Redeeming the Dial: Radio, Religion, & Popular Culture in America

Article excerpt

* Redeeming the Dial: Radio, Religion, & Popular Culture in America. Tona J. Hangen. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002. 220 pp. $39.95.

In Christ and the Media Malcolm Muggeridge concluded that mass communication was accelerating the tendency toward secularism in Western civilization by encouraging the veneration of profane over sacred objects. Hangen's work on early American radio argues that a communication community was created through the "heard word" that "made it possible to rethink entirely what church was and where worship could take place."

Hangen analyzes how listeners "read radio" by reading the letters they wrote to the early evangelists of the air. During the Depression, World War II, and the Cold War their eager pleadings depict the "inexhaustible loneliness" of American life and the role of religious radio in serving as "midwife" to millions. For many, she concludes, religious radio "resonated with a nostalgic longing for better times." It was an "immediate experience" in which "people felt singled out for personal attention." As a result, radio "prevented the decline of old-fashioned religious belief" by offering a message "filled with fervent hope for change and restoration."

Hangen points out that radio and radio evangelism grew up together. By 1924, churches and church organizations held one of every fourteen radio licenses in America. A year later, seventy-one religious stations were on the air. Fundamentalists and the mainline churches fought for air-time before federal regulators. Paul Rader, Aimee Semple McPherson, and Charles Fuller were three pioneering radio evangelists who seized on the new medium as a means of reaching the previously unreached with the good news of the gospel, and Hangen devotes a chapter to each.

Rader was a prizefighter and Wall Street oil speculator before his conversion in 1912 at the age of 33. Ten years later he began broadcasting from Chicago, seeking to save 100,000 souls. In the process, Hangen writes, Rader helped invent the radio revival genre. In fourteen hours of weekly programming, Rader found that radio "worked at a distance." A Saskatchewan farmer wrote Rader that "the spirit of God was so real we could feel His very presence." When Rader moved to WBBM in September 1927 he reached rural listeners from the Rockies to the Appalachians, easing isolation while creating a Fundamentalist community that saw itself as standing for the maintenance of basic values in American life. …