Book Reviews -- Selling Radio: The Commercialization of American Broadcasting by Susan Smulyan

Article excerpt

Smulyan, Susan. Selling Radio: The Commercialization of American Broadcasting. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994. 240 pp. $24.95

U.S. radio and television today exist primarily to sell. Most broadcast stations, radio formats, TV programs, cable networks, or whatever are created to attract an audience for the advertising they carry. Programming consists of continuous advertising and promotion interlarded with snippets of entertainment and information. For this reason, it is easy to forget that radio, the first electronic mass medium, originated without advertising. Actions taken during the 1920s and early 1930s pushed the electronic mass media firmly toward their present role: cogs in the machinery of mass marketing. Susan Smulyan examines these early, critical actions in this well researched, well-written book.

Smulyan, who earned her Ph.D. in American Studies at Yale, based Selling Radio on her 1985 dissertation and post-doctoral research at the Smithsonian' s National Museum of American History. She has taught at the University of Texas-San Antonio and is now associate professor and chair of the Department of American Civilization at Brown University.

She reminds readers that the first broadcasters went on the air for varied reasons; radio-receiver manufacturers, for example, operated stations to stimulate receiver sales. Programming consisted of individual "acts" (e.g., recitations and musical solos). Musicians and others performed free at first but soon demanded payment. Since stations did not generate direct revenue, who was going to pay for radio became a national concern.

In 1922, American Telephone and Telegraph Company provided one answer. It launched WEAF in New York to deliver sales messages in exchange for money. But, Smulyan contends, the choice of advertising as financial support for all broadcasting was neither natural nor inevitable. Other financial support models also were proposed. Additionally, as late as 1928 many broadcasters, business leaders and members of the public felt that radio should not carry advertising.

Smulyan notes that listeners wanted national programming. …