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Baby Broadcasting

A relatively mysterious man, Hugh Richard Slotten is the author of many books based on the policies and practices of early broadcasting.  His book, Radio’s Hidden Voice: the Origins of Public Broadcasting in the United States, has won awards such as the Best Book in Journalism and Mass Communication, which was given by the History Division of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) in 2010.

Hugh Richard Slotten’s historical book, Radio’s Hidden Voice, analyzed the early days of radio – starting with the educational vocations of radio producers at universities across America in the 1920s. Although the scope of his view was narrow and dealt mainly with the 1920s, Slotten adeptly shares his knowledge of the early practices and legislature surrounding radio in the 30s and 40s.  His view of radio policy encompassed the use of radio for educational purposes as well as public information and political talk radio.

Slotten’s book began with an in-depth look at the original use of radio broadcasting – educational expansion in universities. Colleges in the Midwest used radio waves to transmit information to students in their homes, miles away from the college itself. The information broadcasted pertained to classes, primarily those of an agricultural persuasion, and enhanced the ability of colleges like the Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts to be leaders in a new age of communication.  The new age of radio also brought in competition from corporations and commercial companies looking to make quick money.  Since there were only two frequencies in the early days of radio broadcasting, any stations wanting to be heard had to fight for a spot, or a time slot.  This prevalent competition required university stations to pay more money to compete with commercial radio stations. Stations were “encouraged to fill its schedule by taking advantage of local talent” and to “broadcast dinner hour orchestra concerts”1. This use of university and local resources led to the use of music, and occurrences such as weather and local events being broadcast to the public.

Slotten moves on to explain the new policies Congress put in place to regulate radio in the 1920s. The presence of only two frequencies meant that a moderator was necessary to determine when a station could broadcast.  The US Government created the Federal Radio Commission to maintain peace on the air. The 1912 Radio Act “upheld radio waves for serious purposes” – government and military use.2 Commercial radio gained a lead in the fight with public access radio in this way, because they could argue that they had “more important” than other broadcasts and stations.  The government was not concerned with public and university stations and their survival, as much as they were concerned about getting kickbacks from commercial stations. Herbert Hoover was influential in forming a formal bond between the federal government and the broadcasting radio stations. As Secretary of Commerce, Hoover played almost the same role as the FRC in that he moderated the powers of radio stations and communications companies. When AT&T proposed to him the idea of a regulated monopoly on broadcasting, he sternly refused; he believed that the contained power would result in an uncontrollable monopoly over all public communication.  There were too many small, public stations to control or shut down all of them.

Reform of the radio stations resulted from overwhelming public dismay at the quality of broadcasting. “As the FRC was supporting the consolidation of commercial, network broadcasting … listeners were not happy with the trend.”³ Radio reform came about during the American Progressive Movement; this time was characterized by dramatic changes in foreign and domestic policy, as well as social reform and a shift in fundamental thinking.  The commercialization of radio was seen as a menace to the entire community, and the Association of College and University Broadcasting Stations. Stations associated with this group concerned themselves with the education aspect of radio.  The 1930s, a time of depression and loss for the American people, necessitated demand for entertainment on the radio to be heard in households across the nation.  Failures ensued with the reform of radio in the 1930s – such as the lumping together of stations into categories and cases.  These failures are characteristic of most of the reform efforts, not related to the destruction of commercial radio groups.

During the late 1930s and 1940s, radio practice experienced a fundamental shift in programming. A “round table” program appeared on the University of Chicago radio station, marking the resurgence of a traditional, talk radio program.“The program was originated by T.V. Smith, who went on to be a regular participant on the program for nearly a decade.”4 The round table was designed to keep the public happy and informed. It was a way to discuss current news and maintain an air of democracy while conversing.   As far as participants go, three seemed to be the perfect number, because it allowed for a balance of political views, in combination with a balance in the walks of life of the participants in the conversation.  The university contrasted its round table talks with other political talk shows from corporations such as CBS and NBC, in an effort to show how great their idea truly was.  During World War II, the round table talks were centered on the war and developments therein, even though the college running it was not controlled by the federal government. Also, NBC had difficulties maintaining a predominantly Anglo-Saxon program – African American unrest forced the network to base the show on the civil rights movement and the hardships faced by African Americans.  The post war period brought a peak of networks broadcasting the round table talks.

Slotten used his book to analyze the growth of university radio stations in America. He implemented a historical timeline approach to maintain his continuing train of thought involving the development of radio broadcasting as an art and an educational tool to aid the country. Slotten maintained that the birth of most, if not all, radio practices stem from collegiate sources and the early practices of extension education through radio programming.  He educated his readers to praise college and independent radio and simultaneously deprecate the practices of large, commercial radio communications companies. For example, when he praised the collegiate round table, he stated, “[It] was one of the most important efforts by a major research university to use the new medium of radio broadcasting.”⁵ Slotten’s thesis is clear.  College radio stations started the public broadcast boom and the government policies put in place in the 1910s and 1930s forever changed how radio would be broadcast, received, and enjoyed.

Slotten is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Otago in New Zealand as well as an avid writer of historical technology. He has published numerous books, including one on the early regulations placed on radio and televisions and also publishes articles on the helpful information hub – Wikipedia.  He writes articles on the information included in his books. For example, he described the Radio Act of 1912 in his book as, “[not giving] the secretary general authority to take actions deemed necessary based on … the rise of broadcasting.”⁶ He also wrote about the Radio Act of 1912 in an article on Wikipedia which he published. The other articles he wrote on the website are related to topics in books he publishes.  He still teaches and lectures on papers related to media history and advanced media history; his interest in these topics led to his fascination with the history of radio.  President Barack Obama’s election in 2008 sparked this book because of the water shed that occurred with his election.  President Obama’s new policies are an allegory to the Progressive era of the early 20th Century.  They are akin to those policies put in place by radio stations of the 1920s. The relationship between these two events could inspire Slotten to write about the beginnings, early reforms, and policies associated with radio stations.

The first of two reviews on Slotten’s book was written in the Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media. In it, an anonymous author writes, “Hugh Slotten's Radio's Hidden Voice makes a valuable contribution to these efforts through in-depth analysis of regulatory struggles and programming practices pursued by university stations from the prewar wireless period through the height of the network era in the 1930s–40s”⁷.  This review advances the ideas that Slotten’s book was occupied by many chapters on radio practices and fewer chapters addressing the actual advances in the popularity and programming of the radio stations of the 1930s and 1940s. The author praises the book, exclaiming about how it will forever be a key in understanding the past of radio broadcasting, as well as the future of broadcasting in America. Lastly, the author of the article mentions the Ohio University round table talks, and appreciates the value Slotten put behind them. The round table talks appear to be a much bigger accomplishment than most average citizens realize, but Slotten and the author of the article in the Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media know the influence they had on the world of broadcast radio.

The second review Radio’s Hidden Voice was published in Technology and Culture and was written by Audra J. Wolfe.  Wolfe began her review by bringing to light the biases that cloud public and commercial radio stations such as NPR.  She related the beginning of biases and political talk to the early land grant universities of the Midwest and other public stations of the 1920s.  She went on to describe the ties between stations and their listeners saying, “Slotten is clearly at his best when focused on the close relationship between these college stations and their listeners”⁸. The praise Wolfe has for Slotten was further highlighted by her description of his dedication to his book. After summarizing the practices of extension school’s radio broadcasts, Wolfe addressed Slotten as a demi-god. She described how he went above and beyond in an effort to make his book as comprehensive as possible.  Wolfe continued her review with a slight criticism of the book. She contended that the book ends too soon; it does not give the reader a true sight of the high point of the life of radio broadcasting.  Wolfe enjoyed Slotten’s book and found it helpful for the posterity of American broadcasting.

Hugh Richard Slotten definitely compiled a college worthy collection of the history of broadcasting in the United States. His book is a masterful collection of knowledge, although he spent an extensive amount of time covering the 1920s, leaving the latter decades to until the very end of the book. Although his chronology lacked depth, the information he provided was irrefutably valuable. Also, his listing of events was slightly out of order as he jumped from the 1920s to the 1910s and then back to the 1930s.  If not for Slotten, information such as “universities first [experimenting] with the wireless transmission of weather reports to amateur operators” would never be read and learned⁹. The information provided by Slotten was great in numbers, but the way he presented it was confusing and bland.  In comparison to other historical books, Slotten’s lacked emphasis and flow in the pages he wrote and he failed to hold the reader with his words.  The chronological jumping Slotten incorporated added on to the confusing nature of his book.   Never the less, Slotten displayed his knowledge and insight concerning the beginning of radio as well as how radio policy developed over the years. His insight into the topic was enlightening, and his overall tones and thesis were prevalent throughout the book.

The radio age of the 1930s and 40s led the American people through the darkest times in their history.  The act of listening to a radio during the great depression was the highlight of a family’s day, and they listened with all attentiveness they could. Radio enthralled the American people. Music and literature were popularized through the innovation of radio and the spread information via the air waves. The use of radio in the 1940s allowed for American citizens to be informed about the events taking place during the war – such as major victories or failures oversees.  “During the period from the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941through early February 1943, only nine of fifty-nine [round tale] programs were not directly related to war”10. The radio also gave American soldiers in Europe the ability to feel at home – they could hear music from famous artists back home and fade away for brief moments when the heated battle tensions cooled. Radio connected and still connects the American people through a free means to hear the same information. Radio has also united the world under a common language. Radio waves are used to communicate in rural areas of Europe and small third world nations cling to their radios if they do not own a television set.  Radio has proven itself to be an invaluable asset to the world of music throughout the latter half of the 20th century. Music is allotted to the public for free because of radio and all it stands for; even with satellite radio, the main ideals of the original concept are present. The music, the literature, the information must be spread to the public. In addition to spreading information, American radio stations inspired the British to undertake endeavors in broadcasting.  The BBC controls almost all broadcasting inside of Britain, and in the late 1950s, the rise of rock and roll caused a desire in the hearts of British citizens.  British Broadcasters wanted to have their music heard and were thus forced to illegally spread the ideals and rock and roll music because of a ban put in place by the BBC.  The illegal broadcasters were inspired to broadcast by the American system of limited censorship in that time.  American radio inspired the spread of free speech on radio and the spread of music as well as culture through the airwaves in foreign nations.

Hugh Richard Slotten wrote an informative and mature book which masterfully approaches the subject of radio and explores the history that is unknown to most Americans.  His book implores readers to contemplate the true beginnings of radio broadcasting – universities in the Midwestern United States reaching out to students and informing them with classes and agricultural reports. Slotten’s book is both thought provoking and educational – a definite read for any student interested in communications.

1. Slotten, Hugh Richard. Radio's hidden voice: the origins of public broadcasting in the United States. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009. 34.
2. Slotten, Hugh Richard. 68.
3. Slotten, Hugh Richard. 158.
4. Slotten, Hugh Richard. 216.
5. Slotten, Hugh Richard. 237.
6. Slotten, Hugh Richard. 189.
7.  Anonymous."Slotten, Hugh R. (2009). Radio's hidden voice: The origins of public broadcasting in the United States. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. 325 pages...” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 54.3 (2010): 542(2). Print.
8. Wolfe, Audra. "Radio's Hidden Voice: The Origins of Public Broadcasting in the United States. By Hugh Richard Slotten. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009. Pp. ix+325. $50.." Technology and Culture 51.4 (2010): 1050-1051. Print.
9. Slotten, Hugh Richard. 28.
10. Slotten, Hugh Richard. 234.