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

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

by Bruce Lenthall

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Orson Welles’s greatest breakthrough into the popular consciousness occurred in 1938, three years before Citizen Kane, when his War of the Worlds radio broadcast succeeded so spectacularly that terrified listeners believed they were hearing a genuine report of an alien invasion—a landmark in the history of radio’s powerful


Orson Welles’s greatest breakthrough into the popular consciousness occurred in 1938, three years before Citizen Kane, when his War of the Worlds radio broadcast succeeded so spectacularly that terrified listeners believed they were hearing a genuine report of an alien invasion—a landmark in the history of radio’s powerful relationship with its audience. In Radio’s America, Bruce Lenthall documents the enormous impact radio had on the lives of Depression-era Americans and charts the formative years of our modern mass culture.

Many Americans became alienated from their government and economy in the twentieth century, and Lenthall explains that radio’s appeal came from its capability to personalize an increasingly impersonal public arena. His depictions of such figures as proto-Fascist Charles Coughlin and medical quack John Brinkley offer penetrating insight into radio’s use as a persuasive tool, and Lenthall’s book is unique in its exploration of how ordinary Americans made radio a part of their lives. Television inherited radio’s cultural role, and as the voting tallies for American Idol attest, broadcasting continues to occupy a powerfully intimate place in American life. Radio’s America reveals how the connections between power and mass media began.

Editorial Reviews

Technology and Culture
Lenthall ably demonstrates how radio embodied contradictory elements of 1930s life and served as a screen on which larger social and cultural dynamics were projected. Combined with a highly readable prose style, this would serve a useful viewpoint in courses in U.S. social and cultural history. . . . A solid and highly readable discussion of the relationship of radio to mass culture.

— Alexander Russo

Michele Hilmes
“In Radio’s America, Bruce Lenthall provides a perceptive and balanced overview of radio’s major contributions to American culture during its most vital years, years that were truly formative not only of American broadcasting but of our history as a nation as well. Lenthall encourages us to reevaluate what we think we know about the beginnings of mediated mass culture in the United States. His analysis, clearly written to appeal to a broad audience, refreshes old debates and sheds new light on unexplored figures and ideas.”

Lynn Spigel
“This impressive and engaging book explores how broadcast radio was used and conceptualized by ordinary listeners, politicians, priests, doctors, dramatists, and intellectuals. Bruce Lenthall demonstrates great breadth of knowledge of the period as he synthesizes in a very readable fashion an enormous amount of material usually considered separately. This collage of unlikely elements fleshes out the rich and contradictory ways various sectors of the culture negotiated modern mass society by using radio to speak about their worlds.”
Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television - Michael J. Socolow
"Required reading for those who still believe that American radio, from its inception, encompassed only defenseless audiences and hegemonic broadcasters."
Technology and Culture - Alexander Russo
"Lenthall ably demonstrates how radio embodied contradictory elements of 1930s life and served as a screen on which larger social and cultural dynamics were projected. Combined with a highly readable prose style, this would serve a useful viewpoint in courses in U.S. social and cultural history. . . . A solid and highly readable discussion of the relationship of radio to mass culture."

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The Great Depression and the Rise of Modern Mass Culture

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2007 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-47192-1

Chapter One


Public Intellectuals and the Problem of Mass Culture

From his vantage point squarely in late-nineteenth-century America, Edward Bellamy peered into the future and imagined a technological web that would allow people all over the country to hear the finest music and lectures in their own homes. Simply by touching a knob or two, Bellamy prophesied in his wildly popular novel Looking Backward, anyone anywhere would be able to listen to live performances any time of day. As the writer and social reformer depicted his hypothetical broadcasting system, it offered programs to suit the most distinctive tastes. The media of the future, he hinted, might make it possible for a range of voices to be heard. In 1888, Bellamy looked forward and delighted in the ideal of a means of communication that could span the country instantly.

The reality proved far more ambiguous than Bellamy, social critic and aspiring prophet, ever imagined.

When modern broadcasting and modern America actually arrived in the 1930s, the newly real prospect of communicating instantaneously with millions took on a hue Bellamy could never have foreseen forty years earlier. The world had changed toodramatically. The twentieth century and the development of radio helped turn communication into a mass experience-one that shook the place of the individual in the United States. For all that radio opened up magical possibilities, it also transmitted modern mass culture's very real challenges. Radio might subsume the individual within modern mass society. It might deny individual distinction, speech, and autonomy, and instead speak to and for an artificial mass public.

Less than half a century after Bellamy had forecast that centralizing the production of culture could open up choice for individuals, America's public intellectuals looked unhappily at the arrival of a mass culture and rued the place of broadcasting within it. The modern world, as those thinkers who sought to reach a broad but well-educated audience astutely noted, was distinct because the twentieth century represented a moment when culture was both mass-produced and designed for mass consumption. More and more, these public intellectuals lamented in the 1930s, centralized authorities controlled and standardized ideas, values, and communication for the whole of the nation. And radio lay at the heart of this new culture, pumping it through the United States. Later in the twentieth century, the idea of a mass culture would become vaguer, encompassing many sorts of cultural forms. But in the 1930s, as public intellectuals critiqued the leading mass medium of their day, they offered a sharp sense of what was new about the emerging world, of what defined the mass culture they were coming to inhabit-and of the problems it posed.

These thinkers were right that the mass culture they identified would shape the century to come. They were right that radio contributed to the centralizing and homogenizing tendencies of modern society. And, perhaps most importantly, they were right that the new mass media posed real challenges: challenges for individuals seeking to find space for their own values and voices in the public arena; challenges for competing ideas of democracy. The medium helped push a vast, overwhelming sphere into people's lives; at the same time, ordinary Americans found it difficult to influence that world in meaningful ways.

As it turned out, though, public intellectuals were wrong about how ordinary Americans met those challenges and about how they used radio. Such critics never did sway or connect with the populace at large. But they were right that their era saw the intertwined rise of a mass media and a mass culture-and about the challenges facing individuals living with both in the twentieth century.

If they could make sense of radio, public intellectuals rightly understood, they could better comprehend the changes sweeping the twentieth century. As a whole, critics of the mass media precisely described-and assailed-mass culture in America. Mass culture was not simply culture for the masses or the introduction of certain technologies into the production of that culture, but a particular combination of the two: the easy reproduction and distribution of identical cultural forms, enabling a small slice of society to reach a vast and largely undifferentiated audience.

As these public intellectuals evaluated radio, they evaluated modern America. And these thinkers found plenty to worry about in both. Commentators with views on both sides of the political center forcefully expressed their disdain for America's fledgling broadcasting system. "In its use of the new means of communication, the land of opportunity looks more like the land of lost opportunities," the culturally conservative economist William Orton lamented caustically. On the left, Marxist poet and journalist James Rorty blasted radio for a hydra-headed assault on civilization itself. "Perhaps the scientific workers who developed and perfected the radio tube were ... guileless as to motive," he asserted. "But in terms of social consequences, these playboys of the laboratories brought into the world hopes, apprehensions, marvels, and grotesqueries greater than they could have anticipated."

Modern America, these thinkers maintained, was beset with the same problems. "The ether," Rorty liked to write, "is a mirror: this confusion of voices out of the air merely echoes our terrestrial confusion." Such critics looked at the nation in the Depression and saw an enormous society interlaced with a web of invisible threads that distributed standardized products and concentrated authority.

As these public intellectuals might have explained it in their bleaker moments, mass culture fostered a vast, overwhelming, and intrusive landscape upon which only centralized authorities could leave meaningful marks. In defining the mass culture of their century, these thinkers clustered around and made visible two intertwined schools of thought: one concerned with the dangers posed by creating a single set of stories, ideas, values, and entertainments to be consumed by the overwhelming majority; the other, wary of centralizing the production of that culture in the hands of a few. Each raised vital problems for individuals in modern America.

In the former camp, critics such as William Orton attacked radio for fostering the mass consumption of culture. Radio's ability to reach the masses, these critics explained, led broadcasters to create only programs that appealed to an enormous, undifferentiated audience. Consequently, the mass media eroded elite cultural standards and the diversity of listeners; such thinkers feared that the homogenizing influences of mass culture menaced unique thought, creativity, and personal identity. As that mass culture, and the social changes it represented, intruded into everyday lives these critics worried it would melt individual excellence and distinction into a common sludge. If the only standards that counted were those of the populace as a whole, such thinkers wondered, were individuals no longer relevant? If so, what did democracy mean?

Others assailed radio from a more radical position, focusing on the impact a mass-produced culture had on social power in America. Commentators such as James Rorty blamed the new broadcasting system for sharply concentrating authority. With access to the airwaves limited, only select groups could effectively step out into a massive public sphere and make their voices heard. For everyone else-the many who could not mass-produce their voices so the entire nation could hear-free speech and meaningful political participation would become an anachronism, civic democracy a thing of the past. To Rorty and most in this school, the major danger here was tied to capitalism: as a national medium run by a few corporate interests, radio enhanced big business's power to control society.

The risks inherent in a broadcasting system that narrowed control of the production of culture are perhaps plainest in the thinking of several African American public intellectuals. To these critics, it was painfully clear that the centralization of radio networks meant blacks had limited means of shaping the new national conversations, those that took place through the increasingly dominant medium. Many of these African American commentators had experienced firsthand how a mass-produced media denied diverse groups access to the ears of the public.

Of course, not all Americans, or even all intellectual commentators, worried about the new medium overpowering individuals. A notable minority among public intellectuals praised radio-and the idea of mass culture in general-as inherently empowering to audiences: the effort to attract a mass audience, they claimed, meant popular tastes controlled broadcasting. Unlike radio's critics, the medium's defenders saw little to fear in the new medium, at least in part because they saw little to fear in a democracy focused on masses rather than individuals. Democracy, they implicitly argued, did not require personal diversity or individually empowered citizens, but majority rule. And the commercial system ensured this, such thinkers claimed: listeners voted in blocs by turning their dials. The rule of the masses through such a consumer democracy, these supporters of radio asserted, was truly democratic.

Radio's intellectual defenders' idea that mass culture bowed to the will of the populace had considerable endurance, but it ignored the realities of broadcasting, modern America, and how power operated in a centralized system. On the other side, those intellectuals critical of radio also overstated the case, depicting an almost entirely oppressive mass culture. But their critiques-and implicit debate with radio's defenders-resonated nonetheless. William Orton, James Rorty, and others accurately identified America's new mass culture and recognized the genuine problems that culture posed for individuals.

The two camps of intellectuals critical of radio, in fact, had much in common as they defined their mass culture: the world emerging by the 1930s combined both mass production and mass consumption. Ultimately, most critics feared that mass culture was creating a mass public, at the expense of the individual and democracy. Radio, such commentators argued, helped give rise to an expanded public sphere composed of homogeneous aggregates instead of individuals. The mass medium pushed a new culture into people's daily lives, devaluing personal distinction and autonomy there; and it denied ordinary individuals a way to move beyond their personal circles and speak to the common polity. Meaningful pluralism of thought and meaningful free speech had no place in the mass culture radio's critics saw looming. As Americans integrated radio into their daily lives in the Depression, public intellectuals developed understandings of radio and its world that would influence critical approaches to broadcasting for decades. More than that, though, those understandings of the mass culture aptly described some of the challenges facing America in the 1930s and for the rest of the century.

William Orton and the Mass-Consumption Critique

For many of those public intellectuals critical of radio, the dangers they saw around them threatened to eliminate personal distinction and individuals' abilities to act meaningfully. The mass culture this group saw increasingly saturating their world was, at its heart, culture designed for mass consumption. The commercial network system prodded broadcasters to maximize their audiences, creating programs intended to capture the attention of huge blocs of listeners across the nation. In the pursuit of audience shares for advertisers, critics with this consumerist orientation observed, American radio distributed common stories and messages for a common taste. But such uniform thinking did not actually exist throughout the nation, they cried; radio invented it. Consequently, many of these thinkers lamented, the individual no longer counted: real people blurred into an abstract mass; distinction and action gave way to passive uniformity. This was no small fear. To commentators who often shared a classically liberal faith in unleashing the individual for the benefit of all, a program that threatened diversity of thought and the value of the individual would be a neutron bomb. The risks were real. What would happen to cultural and social progress in such a world? If personal efficacy and diversity eroded, did democracy wash away? Most fundamentally, if the public sphere existed in aggregate only, could one relate to the modern world as an individual? Those who analyzed a mass-consumed culture feared they knew the answer.

The future looked bleak to this group, in part, because the present sounded bleak. Those who staked out this critique tended to center their attacks upon Radio's Challenges: Public Intellectuals and Mass Culture 21 the cultural form itself-the medium and particularly its programs-rather than focusing on either the broader, more systemic issues shaping the form or upon listeners. Critics of mass-consumed radio began by bemoaning the quality of what they could hear on the air. Most, however, moved beyond that, looking both to the causes and effects of that programming. They recognized that the commercial nature of broadcasting created an imperative to find and appeal to a mass audience. And it was this tendency of mass culture that doomed American broadcasting and endangered the place of the individual in modern society. Mass culture devalued personal distinction and free thought, mass-consumption critics said; and in doing so, it threatened to create a world with no room for democracy and cultural uplift. Instead of active thinkers and actors, radio called for a society made of passive consumers. To these commentators, this shift predated and extended far beyond network broadcasting, but radio had made the values and tendencies of a mass culture impossible to elude.

Of those critics, the most prolific and articulate on the subject of radio and culture for mass consumption was Smith College economist William Orton. Widely diverse thinkers, from the likes of Ring Lardner to historians Charles and Mary Beard, shared related views of radio, but none expressed the complexities of their common vision so thoroughly or cohesively in the 1930s. Born in England in 1889, Orton grew up immersed in high culture, giving public recitals on both piano and organ before he was twenty. After serving in World War I, he moved to the United States and Smith in 1922, where he taught and wrote until his death in 1952. In the 1930s Orton allied himself loosely with efforts by educators to reform radio: in addition to writing for a general audience, Orton occasionally addressed the moderate reform group, the National Advisory Council on Radio in Education. Never a political radical, Orton combined a concern for the individual with the acceptance of government planning to lay the foundation of his progressive, general-interest writings. According to Smith faculty remembering Orton when he died, his life and work was shaped by his belief in "the freedom of the human spirit in the true liberal tradition."


Excerpted from RADIO'S AMERICA by BRUCE LENTHALL Copyright © 2007 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Bruce Lenthall is director of the Center for Teaching and Learning and adjunct assistant professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania.

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