Susan J. Douglas. Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2004.
Susan Douglas argues that throughout the 20th century, radio helped, alongside the newspaper, to create both Benedict Anderson’s understanding of “imagined community” as well as Lizabeth Cohen’s notion of a “conspiratorial sense of national difference.” Unlike the newspaper, however, the auditory aspect of radio allows the listener to imagine and create mental images and the orality fosters strong collective sensibility.
Interest in the etherial world helped make radio a perfect medium for nation-building. As Jackson Lears notes in Fables of Abundance, Americans diverted their attention to pleasures of the “sky” as oppose to pleasures of the “ground.” As a physicist, Sir Oliver Lodge connected the interest in spiritualism to the radio while newspapers, magazines, and books referred to the electromagnetic spectrum creating “empyrean” voices which were “borne in the moonbeams” to talk to disembodied spirits of the dead.
The interest in etherial voices fueled an amateur radio movement, that in the early days of radio, clogged the airwaves. Most of these amateur radio operators were men, desperate to find individual autonomy in a world inspired by Joseph Conrad and Jack London, as well as highly routinized industrial work. DXing (listening to stations broadcast from far away towns) allowed for imagining national unity while maintaining ethnic cohesion and pride.
The clutter of amateur ham operators on the airwaves prompted the FRC to reallocate frequencies in 1928 to large networks who did not want many varied regional or subcultural listening publics. Networks, for instance, standardized jazz broadcasts by favoring slower tempos and “sweeter arrangements” of Guy Lambardo, Casa Loma, Glen Miller, and Benny Goodman. White American listeners tuned in to pretend they were escaping from alienation and routinization of an increasingly technological world. Taking from a similar argument she makes in Where the Girls Are, Douglas argues that the verbal puns in Freeman Gosden and Charles Correl’s Amos ’n’ Andy and Bud Abbott and Lou Castello’s “Who’s on First” routine were both revolutionary and conservative. These shows and their displays of male verbal agility insisted that the resistance and persistence, aggression and energy of American manhood had yet to be doused, despite the ongoing economic catastrophe.
As networks standardized programming and solidified control over airwaves, they created what Adorno called the “Culture Industry” (1944) In a an article titled “Radio Symphony,” (1941) Adorno argues that although stations played classical music, too many of the radio initiates liked Rimsky-Korsakov and Dvorak (ranked "not as good" by "25 musically interested individuals") instead of Bach and Brahms, because, the former composers' music relied on "emotional appeal" and "Slavic melancholy;' and was derivative of "folk tunes.” But that reliance on “emotional appeal” thrived in broadcast journalism as individuals such as Edward Murrow “created a sense of intimate participation in a larger world.” Not only did they provide on the ground coverage (London, in Murrow’s case) of World War II, but appealed to their audience by speaking directly and colloquially in a nation-building and anti-isolationist stance. Emotional appeal also thrived in sports broadcasting as the sounds of the game over the radio intermixed with the sensory experiences of everyday life: the smell of the barbecue grill, the sight of dusk, the sounds of kids yelling in the neighborhood. And like ham operators in the 1920s, sports broadcasters reminded the nation that an American “imagined community" was defined by male achievement.
The monopolistic control over the airwaves fell during the 1950s. Television gained prominence and became the new “network-dominated mass media.” But FCC chairman Lawrence Fly was determined that airwaves provide more intellectual and ideological diversity and the number of small stations in the late 1940s increased by 500 percent. Thanks to portable radios, which teenagers, moms, and dads could take anywhere, radio began to appeal to segmented markets, notably teenagers listening to R&B and rock and roll. But over time, due to payola scandals regarding DJs (as opposed to the stations themselves) receiving payouts from record companies, stations began to standardize their programming, creating Top 40 radio in the mid-1960s.
In response to the new “homogenization” of AM radio, listeners began to tune into FM radio. Many AM networks “duplicated” their signal on FM, but by the early 1960s, FCC Commissioners Robert E. Lee (ouch) and Kenneth Cox argued that frequencies had become so scare networks could no longer “duplicate” their broadcasts and FM frequencies opened up. Although it lacked the long-distance power of AM DXing and generally was reserved for hi-fi rich snobs, by the 1970s FM was perfect medium to broadcast stereo and album-oriented-rock. The DJs on AM became too cliched, too reliant on jingles, and too reliant on singles (if not too reliant on Top 40). FM radio became what AM radio had become in the early 1950s: unique and progressive. However, by the 1980s, the Reagan-era of paranoia and death of the counter-culture meant that the uniqueness of FM radio had died and instead become standardized as well.
At the time of writing (2004), where Douglas sees “surprise, irreverence, and iconoclasm” on radio occurs in talk-show and NPR. On the one hand, NPR and Rush Limbaugh/Howard Stern/Don Imus both tapped into the privatization of American life occurring during the 1980s and they found ways for Americans to be apart of an “imagined community.” However, while NPR (tried) to fore-front women and minorities and make them apart of the imagined community, talk radio relied on conservative masculinist rhetoric to define what it meant to be “American.” Talk radio thrived not only because it tapped into the “Silent Majority” but also relied on deregulation by the FCC which, in 1987, abandoned the “Fairness Doctrine,” regulation in place since 1934 which ensured that stations must present opposing views.
Douglas tells a story of radio regulation and deregulation – consolidation and fragmentation. She ends with a chapter championing ham operators: not necessarily because of the masculinist postering, but because of their bottom up solution to issues and general interest in cosmopolitanism and democratization. Although in an era where radio is dying out, she argues that DIY radio can battle against cultural homogeneity while contributing to an “imagined American community”