Elena Razlogova. The Listener's Voice: Early Radio and the American Public. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.
Razlogova argues that the listener’s “voice” played a fundamental part in the development of American broadcasting by revolting against the impersonal bureaucratic nation state and modern industrial society. They believed in what Elizabeth Cohen calls “moral capitalism,” a social order where industrial employers had a responsibility to provide a fair share for their workers. She intervenes in scholarship by Robert McChesney and Lizabeth Cohen who argued that listeners failed to articulate alternatives to the network system.
Despite networks’ attempt to provide clean unmediated sound to a private listener, radio responses to the Jack Dempsey/Georges Carpentier boxing match (1919) demonstrated that listeners preferred to hear the “sound of the ring” and listen in public. Due to the mismatch in aesthetic opinions, stations turned to listeners for advice on how to broadcast. Thanks to the prominence of ham operators, GE, Westinghouse, and AT&T all relied on amateur radio suggestions, but maintained all patent and copyright. New York’s WJZ installed “sensitive pick-up microphones” for a 1922 fight so that listeners could hear the whistles and gongs of the match.
Although by 1927 the FCC granted the best frequencies to large commercial stations such as Columbia, radio listeners still pushed back against this top-down dissemination of media. Listeners of WBKN in Brooklyn tuned into Jewish programming; audiences of WIBO in Chicago listened to Swedish religious services. To hear ethnic programming, listeners sometimes might have to DX (listen long-range). To do so, broadcasters cooperated in “silent nights” so that the AM radio waves could be better heard.
Listeners also published radio fan magazines which documented the tastes, styles, and lifestyles of listeners as well as served as “gossip” and tabloid journalism on the nation’s largest radio stars. Magazines such as Radio Stars and Radio Guide published popularity polls and editorials where listeners could ask questions about programming. Broadcasters, such as One Man’s Family writer, Carton Morse and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century’s E.R. Johnson responded to questions about why they killed off certain characters and why jazz was not a “passing fad.”
Broadcasters not only responded, but they relied on listeners’ comments to generate new content. Many even invited listeners to contribute to radio serials. Comedians like Jack Benny asked listeners to “keep writing those letters . . . You’re the boss and I’ll get it for you. Even if I have to keep my writers up all night to do it.” Soap opera writers, such as Jane Crusinberry, who wrote the Story of Mary Marlin, relied on listener suggestions to develop her plot in a way that foreshadowed audience/producer participation in Latin American soap operas in the 1990s.
However, in the late 1930s and throughout the 1940s, the Princeton Radio Research Project, staffed by Theodor Adorno, found more quantitative ways to measure audience satisfaction. Instead of looking at fan mail, marketing researchers and network executives held low opinions of their audience as passive and incompetent and relied on generalized surveys to create content. In this new formulaic system, writers lost creative autonomy and ratings-minded executives controlled the day-to-day production process and shows like Gangbusters no longer represented working-class culture as the working class saw it.
But while these networks gained control, listeners turned to DJs to reinstate listener/broadcaster reciprocity and reclaim “moral capitalism.” Razlogova intervenes in the market-driven understandings of the DJ era provided by Adam Green and Eric Rothenburg who argue that “DJs aimed to make money” and instead argues that "as disc jockeys invented new radio formats in collaboration with local audiences, they blurred the lines of ownership and control in music radio. The listeners who phoned, wrote to, and appeared on local music shows provided free labor and program content in exchange for a say in what music would go on the air.” While Billboard and Cash Box created quantitative measurements, DJs relied on unscientific methods of audience research by inviting phoned-in responses.
But thanks to the payola scandals, By the late 1950s, the new radio formats had become standardized, and the national music industry had reasserted its control over radio. Station managers curtailed disc jockeys’ relative autonomy in programming and promotional strategies. A new “Top 40” national music radio format reduced the role of the disc jockey to introducing national pop hits. In this format, radio no longer served as a public venue for the DJs’ diverse local constituencies.
While Douglas turns to ham radios for hope against homogenization and deregulation, Razglova turns to Wikileaks and Napster as examples of a “moral economy” that inspire “reciprocity” between Americans.