Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination, from Amos 'N' Andy and Edward R. Murrow to Wolfman Jack and Howard Stern

By Meade, Melissa | Journalism History, Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination, from Amos 'N' Andy and Edward R. Murrow to Wolfman Jack and Howard Stern


Meade, Melissa, Journalism History


Douglas, Susan J. Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination, from Amos 'n' Andy and Edward R Murrow to Wolf man Jack and Howard Stern. New York: Times Books, 1999. 496 pp. $27.50.

In an attempt to ignite renewed interest in broader cultural studies of radio, Susan Douglas offers a compelling, if often wistful, account of radio history in the United States.

Navigating the technological and cultural fields that have shaped radio practices, she provides a complicated account of how radio has introduced new aural environments and prompted profound cognitive and perceptual shifts. Her focus of attention is the everyday practice of radio listening, and her contention is that the history of radio is rooted not only in the institutional developments of chains, networks, regulatory policies and syndicated programming, but more importantly in how the terms of radio listening have been constructed, contested, and negotiated by programmers and listeners.

Indeed, her project is to map out various modes of radio listening, pointing to the ways in which this medium has informed technologically mediated notions of relationships among identity, self, others, the local, and the distant. She traces the exploratory modes of listening in the 1920s to the musical and linguistic modes in the 1930s through the 1950s; she then moves from the "rebellious" and fidelity listening modes in the 1960s and 1970s to consider contemporary listening practices centered around talk radio and automated music programming. She argues, in fact, that radio has both foregrounded and promoted particular modes of listening in certain places and times.

Focusing on the moments in radio history when uncertainty and industry flux have allowed for experimentation on the air, Douglas approaches this mode-mapping task by first looking at the radio amateurs in the 1920s. She next pays particular attention to issues of race and masculinity in early music and story-telling broadcasting, forged collectivities in sports and news broadcasting, the impact of audience research, and the role of radio in the television age.

Weaving through multiple arguments on the peculiarities of aurality, she contends that it is the invisibility of radio that has made it significant to its effects on American culture.

While explorations of the phenomenological aspects of radio certainly deserve greater scholarly attention, Douglas, however, sometimes falls into a sheer celebration of the "powerful participatory mystique" that radio offers, which serves to undermine her deeper analytical aspirations of theorizing the sensory and cultural experiences of radio. …

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