The Listener's Voice: Early Radio and the American Public. By Elena Razlogova. (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011. Pp. 224. $39.95.)
Article first published online: 13 MAR 2013
© 2013 Phi Alpha Theta
Volume 75, Issue 1, pages 170–171, Spring 2013
How to Cite
Greer, B. W. (2013), The Listener's Voice: Early Radio and the American Public. By Elena Razlogova. (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011. Pp. 224. $39.95.). Historian, 75: 170–171. doi: 10.1111/hisn.12004_38
- Issue published online: 13 MAR 2013
- Article first published online: 13 MAR 2013
In this book's title, the author declares her contribution to the expanding field of radio histories: consideration of how listeners shaped early broadcasting. Whereas media scholars have tended to focus on how corporations or technology affected radio's development, Elena Razlogova challenges assumptions that “listeners had little impact on [radio]” (3). During the Jazz Age and Great Depression, she argues, listeners regularly relayed their expectations to the industry. Their entitlement (a word Razlogova rescues from its present-day “spoiled” connotation) contributed to a moral economy, organized by ethics of reciprocity that governed radio and its soundscapes.
This history unfolds chronologically in six concise chapters. The first four establish radio's development as a series of collaborations between audiences and radio broadcasters, engineers, and creators. In the 1920s, boxing fans' demands concerning prizefight reporting produced sound innovations and a private broadcasting infrastructure that frustrated corporate control. When networks did come to dominate in the 1930s, local stations disrupted that dominion by “wave jumping” to unassigned frequencies to satisfy their constituencies' listening practices. Fan magazines gave listeners public forums to critique radio, while serials and soap operas offered them entry to production processes, with writers soliciting their storyline suggestions. By the 1940s, as the last chapters outline, networks turned to ratings and analyzer instruments like “Big Annie” to quantify audience likes and dislikes. Excluded from production, listeners distrusted network radio. This precipitated a resurgence in local radio's prominence, the rise of disc jockeys, and the creation of new listening experiences in music. Ultimately, by 1960, the national music industry gained control, and radio standardized into formats recognizable today.
Criticisms of this work are slight. Some may desire more accounting of radio's development in relation to New Deal and World War II programs. Also, elite or “prominent listeners” have little place in this narrative (46). Finally, the extent of listener influence is not consistently evident. However, extensive evidence of listeners' response—culled from seventeen archives—makes it plain that they had routinely voiced expectations of the industry. Occasionally, proof of their input overwhelms, but as representation of “the listener's voice,” its inclusion is hardly inappropriate. Moreover, revealing how often listeners contacted broadcasters and producers—versus sponsors—suggests their consumer role was not the chief determinant of their relationship to radio.
This work's significance extends beyond radio. Director of Concordia University's Digital History Lab, Razlogova draws a straight line from outlaw practices radio listeners used during the original wireless age (including bootlegging receivers and jumping frequencies) to the filesharing and piracy shaping the moral economy of our digital age. Today's “hacker values and practices,” she demonstrates, belong to a history of audiences pressing their visions of just media relationships (159).
This volume is accessible (Razlogova is a master of topic sentences) and augmented by extensive notes and illuminating contemporary graphics. Students of radio and sound production would be remiss to discount its premise that understanding the “radio voices” of early broadcasting requires considering listeners' say.