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IN THE DECADE before the Great Depression, radio burst onto the American scene and rapidly became one of the most important avenues of communication. Radio's popularity with the working class encouraged a few forward-thinking individuals in the labor movement to use this exciting new medium to reach a working-class audience. By the end of the 1920s, the trade-union movement had one small radio station in Chicago and close ties with the low-powered Socialist station in New York City. In addition, the American Federation of Labor sponsored several short series of educational programs that were broadcast on the major networks. Beyond these ventures, however, labor's use of radio was fairly limited, in large part because the conservative leadership of the AFL eschewed mass-mobilization tactics and was unable to envision radio as a tool that might influence the economic and political ideas of the American public.
The business community quickly embraced radio's commercial possibilities, but initially it too showed little interest in the powerof radio to promote its ideological interests. Corporate America reigned supreme through the 1920s, making concerted use of radio to promote a business agenda seem superfluous. Not until the depths of the Depression jolted the nation's confidence in American capitalism did corporations begin to experiment with radio as a pubic relations tool capable of restoring the credibility of individual companies and, more importantly, shaping public thinking about pressing economic and social questions. In the 1930s, the business community made radio into an important weapon for deflecting criticism from organized labor and keeping at bay a more intrusive federal government.
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Radio was the most significant leisure-time innovation of the 1920s. Combined with movies, mass-circulation magazines, telephones, automobiles, and chain stores, radio helped propel America into a modern era that emphasized leisure, consumption, and amusement. As the newest instrument of the mass media, radio promoted a "new national self-awareness," which made Americans conscious of themselves as living through a period of vast change. At the same time, it helped forge the consumer culture that exists today. In many ways, radio epitomized this new consumer culture. Entrepreneurs quickly linked radio to advertising, encouraging workers to find satisfaction through consumption and individual self-fulfillment rather than in their labor and their communities. Moreover, the emergence of national networks in the late 1920s helped strengthen radio's power as a homogenizing force. As Lizabeth Cohen has shown, however, workers were not passive recipients of commercialized culture. Because radio had strong local elements, workers helped shape as well as partake of this exciting conveyor of mass culture.
Radio was initially very much a local phenomenon. During the early part of the twentieth century, thousands of radio enthusiasts, mostly young men and boys, operated amateur transmitting stations. These early experiments in broadcasting came to a halt during World War I, when the government ordered the amateurs to shut down. After the war, commercial interests, department stores, newspapers, electrical manufacturers, and even a laundry discovered broadcasting. In November 1920, Westinghouse Electric Company's experimental station in Pittsburgh, KDKA, began transmitting from the top of the firm's factory-the first station to broadcast regularly scheduled programs. The following year, along with twenty-five other stations, it received a license from the Department of Commerce. By 1923 there were 556 mostly small stations on the air, many operated by companies seeking to sell their products. Almost a third of these early stations, however, were owned by churches, universities, and other groups interested in public service.
As Susan J. Douglas observes, early radio programming was "locally produced for local audiences," and it reflected the concerns and talents of local listeners: informational talks, lots of music, local church services, and vaudeville-type entertainment performed by hometown talent. Much of this programming, provided by ethnic, religious, and labor groups, was nonprofit and community-oriented. In urban areas, stations carried "nationality hours" aimed at the largest ethnic groups in the city. Rural stations broadcast vital weather reports, and stations in southern mill towns promoted the talent of local string bands, many of whom were comprised of mill workers. Although offerings were typically unpolished, many listeners enjoyed hearing the voices of local performers. Hearing their own language or their own music helped strengthen and legitimize listeners' sense of ethnic or group identity.
Once businesses realized that there were profits to be made in radio advertising, the medium became increasingly commercialized and nationalized. By the end of the decade, two major commercial networks-the National Broadcasting Company and the Columbia Broadcasting System-had begun operations. Shows produced in New York City and transmitted throughout the nation supplanted local programming. Government regulation accelerated this trend. The Radio Act of 1927 required stations to operate in the "public interest, convenience, or necessity" and established the Federal Radio Commission (FRC) to bring order to the airwaves. The new regulatory commission, which was dominated by commercial broadcasters, argued that nonprofit groups were more likely to spread propaganda. It decided that the public interest would best be served by commercial broadcasters, and it allocated frequencies and power assignments in a way that forced most educational and nonprofit broadcasters off the air. Still, during the 1920s and early 1930s, there was no clear mandate for commercial broadcasting. Reformers advocated a nonprofit and noncommercial model controlled by the public. Mindful of the unease over commercialization of the airwaves, the networks stressed their commitment to public service and trumpeted their cultural and educational programming. This public service programming featured elements of high culture, such as classical music broadcasts and educational talks, including occasional speeches by labor leaders.
After the ascendancy of the networks, when families gathered for the evening around the radio, their listening experience likely differed from the pre-network days. Most often they tuned in to stations affiliated with one of the national networks. Many communities still had small, usually low-powered, non-network stations, but their low-budget offerings had difficulty competing with the elaborate network productions. The staple of network broadcasting shifted from music to comic and dramatic serial narratives such as "The Rise of the Goldbergs," "Amos 'n' Andy," and "Fibber McGee and Molly." Big-name variety shows such as "The Fleischmann's Yeast Hour" with Rudy Vallee and "The Kraft Music Hall" with Al Jolson and Bing Crosby also attracted large audiences. This format mixed vaudeville humor with concert-hall or nightclub performances. Daytime network broadcasting targeted women and children. By 1936, half of the daytime schedule was devoted to soap operas, with their complicated stories of intrigue, romance, and betrayal. The 1930s also saw the development of broadcast journalism. Particularly in the latter part of the decade, as tensions heated up in Europe, Americans learned to tune in to the networks for news commentary that brought the world into their living rooms.
First local broadcasting and then network radio caught the imagination of the American public. In 1922, when only 2 percent of households had radio receivers, the New York Times observed that "radio phoning has become the most popular amusement in America." The size of the radio audience grew at a phenomenal pace, and radio became an integral part of daily life. By 1930 almost half of American homes had radio receivers, and a survey conducted the previous year found that 80 percent of those who owned a radio listened daily. The Depression proved no detriment to the diffusion of radio. In the early 1930s, set prices dropped dramatically to an average of thirty-four dollars. The 1940 census revealed that radio reached almost 83 percent of American families. With the average listener tuning in for over four hours each day, radio listening was America's favorite pastime.
Many of these listeners were workers. During the 1930s, half of the poorest Americans owned sets. Group listening was common in the pre-World War II era, so even those without receivers often had access to programming. Market research showed that radio particularly appealed to the working class. Lower-income families, for instance, were more likely to listen than those at higher income levels. While radio-ownership levels were highest in the industrial states of the East and Midwest and lower in the South, the historian Jacquelyn Hall found that southern mill workers also were devoted to their favorite shows. In 1930, for instance, textile workers in Gastonia, North Carolina, asked their employer to start the workday earlier so they could be home in time to listen to "Amos 'n' Andy." One textile worker, Ralph Latta, recalled that it was impossible to avoid hearing the show in working-class neighborhoods. "'If it was summertime, or a lot of times in wintertime, because people played their radios pretty loud, I could listen to that all the way. They said that the world was nearer at a standstill during that thirty minutes than any other thirty minutes during the twenty-four hours.'" The historian Richard Butsch writes that destitute families during the Depression, who were forced to sell the radio that had helped make life more bearable during these harsh times, described the loss of this prized possession "as a considerable hardship."
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During the 1920s and early 1930s, intrigued by radio's potential and aware of its powerful appeal to workers, some unionists began urging the labor movement to explore this new medium. Radio offered labor the opportunity to bypass the more established commercial mass media. Unions already had a long list of grievances against the mass media of the 1920s. They charged, for instance, that the commercial press was dominated by big business and paid little attention to workers or unions except during labor strife, which newspapers routinely misrepresented or condemned. Movie treatment of unions was hardly more favorable. As Steven Ross recounts, ideologically conservative films attacked organized labor and radicals, while liberal films were often sympathetic to individual workers but treated collective action with skepticism.
Radio had the potential to shape public opinion and was not yet under complete corporate control. Unionists hoped it might combat anti-union propaganda while improving the image of organized labor and advancing the causes of social justice and economic democracy. To members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, radio had become the "unrivaled master of human destiny," overshadowing and "outreaching all other means of communication." The electrical workers predicted that whoever controlled radio would control the nation. Comparing radio to the "air we breathe, or the sunlight that gives us life," they argued that it "must be charged with a public trust" and that no corporation should be permitted to appropriate broadcasting.
Much of the impetus for labor's foray into radio came from unionists who had supported the production of worker-made films in the 1910s. These films mixed entertainment with radical politics and helped give a voice to workers' "desires, dreams, and discontents" while humanizing the image of unionists and radicals. Challenging the dominant conservative discourse of most commercial movies, worker-made films emphasized that strikes and class conflict are the result of employer exploitation of ordinary Americans. Working-class audiences cheered for radicals, strikers, and union leaders on screen, and some workers were inspired to become active in the labor movement. Appalled at the powerful reaction to these movies, state and local government censors fought to keep worker films out of the theaters. Censorship, the rise of the studio system, and the arrival of the talkies, which were much more expensive to make, helped destroy the worker-film movement in the 1920s.
Excerpted from Waves of Opposition by Elizabeth Fones-Wolf Copyright © 2006 by Elizabeth Fones-Wolf. Excerpted by permission.
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