The Listener's Voice: Early Radio and the American Public

The Listener's Voice: Early Radio and the American Public

The Listener's Voice: Early Radio and the American Public

The Listener's Voice: Early Radio and the American Public


During the Jazz Age and Great Depression, radio broadcasters did not conjure their listening public with a throw of a switch; the public had a hand in its own making. The Listener's Voice describes how a diverse array of Americans--boxing fans, radio amateurs, down-and-out laborers, small-town housewives, black government clerks, and Mexican farmers--participated in the formation of American radio, its genres, and its operations.

Before the advent of sophisticated marketing research, radio producers largely relied on listeners' phone calls, telegrams, and letters to understand their audiences. Mining this rich archive, historian Elena Razlogova meticulously recreates the world of fans who undermined centralized broadcasting at each creative turn in radio history. Radio outlaws, from the earliest squatter stations and radio tube bootleggers to postwar "payola-hungry" rhythm and blues DJs, provided a crucial source of innovation for the medium. Engineers bent patent regulations. Network writers negotiated with devotees. Program managers invited high school students to spin records. Taken together, these and other practices embodied a participatory ethic that listeners articulated when they confronted national corporate networks and the formulaic ratings system that developed.

Using radio as a lens to examine a moral economy that Americans have imagined for their nation, The Listener's Voice demonstrates that tenets of cooperation and reciprocity embedded in today's free software, open access, and filesharing activities apply to earlier instances of cultural production in American history, especially at times when new media have emerged.


When Gang Busters came on the air Nanny Roy was packing her granddaughter’s suitcase. It was nine o’clock in the evening in September of 1942. It did not take her long to realize that the story concerned her son. Twelve years previously, she sold dresses at a ready-to-wear shop in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, her husband ran electric trains at a foundry, and her son, Virgil Harris, processed corn at a starch factory. Then Harris became an armed robber, was caught and jailed, escaped, died—gunned down by state police—and joined the ranks of Depression-era bandits immortalized by true crime magazines, movies, and radio. Nanny Roy’s granddaughter was leaving for college. Protective of her privacy, Roy promptly mailed a complaint to the sponsor, Earl Sloan and Company. The company forwarded her letter to program supervisor, Leonard Bass, whose response can be surmised from Roy’s second letter. “I cannot except your regrets,” she declared:

I understand perfectly if I were a mother with high financial stand
ing this would never of happed. you can’t deny the crime of all sorts
the worst of all the robbery that happens every day thru the rich and
mighty from the poor. why not expose them. put your investigator at
work on the people who are stealing thru their capacity officially….
This sort of crime is worse to me than if a person point a gun at me
and demand all I have. Yet it goes on. An 18 year old boy steals a sack
of feed an inner tube or a tire and he gets sentenced to 20 years in an
institution. let the big feller rob in his undermining way there’s no
publicity he goes on lectures to society and is met by the broadcasters
with a hand-shake.

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