Kirkus Reviews QR Code
LISTENING IN by Susan J. Douglas


Radio and the American Imagination, from Amos 'n' Andy and Edward R. Murrow to Wolfman Jack and Howard Stern

by Susan J. Douglas

Pub Date: April 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-8129-2546-7
Publisher: Times/Henry Holt

An informative and entertaining ride across the country and the radio dial from the 1920s to the present. Far from being simply TV’s poor old mom, argues Douglas (Media and American Studies/Univ. of Michigan; Where the Girls Are,1994), radio has been a seminal force in American culture. Even in the age of the Internet and cable TV, it remains the medium to which Americans turn “to alter or sustain particular emotional states,” whether it’s the nostalgia of oldies stations or the anger vented on talk radio. In her historical overview of the medium, Douglas sees racism both exploited and exploded by the popular Amos ‘n’ Andy show, with further race-mixing coming from blues, jazz, and other music stations. The author depicts radio comedy as a continuation of vaudeville’s wordplay, exemplified by Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First” routine. On the political front, radio not only first broadcast presidential debates, but also allowed FDR to undercut legislative opposition by appealing directly to listeners. The two world wars gave rise to broadcast journalism and the classic voice of Edward R. Murrow (prototype for Walter Cronkite), who Douglas believes helped convince Americans to reject isolationism. Whether through entertainment, sports events, or war news, coast-to-coast radio broadcasts “created a sense of a national culture,” the author argues. But radio was also the medium of rebellion (especially for teens) in the decades after WWII, as ham radio, the hi-fi, the transistor, and then the Walkman made “listening to music a daily requirement for millions” and helped preserve regional, linguistic, and cultural differences. The success of satellite-driven syndicates like those featuring Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern may finally quell rebel radio, fears Douglas, by denying a mike to anyone without an audience of millions. Warmly analyzing the medium’s uniquely intimate relationship with listeners, this thoughtful history shows radio awakening our personal and national imagination. (8 pages b&w photos, not seen)