The Listener's Voice: Early Radio and the American Public. Elena Razlogova. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.
Article first published online: 17 MAR 2013
© 2013 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
The Journal of American Culture
Special Issue: Love and Romance in American Culture Guest Edited by Maryan Wherry
Volume 36, Issue 1, pages 63–64, March 2013
How to Cite
Wilbers, C. (2013), The Listener's Voice: Early Radio and the American Public. Elena Razlogova. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011. . The Journal of American Culture, 36: 63–64. doi: 10.1111/jacc.12013_11
- Issue published online: 17 MAR 2013
- Article first published online: 17 MAR 2013
Utopian dreams and dystopian nightmares often accompany technological revolutions. The rise of the Internet, for example, spurred debates about its potential as a tool for social change while simultaneously raising fears of cyber wars and the Orwellian surveillance state. Almost a century ago, the commercialization of the radio evoked similar, conflicting emotions. In the populist atmosphere of protest and dissent that characterized the period between World War I and World War II, many Americans saw the radio as a powerful vehicle to carry their individual and collective voices into the struggle to define the “American Way of Life.” “Americans,” writes Elena Razlogova in her fascinating book on audience participation in early radio, “looked to radio not only to reflect but to resolve some of the tensions they felt about the nature of big institutions, the locations of social power, and the future of both market and political democracy.” (2) Simultaneously, however, contemporary observers like the philosopher Theodor Adorno assumed that radio could be a means to control the masses, because it “deprived […] audiences of their ability to think independently” (98).
This conflict is at the heart of Razologova's study. She is, of course, not the first to recognize the importance of the radio for the political culture of the 1920s and 1930s as well as the future of free market capitalism. Many historians in the past have leaned towards a perspective that agrees with Adorno: Douglas Craig's Fireside Politics and other earlier works, for example, have described how broadcast networks like NBC in collaboration with regulators suppressed commercial diversity and opted to entertain listeners rather than embrace the radio as a means to educate the citizenry or support civic exchange. And no history of the 1930s fails to mention how President Roosevelt used the new medium very effectively to communicate his political messages. In short, radio became “an agency of political and social reinforcement” (Douglas Craig, Fireside Politics, 2000).
But Elena Razlogova offers a pointed critique of that model. Hers is a view from below that uncovers the vibrant participatory culture of the 1920s, when many broadcasters still understood that they were responsible to an audience on which they depended – and in which listeners vigorously fought for the “ownership” of the airwaves. Audiences, Razologova argues, “were critical components in the making of radio, the establishment of its genres and social operations” (3). Her short, readable book compiles a fascinating array of examples showing how Americans demanded access to and participated in programming choices, how these listeners' responses inspired changes and how, ultimately, this participatory culture was replaced by corporate demographics radio.
Razlogova's book lacks some of the structural conventions that readers may expect from an academic publication. Although the narrative follows a chronological order, chapters rarely commence with a clear introduction, and the “theme” of each chapter is not immediately apparent. But these minor shortcomings rarely distract from the fact that Razlogova's is the most comprehensive study to date on active audience participation in the making of contemporary radio. The author has uncovered and evaluated a wealth of archival sources, and she has provided a sound argument on why these voices mattered then and still matter now. For that alone, her work should stand prominent in the historiography of radio in the United States.
Ultimately, the heroic tale told by Razlogova does not have a happy ending. The standardization and commercialization of the 1920s and 1930s undoubtedly impacted radio diversity, in particular the ability of every political and ethnic group to have a voice, not only on the airwaves. As radio producers turned to surveys and national studies to determine the preferences of the majority and the marketability of some programs over others, even “limited relations of reciprocity became the exception rather than the rule. Radio genres had standardized and networks and ad agencies came to evaluate programs primarily by ratings averages and market segments” (97). Researchers no longer demanded qualitative evaluations but devised machines, like one nicknamed “Little Annie,” which merely allowed listeners to approve or disapprove of a program by pressing green or red buttons. “Little Annie,” writes Razlogova, “measured ‘likes’ instead of open interpretations” (105). Users of contemporary social networking sites like Facebook may interject that back then, at least, audiences could still “dislike.”