Saturday, January 8, 2011

Listening In

I've just finished quite an excellent historical/analytical book about America's changing relationship with radio called Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination by Susan J. Douglas. Many of the sources I've read up til now have focused on the "Golden Age" (and rightly so, as after that it's a bit difficult to dredge up enthusiasm), but this book really gives a strong grounding in the period from 1950-2000 and helps dramatize it with chapters on talk radio, sportscasting on radio, and the FM Revolution. Other sources have proclaimed that radio "didn't die" in the 1960s, it just entered a different sphere, and this book provokes thought and awareness about this. It's so natural for us born in the latter years of the 20th century to climb into a car and expect the radio to be playing, either music, commercials, or talk; for us to expect radio at the workplace and other out-of-the-home settings. Thinking about the way we listen is almost as important as thinking about what we listen to.

The book also champions ham operators who have really been responsible for far more than tinkering. While it covers familiar ground at the birth of radio in interesting and thoughtful tangents, its focus on the racial boundary-crossing of jazz and the real meat behind successful radio comedies in the 1930s makes for impressive scholarship. Though I was surprised at Douglas' assertion that radio has always underlined American masculinity through changing times (after all, she authored Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media), she makes a good case. From DXers with crystal sets in the nineteen-teens to anxious men with an interest in music using radio as a way to indulge in their hobby, from hi-fi fanatics to listeners to talk radio feeling disenfranchised and emasculated in the 1980s and '90s, there is an interesting thread linking men with radio.

It's really too bad for my purposes that she decided not to focus on radio drama. Does anyone know of a comparable book for the UK or Europe?