Points on the Dial: Golden Age Radio beyond the Networks


The golden age of radio is often recalled as a time when the medium unified the nation, when families gathered around the radios in homes across the country to listen to live, commercially sponsored network broadcasts. In Points on the Dial, Alexander Russo revises our understanding of radio’s past by revealing the hidden histories of production, distribution, and reception practices during this era, which extended from the 1920s into the 1950s. Russo brings to light a tiered broadcasting system with ...

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The golden age of radio is often recalled as a time when the medium unified the nation, when families gathered around the radios in homes across the country to listen to live, commercially sponsored network broadcasts. In Points on the Dial, Alexander Russo revises our understanding of radio’s past by revealing the hidden histories of production, distribution, and reception practices during this era, which extended from the 1920s into the 1950s. Russo brings to light a tiered broadcasting system with intermingling but distinct national, regional, and local programming forms, sponsorship patterns, and methods of program distribution. Examining a wide range of practices, including regional networking, sound-on-disc transcription, the use of station representatives, spot advertising, and programming aimed at homes with several radios, he not only recasts our understanding of the relationship between national networks and local stations but also charts the development of new ways of listening—often distractedly rather than attentively—that set the stage for radio in the second half of the twentieth century.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Points on the Dial: Golden Age Radio beyond the Networks is not only interesting but also informative. If Russo's read on radio is right, history may help inform the nature of radio as it proceeds into a digital era where geographies of consumption and listening are drastically altered by the technologies of production and distribution.” - John F. Barber, Leonardo Reviews

“Russo . . . challenges some of the assumptions embedded within the standard narrative of radio’s evolution in this well-researched and persuasively argued book. . . . [A]nyone interested in media history, current changes in the media industries, or the growth of American consumer culture will no doubt find something of value in this work.” - Noah Arceneaux, J-History, H-Net Reviews

“The book’s forty-eight pages of notes contain gems as interesting as the main text, and the fourteen-page bibliography offers the reader the opportunity to explore in detail particular aspects of the history. Thus, Points on the Dial delivers a fresh perspective on the network era of radio broadcasting.” - Don Bishop, Journalism History

“The real strength of this work is Russo's relentless documentation of industry practices that have rarely been given even cursory attention by historians.” - Joy Elizabeth Hayes, Journal of American History

“This is an exceptionally well‐referenced book. . . . [I]ts examination of the interplay of ownership and control of radio at a local and regional level, and the impact of competing production, distribution and consumption practices, suggests that the history of broadcasting in other countries would respond to similar analysis and benefit our understanding of the business, technology, and politics of the media of mass communication.” - Vincent O’Donnell, Cultural Studies Review

Points on the Dial is an important book, smart and forcefully argued. Alexander Russo makes a fresh and distinctive contribution to radio studies and to media history and analysis by challenging the network-centered history of radio and bringing the role of regional radio to the fore. His discussion of regional programming gambits is new and fascinating, as is his account of the rise of spot advertising.”—Susan J. Douglas, author of Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination

“Offering fascinating arguments based on a wealth of excellent research, Alexander Russo fills in the history of radio broadcasting in the United States. He reveals the diversity of practices obscured until now by scholars’ focus on the national networks.”—Michele Hilmes, author of Radio Voices: American Broadcasting, 1922–1952

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822345329
  • Publisher: Duke University Press
  • Publication date: 2/10/2010
  • Pages: 292
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Alexander Russo is Assistant Professor of Media Studies at The Catholic University of America.

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Golden Age Radio beyond the Networks


Copyright © 2010 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4532-9

Chapter One

The Value of a Name Defining and Redefining National Network Radio

The image of a nation connected via radio that appeared in the September 1927 issue of Radio News stands in many ways for the iconic understanding of network-era broadcasting. Appearing less than a year after the launch of NBC and the same month that CBS took to the air, this image endorsed the possibilities for cultural integration through technology. Entitled "The New Melting Pot," it depicts radio as a wired network capable of uniting the nation (see figure 1). The picture identifies the dual A and B batteries used by the radio receivers of that era as "The English Language" and "Americanism and Patriotism," thereby suggesting that the forms of representation were as important as the content delivered. Significantly, radio is represented as a collective listening experience on both macro and micro spaces. All of the figures are listening to the same programming and all are listening in groups. Even the one possible exception, the African American servant in the South who is the only figure performing labor while listening, is still exposed to the integrative effect of radio. Although neither national radio's technological capacities nor its meanings were fixed when this image graced the pages of Radio News, its division of the country into regional groups invites questions about the identities represented by those geographical places and their relationship to broadcasting as technology and cultural form.

As scholars have begun to engage with the long interrelationship between communication technologies and space, the information network has gained importance as an analytical concept for understanding the social, cultural, and economic changes wrought by the technological possibilities of interconnection. Although there are some exceptions, this body of work conceives of "the network" in terms of the integration of people, of culture, of the world. Well before radio networks, discourses of progress, integration, and modernity were linked to telegraph, telephone, railroad, and electricity networks. Radio networks extended this logic of interconnection leading to modern progress, and those who were judged to be outside of the radio nation were considered primitive and lacking.

Equating the network with centralization obscures a more complicated story of radio as a technological system as well as the cultural and economic role of the programming distributed via that system. The hegemony of networked commercial broadcasting at the end of the golden age has produced scholarship that focuses on radio's early history, especially the relatively tumultuous 1920s and early 1930s. This work establishes the ways in which the structure of the network system was determined by political, economic, and technological considerations. These revisionist narratives end with the codification of the commercial network system in the 1934 Communication Act.

In contrast, a different view of the geography of golden age radio is created when the medium is thought of as a system of technological, commercial, and information internetworks that required constant revision and modification. This view of the network refers to a complex intersection of elements directly involved in the production, distribution, and reception of radio programs as well as in the process of creating audience markets to be sold and to sell to. In addition, the network of program distribution depends on the material distribution network of the sponsor's product. Radio networks thus were not monolithic entities but rather complex technological systems that directly and indirectly integrated a wide range of elements including technology, people, information, and material goods.

Although the concept of national radio was constructed to appear to be the natural and transparent outgrowth of wired interconnection, its everyday existence depended on the complex interaction of different forms of labor and knowledge. In their study of the role of classification in the modern world Geoffrey Bowker and Susan Leigh Star have argued that the analysis of "informational infrastructure" requires an acknowledgment of the interdependence of technical networks and standards and the labor of politics and knowledge production. Classification systems, much like technologies, seek to appear transparent even as they mediate our experiences of reality. Their linkage of knowledge production and technology suggests parallels with the development of national broadcasting practices.

While national broadcasters like NBC and CBS promoted integration via network interconnection, their rhetoric did not always match the realities of network service. Despite its image as uniform, consistent, and singular, the system was limited, unstable, and hybrid. The fluidity of these networks was produced by the interaction between the technological structure of the system and the economic orientation of the organizations that used the system. This made manifest the significant gaps in these network ideals, which in turn allowed for the construction of alternative markets that ultimately influenced the creation of the imagined communities invoked by network programs.

Radio markets did not appear naturally but rather had to be constructed and maintained according to the needs of the institutions that used them. The practices of constructing radio markets were contingent upon both the available social science techniques and the structural needs of advertisers and broadcasters. The product—the "audience commodity," as Dallas Smythe termed it—was produced by institutions that quantified and evaluated individuals and groups according to their consumption capacity. Moreover, the limitations on audience construction techniques required the social contracts between the broadcasting and advertising industries to accept certain types of knowledge as legitimate. Before these social science–based approaches were developed in the 1930s, broadcasters and sponsors combined demographic and spatial categories to construct and evaluate markets. This geographical orientation structured the scope and limits of the network system.

Although radio networking was discursively conflated with the national, the economic and technological underpinnings of the network system often rendered it anything but uniformly connected and fully integrated. The conflicting definitions of market value affected the operation of the technological system of networked programming distribution. Instead of a static one-way interconnection, radio networks were in constant flux reconfiguring themselves according to the desires of sponsors and networks. A common example of this was the split network, a term that refers to a situation where a sponsor refused to purchase all of a network's affiliates. These incomplete networks forced NBC and CBS to work around the skipped stations and to produce additional unsponsored "sustaining" programs that were sent to those stations in lieu of sponsored shows. Split networks demonstrate the role of nontechnological factors in creating gaps in the program distribution patterns of broadcasting networks. They were generated by the conflict between the sponsors' desire to pay for time only for areas that were useful to them and the networks' need and obligation to provide unsponsored sustaining programs to their affiliates in the absence of commercial ones. Both NBC and CBS fought to eliminate split networks from their schedules because they reflected the limits of the networks' construction of a mass national radio market. At the same time, other commentators voiced doubts about the national mass. The implications of these network gaps and concerns intersected in the activities of the station representative. Station representatives constructed local markets and convinced advertisers of those markets' value. In so doing they filled some of the radio nation's discursive gaps and contributed to the process by which programming was produced, distributed, and aired in those geographical locations. Once these markets were called into being, other entities such as regional radio networks and transcription producers (which I address in subsequent chapters) provided programming for discrete geographic and market segments.

National Broadcasters Define National Network Service

As network broadcasting was inaugurated on a wide scale in the latter half of the 1920s, it was generally described in terms that linked its technological properties with the geographical space of the nation. The medium could bind space and thus allow audiences to experience events occurring around the country from the safety of their own homes. Crossing social and cultural boundaries constituted one of early radio broadcasting's greatest appeals to early audiences, thereby convincing them to purchase sets. However, over the course of the 1920s a larger, more diverse audience that listened to hear specific programs replaced the relatively small, devoted audience of amateur operators, known as "distance fiends," who listened to hear faraway events.

In the chaotic 1920s radio landscape amateur operators, local stations, and national networks all vied to define "radio" in a way that served their interests. As the ether grew more crowded, station signals often interfered with one another. Amateurs wanted "quiet nights" to facilitate listening based on distance rather than content. Small community stations wanted the right to broadcast without interference from larger metropolitan stations. Programming was ad hoc and often amateurish, appealing to audiences partially because of its attention to local performers and communities. In this aural environment national broadcasters sought to implement national radio defined by cultural value and national unity. In the second half of the 1920s radio networks worked to establish a connection between technological basis, industrial organization, and cultural function.

While technology created many possibilities for national broadcasting, networking was judged to be both technologically feasible and culturally desirable. Under the terms of the 1926 Radio Patent agreement between AT&T and RCA, the telephone company sold WEAF and withdrew from direct broadcasting in exchange for a monopoly over the means of distributing programs. This technology, borne of the telephone company's long investment in wired voice transmission, led to the creation of its long-lines division. After intense political debate, wired networking was determined to be the most viable technology for simultaneously connecting stations. The wired network model was aided by its seeming resemblance to other "chain" organizations like the telephone, a cultural suspicion of monopoly power (such as that suggested by superpower stations), and the appeal of decentralized stations in a large country.

To convince advertisers that national interconnection was worth the significant financial investment, NBC, CBS, and their proxies traded on preexisting definitions of radio as communicative and connective. Building on radio's earlier incarnation as a point-to-point medium rather than a broadcast one, these groups described radio in terms of simultaneous transmission and reception of content while also investing that simultaneity with aesthetic, social, and cultural value. Networks championed their ability to distribute the "highest quality" and most expensive programs over the widest possible audience and area. They noted that by splitting the costs of programming among many stations, they would have larger budgets and could hire higher-profile talent than any single station. Further, the networks argued, it was because of program "quality" that listeners valued those programs—and their sponsors—more highly than they did local shows. At the same time they suggested that a unified experience could provide a cultural uplift. Thus, the intended national scope of the networks was matched by assertions of their centralizing cultural function. These narratives proved successful as a wide range of commentators saw in radio a means of reestablishing a social and political consensus in a United States divided by class, race, and regional identities. Thus, by building on the legal, philosophical, and technological models of earlier communications networks like the telegraph and the telephone, as well as cultural desires for national unity, NBC and CBS were able to discursively and legally establish radio's ideal form as national, wire distributed, and live.

While cultural uplift and unification provided one set of justifications for wired national networks, they contained another implication of national radio—the diminishment and denial of viable local broadcasting practices. National radio networks sought to define local radio as technically inept, amateurishly programmed, and excessively commercial. It was, in the network's formulation, the audience's dissatisfaction with local radio that attracted them to network programming and justified the networks' own oligarchic position as program distributors. This is somewhat ironic because amid all the fervent discussion of national service and national scope the daily reality of network interconnection was decidedly limited well into the 1930s.

Two intertwined elements, market size and technical infrastructure, determined whether listeners in a given geographical area would receive primary coverage from a radio station affiliated with one of the national networks. They were intertwined because networks could only expand their access to AT&T's technical infrastructure if advertisers were willing to pay, and sponsors would only pay if they wanted to reach consumers in a given geographical area. Thus the construction of markets played an important role in determining the actual extent of radio networks.

As broadcasters attempted to convince advertisers that radio was valuable as an advertising medium they drew upon models of market definition pioneered by print advertising media. Newspaper and magazine advertising provided the institutional infrastructure for constructing the radio market. Advertising agencies in the 1910s and 1920s actively discouraged their clients from using specialized publications and seeking specialized markets. They generally resisted acknowledging the heterogeneity of the United States in favor of seeing the nation as a single mass market. In this context broadcasters used information created for newspaper features syndicates. One influential early collection of data for radio was the Chicago newspaper publisher Walter A. Strong's organization called 100,000 Group of American Cities. First published in 1926, just as the radio networks were forming, the 100,000 Group's 81 Principal American Markets was one of the first wide-scale market maps of the United States. It provided population and retail information on every city and town with more than one thousand people, and it charted the social and economic characteristics of the residents who produced "buying power" and it linked that ability with the availability of stores in which products could be sold. As radio sponsors, advertising agencies, and broadcasters adapted market knowledge for one medium to another they also linked those markets with technical studies of station power and coverage, or usable range.

There was a strong correlation between the cities listed in 81 Principal American Markets and the location of the early network affiliates. The National Broadcasting Company's 1927 "Outline of Development" lists as one of its basic assumptions that "at least two programs shall be available to listeners in all important centers at practically equivalent signal strength" (italics mine). Also included were maps of the relative populations of the United States and, while the total population was relevant, the primary factor in value was market strength as defined by the possibilities for retail sales. Indeed, the report included several maps where the signal strength of NBC's core stations overlapped with the "county value" expressed in terms of purchasing power, standard of living, accessibility, and population. As the accompanying illustrations suggest, the geographical boundaries of the nation and its market value were not identical. In order to be included in the national mass one had to have a certain level of income.


Excerpted from POINTS ON THE DIAL by ALEXANDER RUSSO Copyright © 2010 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction Narratives of Radio's Geographies 1

Chapter 1 The Value of a Name 17

Defining and Redefining National Network Radio

Chapter 2 "The Lord is my Shepard I shall not want" 47

Regional Networks as Sites of Community and Conflict

Chapter 3 Brought to You via Electrical Transcription 77

Sound-on-Disc Recording and the Perceptual Aesthetics of Radio Distribution Technologies

Chapter 4 On the Spot 115

The spatial and Temporal Flow of spot Broadcasting

Chapter 5 People with Money and Go 151

Locating Attention in the Human Geography of Radio Reception

Conclusion Open-End Game 184

The legacy of Spots, Representatives, and Transcriptions

Notes 191

Bibliography 241

Index 257

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