Wiring the Wireless: Networking Early US Radio Broadcasting

Article excerpt

Wiring the Wireless Networking Early US Radio Broadcasting Alexander Russo Points on the Dial Duke University Press, Durham, 2010 ISBN 9780822345329 RRP US$23.95 (pb)

The history of radio broadcasting in the United States from the early 1920s to the early 1950s, a period often referred to as the Golden Age, is well worked territory, as the fifteen-page bibliography of Points on the Dial testifies. The same nostalgic phrase, the Golden Age, is used for that period in Australian radio but it is a very different story here, in at least three matters: the economics, the ownership and control of radio stations, and the means of program distribution.

Alexander Russo, assistant professor of Media Studies at the Catholic University of America now adds further dimensions to the story of radio broadcasting in the United States with Points on the Dial. Scholarly or professional concern about radio broadcasting, its programming, the determination of various metrics of it audiences, and its corporate history, is almost as old as radio broadcasting itself, so it was pleasing to see names like Paul Lazarsfeld and Erik Barnouw acknowledged for their early work on radio and of communication studies generally.

Russo relates the emergence of the great national radio broadcasters of the United States, the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) and the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) during the 1920s. These institutions morphed into television broadcasters when that consumer technology was introduced, post-World War II, in part to employ the vast electronics industry that had emerged during the war to serve military communications and weaponry needs.

Other histories of radio in this period are told either from the perspective of these national companies or through their eyes. These are the histories of the connection of audiences with centrally originated content either directly via their owned and operated stations or through the network of independent stations, either closely or loosely affiliated with the big broadcasters. These are also the stories of the branding of corporate America through sponsorship of radio for the masses.

For the first time in the history of any community, mass audiences were simultaneously exposed to the same cultural experience. In a way, it is the time when the United States of America became considerably more than a political construct. Cinema and radio provided cultural spaces where the citizen saw and heard representation of national cultural, social and economic interests, and saw conflict resolved 'the American way'. Cinema and then radio changed the way Americans learned about themselves, largely displacing popular oratory, and diminishing the role of the printed word, as carriers of cultural unity and identity.

In Australia, this task of national building through radio was set for the Australian Broadcasting Commission, a story told by Ken Inglis in This is the ABC: The Australian Broadcasting Commission 1932-1983. Commercial radio remained focused on local audiences until recently.

Despite the complexity and multi-layered nature of these cultural transformations undertaken by radio, the US story is commonly cast as a clash of two media empires and their attendant lords and lackeys. CBS and NBC are the empires competing for the favour of the American listener. Where they cannot reach audiences directly because the United States government imposed strict conditions on the issuance of radio licenses, their access is mediated by their henchmen, the regional networks and affiliated stations. The henchmen are out there riding the range, herding audiences for CBS and NBC. Perhaps the classic Hollywood frontier text has become the narrative form for radio's US history.

Russo's contribution is to pay close attention to radio broadcasting at a level below that of the empires, to document and report the influence of regional and local networks and of individual operators, especially entrepreneurs like John Shepard III, whose independence in relations with the empires was most vexing to the networks. …