top of page

Bruce Lenthall. Radio's America: The Great Depression and the Rise of Modern Mass Culture. Chicago, IL. University of Chicago Press, 2008.

Bruce Lenthall argues that radio’s intimacy was a tool for people to come to terms with the distancing stresses (personal and cultural) that modernization was creating, with radio itself a prime example of a technological and social instrument of modernization. Radio, like cars in Cotten Seiller's account, paradoxically symbolized and helped intensify the anxieties it partially alleviated.

On the one hand, radio spurred the cultural progression that was then underway by encouraging a model of one person speaking to many, a form of political and cultural exchange that privileged some speakers while marginalizing most others. Some public intellectuals of the 1930s, such as economist William Orton (on the right) and Marxist journalist James Rorty (on the left) feared that mass culture would overwhelm individual voices and choices, cordoning off public speech to all but the powerful, who would use the airwaves to engineer mass mind. Orton believed radio producers created inferior, uniform, cultural products that eliminated not only high culture but also minority cultures. Rorty, on the other hand, criticized radio’s concentration of cultural production under corporate control so only a few individuals could decide what mass audiences were allowed to hear.

On the other hand, by looking at Roosevelt’s fireside chats, popular radio champions such as Father Charles Coughlin and Dr. John Brinkley, as well as the efforts by executives hoping that radio could make art matter, radio forged connections among listeners, programmers, and political leaders and enabled communities to develop across once impenetrable geographic barriers. Looking at letters sent to popular radio programs, Lenthall shows that listeners imagined personal relationships with announcers on entertainment and public affairs programs and found themselves, often for the first time in their lives, connected with an evolving complex national community and believing they had some influence in mass society.

While Coughlin and Brinkley represented regressive and conservative voices, left-leaning writers such as Norman Corvin, Archibald MacLeish, Stephen Vincent Benet, and Arch Oboler demonstrated the “laboring of American culture” and filled scheduled hours lacking advertiser support with Modernist radio plays that pushed critical social, economic, and political messages - a stance taken up by broadcast television ten years later. Although Lenthall admits that Cold-War McCarthysim pushed these radio playwrights from the air after the war, he sees their work as an answer to the criticisms of radio and mass culture by Rorty, Orton, and a critical scholar such as Theodor Adorno.

Lethal concludes that neither critics nor defenders got the significance of radio completely right. Like Spiegel argues with television, the meaning of radio, Lenthall argues, can be found in some delicate balances between individual authority and centralized mass culture. If Americans learned to accept the new rules of mass culture, such as the power of corporations to control broadcast programming, they also found ways to push back as individuals, leaving their stamp on the culture they inhabited. Radio’s uniqueness as a medium of expressive culture could and did utilitze its inherent properties for bringing new ideas and forms into the public consciousness, despite consolidated and ultimately money-driven culturally conservative control.

bottom of page