American Babel: Rogue Radio Broadcasters of the Jazz Age

American Babel: Rogue Radio Broadcasters of the Jazz Age

American Babel: Rogue Radio Broadcasters of the Jazz Age

American Babel: Rogue Radio Broadcasters of the Jazz Age


When American radio broadcasting began in the early 1920s there was a consensus among middle-class opinion makers that the airwaves must never be used for advertising. Even the national advertising industry agreed that the miraculous new medium was destined for higher cultural purposes. And yet, within a decade American broadcasting had become commercialized and has remained so ever since.

Much recent scholarship treats this unsought commercialization as a coup, imposed from above by mercenary corporations indifferent to higher public ideals. Such research has focused primarily on metropolitan stations operated by the likes of AT&T, Westinghouse, and General Electric. In American Babel, Clifford J. Doerksen provides a colorful alternative social history centered on an overlooked class of pioneer broadcaster--the independent radio stations.

Doerksen reveals that these "little" stations often commanded large and loyal working-class audiences who did not share the middle-class aversion to broadcast advertising. In urban settings, the independent stations broadcast jazz and burlesque entertainment and plugged popular songs for Tin Pan Alley publishers. In the countryside, independent stations known as "farmer stations" broadcast "hillbilly music" and old-time religion. All were unabashed in their promotional practices and paved the way toward commercialization with their innovations in programming, on-air style, advertising methods, and direct appeal to target audiences. Corporate broadcasters, who aspired to cultural gentility, were initially hostile to the populist style of the independents but ultimately followed suit in the 1930s.

Drawing on a rich array of archives and contemporary print sources, each chapter of American Babel looks at a particular station and the personalities behind the microphone. Doerksen presents this group of independents as an intensely colorful, perpetually interesting lot and weaves their stories into an expansive social and cultural narrative to explain more fully the rise of the commercial network system of the 1930s.


When I began the research that led to the writing of this book, my intent was to write about border radio stations, the high-powered pirates that cropped up on the southern side of the Texas-Mexico border in the 1930s to bombard the United States and Canada with hillbilly music, fundamentalist preaching, populist politics, seedy mail-order merchandising, and advertisements for quack medical treatments. the borderblasting tradition was started by Dr. John Romulus Brinkley of Kansas and Norman Baker of Iowa, pioneer broadcasters whose licenses were among the first to be revoked by the Federal Radio Commission on the grounds that the programs their stations provided were at odds with “the public interest, convenience, and necessity.” I came to this subject as a fan of the Carter Family, the seminal proto-country-music act who spent much of the 1930s making prerecorded programs to be broadcast by Brinkley’s ultrapowerful border station, xera.

As I traced the careers of Baker and Brinkley back to the days before they were pushed off the airwaves by federal regulators, however, I lost interest in the border blasters in favor of a general study of independent radio broadcasters in the 1920s, some of whom made the border pirates look fairly staid. the field, I was happy to discover, was seriously underdeveloped. Almost all of the scholarship on early broadcasting was narrowly focused on the “Big Four” corporate players: Westinghouse, General Electric (GE), American Telephone & Telegraph (AT&T), and the Radio Corporation of America (RCA). By and large the early 1920s were treated as a messy prelude to the rise and consolidation of the tidy network systems: it was a period of undifferentiated chaos to be covered as quickly and efficiently as possible in order to get to the big players and the main events in which they starred. the five hundred or so independent stations on the air at the time were generally treated as bit players, if not mere background scenery. To me, they soon came to represent something more significant.

An apocryphal tradition has it that when asked why he robbed banks, the bandit Willie Sutton answered, “Because that’s where the money is.” Historians operate on similar principles: they gravitate toward the largest available troves of documents. As Michele Hilmes acknowledges . . .

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