Radio's America: The Great Depression and the Rise of Modern Mass Culture

By Urish, Ben | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), June 2008 | Go to article overview

Radio's America: The Great Depression and the Rise of Modern Mass Culture


Urish, Ben, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


Radio's America: The Great Depression and the Rise of Modern Mass Culture Bruce Lenthall. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.

The old debates about the constraining effect of mass mediated culture and how individuals respond with strategies to minimize or overcome those constraints is at the core of Bruce Lenthall's Radio's America (only 1930s' radio in the United States is considered). The medium is largely the message here. This is well-furrowed ground to be sure, and while Lenthall can add no new troughs to the field, he manages to find some interesting undulations therein.

The book consists of six chapters plus an introduction and conclusion, with each chapter subdivided into between three and five labeled sections. The divisions prove useful, as Lenthall's strategy is to detail various cases and then summarize and unite them, demonstrating their deeper similarities at the level of cultural phenomena. This is not to say that there are no overlapping references throughout, as the chapter sections often make reference to each other.

There are no illustrations, and while readers not familiar with some of the persons Lenthall discusses at length might have found it advantageous to have a few images, their absence is not crucial. This may have been intentional, considering that even those with fame beyond radio are only addressed for their radio personas and work. But even in the time frame dealt with, the public would have seen the subjects in magazines and motion picture newsreels. Images taken from radio magazines would seem to have been appropriate and welcome inclusions in the text, but again, not essential.

The index follows the now common practice of only listing a few of the broad subjects most relevant to the text, with the bulk consisting of persons' names, a few companies, and radio show titles. Major figures are developed with useful sub-listings, and the index is adequate. Notes and citations appear at the end of the text.

The book opens up with what might seem a radio cliché, an account of Orson Welles' notorious War of the Worlds broadcast of 1938. But Lenthall uses his account to set up his underlying contention that radio's power, and by extension much of mass media's, comes from an odd dichotomy of a mass public system and its products being dealt with largely on an individual and private basis. Radio's intimacy was a tool for people to come to terms with the distancing stresses (personal and cultural) that modernization was creating, with radio itself a prime example of a technological and social instrument of modernization. …

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