Industry pro Rudel (Imagining Don Giovanni, 2001, etc.) chronicles radio’s early decades, when mavericks reigned and regulation was but a twinkle in Herbert Hoover’s eye.
Seen at the dawn of the 20th century as little more than a gizmo of scant interest to anyone but hobbyists, radio as a business had to be built from the ground up, often by people who didn't necessarily know what they were doing. Parallels with the pioneering days of personal computing are evident in Rudel’s narrative, which ambles in no particular hurry through a cavalcade of early innovators. Amid this huckster-heavy lot could be found the occasional true believer like Westinghouse engineer Frank Conrad, who received a commercial radio license in 1920. (Restricted to military use during World War I, transmitting facilities were returned to private ownership in 1919.) Conrad began playing records over the air in response to listeners’ letters, creating the first request show. Radio also boasted impresarios such as Rudy Vallée, who is remembered now for his lackluster film career but during the 1930s was a trailblazing radio orchestra conductor. Among the hucksters were a cornucopia of unsavory types, including holy-rolling scam artist Aimee Semple McPherson and the anti-Semitic Father Coughlin, who both commanded vast audiences. The most vividly rendered scoundrel is John Brinkley, the quack doctor who used his hugely successful Kansas radio station to promote a questionable surgery that supposedly increased potency by implanting goat testicles in men. Later sections on presidential addresses and broadcasts of sporting events become progressively less interesting, since those uses of radio are much the same today. The various anecdotes and character sketches are agreeable enough, but Rudel never adequately conveys radio’s momentous impact on society.
Dry-as-dust take on a carnival-like industry.