), one similar genre was never touched upon. Drawing its roots from German expressionist cinema and melodramatic crime novels, the noir (“noir” means “dark” in French) coupled cynicism with ethical and sexual ambiguity. Noirs became the closest depictions of 1930s America than any other narrative genre. By the end of the decade, noirs had made the gradual transition to movies. The continued popularity of silent movies had stunted the noir’s transition into “talkies” (Charlie Chaplin being one of the most obstinate, releasing his first “talkie,” The Great Dictator, in 1940) – a motion picture with synchronized visuals and sound. In 1941, Orson Welles’ masterpiece, Citizen Kane – often considered the unofficial greatest movie of all time – became the most successful noir prototypes for later Hollywood noirs. Three years earlier, on October 30, 1938, Welles had shaken millions, not through film, but through the radio. That Halloween Eve, Welles narrated an adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds on CBS’ theatrical series Mercury Theater on the Air. Welles’ news bulletin approach to the narrative breathed reality into what was fantasy. For a handful of listeners, the broadcast was too much to bear. Several suicides, instances of heart attacks, pandemonium, and overcrowded phone lines ensued. However, Welles’ broadcast was competing with the most popular program of 1938, The Charles Edgar Bergen-Charlie McCarthy Show. Only six of 130 million Americans tuned into Welles’ adaptation of The War of the Worlds. If a greater proportion of Americans had listened that Halloween Eve, the ramifications and consequences could have been unthinkable. In response, Welles challenged whether or not, “[the] people could remain empowered in a society in which radio held commanding authority.”5 Some like photographer Beaumont and Nancy Newhall ignored Welles’ concerns, they praised Welles for his: “‘courageous and unceasing experimentation in America’s most original and promising art-form – radio.’”6 Were critics like Orton and Rorty correct in their analyses of the radio’s overreaching impact? Welles’s Halloween Eve broadcast marked the pinnacle of the radio’s impact upon American popular culture. From here, no subsequent radio broadcast would ever achieve the impact or irrational reaction that The War of the Worlds achieved. This is not to say The War of the Worlds marked the passing of the pinnacle of the radio’s impact on America.
Lenthall asserts that Americans in the early Depression, “suffered not only from economic deprivation, but also from information deprivation,” and had little, “understanding the economic and political affairs that governed their lives…. [divorcing] them from meaningful democratic participation.”7 Roosevelt corrected this disconcerting aspect of American society. His fireside chats offered hope in the midst of widespread despair and information to the uninformed. In a decade where the United States could possibly have been destroyed economically, Americans expressed their appreciation of the federal government by tuning into president Roosevelt’s fireside chats every several months. Along with a sense of a collective American community, the radio fostered a sense of self-autonomy. Individuals had their favorite shows and listened faithfully to their favorite programs. The radio confronted a national chaos in the 1930s and emerged victorious because it became personalized. Crucial to everyday life, even children aspired to be like their favorite radio role models. As they gathered around their radio sets nightly to listen to evening news broadcasts (the forerunners of American evening television news programs), variety shows, musical performances, soap operas, sitcoms, and noirs, Americans participated in an ever-growing national society. An Angelino could find a commonality with a New Yorker with the radio. News anchors and fictional characters became unmistakable parts, even unofficial members, of the family. This sort of personalization of a cultural medium would be seen again in television. But neither television, nor any sort of subsequent cultural medium reached a greater proportion of Americans that did the radio.
It is a simple idea – a box broadcasting a voice or an event from possibly thousands of miles away. Throughout the 1930s, the radio brought Americans together in an increasingly aloof and isolated society. Radio’s seemingly unstoppable march continued throughout the 1940s and World War II as it continued to cater to the needs of Americans. The radio defined a generation. With eighty-six percent of all households owning a radio, the radio’s impact was virtually inescapable. Nowadays, radio has been relegated to a tertiary position on the popular culture hierarchy – now trailing television and the seemingly unstoppable advent of the Internet. But despite these newfound challenges from the Internet, television, and so-called “digital radio” and “Internet radio,” radio remains a relevant part of American mass culture. Though unable to reach the proportion of American as Roosevelt did, both Democratic and Republican Parties continue to follow FDR’s precedent by setting forth weekly national radio addresses over radio airwaves. Even Welles’ narration of The War of the Worlds is syndicated by several radio stations across the United States. Remnants of CBS’ once-colossal radio empire still remain (notables in the Southland include KROQ and KRTH). Radio’s place in American history, despite today’s immediate challenges in the realm of popular culture, has been cemented decades ago.
1: Lenthall, Bruce. Radio’s America: The Great Depression and the Rise of Modern Mass Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago press, 2007. 17.
Eric Nong is a junior at Irvine High School. His hobbies include playing the piano and violin and playing soccer on the weekends. He is currently in Irvine High’s Symphonic Orchestra.
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