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Points on the Dial: Golden Age Radio beyond the Networks

by Alexander Russo
Duke University Press, Durham, 2010
278 pp., illus. 11 b/w. Trade, $23.95
ISBN: 978-0-8223-4532-9.

Reviewed by John F. Barber
Creative Media & Digital Culture
Washington State University Vancouver


The so called "golden age" of radio (the 1920s-1950s) is often cited as a time of focused listening to live, commercially sponsored national network broadcasts. Radio, according to several historians and critics of the medium, unified the nation during this time, not only in terms of programming, but also, as part of or resulting from that programming, socially, politically, and culturally. Points on the Dial: Golden Age Radio beyond the Networks, by Alexander Russo, disputes and disrupts this vision of network-centered radio, positing instead a vision of intermingled national, regional, and local programming, along with distinctly different regional and local sponsorship patterns and methods of distribution. The result is a diversity of practices, obscured until now by the network-centric focus of current radio history, which set the stage for radio in the second half of the twentieth century.

Current, consensual histories of radio view the development of network-centric systems of content production and distribution as "a natural function of consumer choice and democratic action," says Russo (188). Radio networks responded to consumer desires for new products and diversions and built systems to highlight the production and distribution of live content meant to convince audiences they were hearing exactly what they would hear were they present at the site of the original production/presentation. Russo's account of radio broadcasting's development challenges this view.  For example, Russo argues that the rise of radio networks was based, rather than on national unification as the networks claimed, on the desire for a larger share of the potential national advertising market. Networks forced local stations to carry specific programming, and the accompanying advertising. Local stations often acquiesced, as this was the only way to obtain the most popular programming then demanded by audiences. Advertisers were forced to place advertising buys in markets that did not represent their customer base. This packaging of content and access provided best benefit to the networks, but not always to advertisers, local stations, or audiences.

Rather than and despite of a unified network-centric model, Russo says much of radio's historical record was always "a hybrid system with local, regional and national interests, tastes, and concerns intermingling throughout institutions, programming, and audience responses" (189).  Such internetworks "required constant revision and modification" (19) in order to influence the construction and maintenance of imagined communities and audiences. This work of the network, although it appeared uniform, consistent, and singular, was, in fact, limited, unstable, and hybrid.

To develop this point, Russo devotes chapters to radio's geographies, as he calls them: national, regional, and local information networks alternatively seen as sites of community and conflict; sound-on-disc recordings as an alternative distributive technology to wired networks; the spatial and temporal flow of spot advertising; and locating human attention in a world increasingly mobile and not focused on a single radio.

National networks were unable to extend their wired connection capabilities to every market, every community, leaving gaps which were filled by regional and local broadcasters more attuned to the wants and needs of their audiences. These audiences needed content and program producers and distributors responded with electrical recording technologies like sound-on-disc transcriptions of live events that avoided the problems, and outright prohibitions, associated with using recordings. Whether regional or national, programming was increasingly produced with intentional content gaps that could be filled with spot advertisements and programming that focused on genres or content tailored to specific locations and identities, thus localizing national brands by giving them, seemingly, local presences.

Finally, changing and often distracted practices of listening to radio programming resulted in local radio stations developing programs based around talk and music, both of which could be location specific in their appeal. As a result, rather than specific content that required listening at specific times, radio became more of an accompaniment to one's life, an endeavor that could be entered and exited with little loss of meaning or potential for confusion. Localized spot sales via station representatives, ad hoc arrangements of regional networks for live programs, locally assembled news and music programs, block programming facilitated by disk jockeys, record and tape libraries, and the tension between disk jockeys and single owners of groups of regional radio stations all led to new forms of radio production and listening. These heretofore hidden aspects of radio's golden years, often missing from consensus histories, function, according to Russo, as increasingly autonomous actors, all figuring in the fragmentation of radio production, text, and audience in the 1950s and the rebirth of radio throughout the remainder of the twentieth century.

Points on the Dial: Golden Age Radio beyond the Networks is not only interesting but also informative. If Russo's read on radio is right, history may help inform the nature of radio as it proceeds into a digital era where geographies of consumption and listening are drastically altered by the technologies of production and distribution.

Last Updated 16th August, 2010

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