The Missing Voice in Bruce Lenthall’s Radio’s America

In Radio’s America, Bruce Lenthall uproots his reader from the 21st century, propelling her into the Depression era and the dawn of modern mass culture. Lenthall discusses the complex arena of American society during the 1930s and 1940s, an amorphous domain that continually blurs the once distinct lines of the public and private spheres. Radio, Lenthall claims, propagated and sustained a new mode of discussion—one that enabled a few voices to influence the masses at unprecedented levels. The reader gains insight into radio’s communicative implications through different key players: public intellectuals, political figures, students of communication, aural artists, and citizens of America at large. Whether or not this novel, unidirectional form of mass communication subverted individual agency through isolation or empowered a once adrift and ineffectual citizenry by enabling it to fabricate a new, ethereal community is left up for debate. As Lenthall sheds light on potent perspectives from different camps, the reader gains nearly all the proper tools with which to resolve this question on her own.

Throughout each chapter in Radio’s America, Lenthall promotes a comprehensive understanding of mass culture in the 1930s and 1940s by distinguishing between competing perspectives of radio’s consequences and astutely elucidating significant overlaps. For instance, the disparity between William Orton’s mass-consumption critique and James Rorty’s mass-production critique is complicated by the fact that “the world emerging by the 1930s combined both mass production and mass consumption.”[1]  One cannot understand radio’s reverberations by subscribing to one belief or the other. Rather, radio posed a threat to healthy liberal democratic procedures by diminishing individuality and plurality (mass-consumption critique), and by granting a privileged few with the authority to direct, or misdirect, the masses on a whim (mass-production critique). Similarly, Lenthall discusses Paul Lazarsfeld’s social pragmatism and Herman Hettinger’s commercial pragmatism as tackling radio’s issues from contrasting schools of thought. The former identifies progress with governmental regulation of radio programs in order to advance a well-planned, educational, and individually-empowering broadcasting system; the latter puts faith in a laissez-faire approach, arguing that democracy thrives when blocks of individuals vote with their money to promote those corporations that best manage the radio. Lenthall obscures the polarity of these arguments by stating, “the social and commercial pragmatists both accepted the reality of their mass culture and the potential value of mass communication as a means of speaking within it.”[2] Although the two approaches to studying mass culture appear fundamentally opposed to one another, Lenthall emphasizes that they meet in the middle; they express two analyses that recognize the inevitability and value of mass culture in a modern democracy.

Despite his mostly equal treatment of contending concepts in Radio’s America, Lenthall fails to provide a worthwhile account of print as a prominent source of mass information that differs and competes with radio on a fundamental level while contributing to an informed public. Without establishing a thorough discussion of the newspaper, its respective aspects of mass production and consumption, and its cultural implications, Lenthall’s book lacks a well-grounded context in which to make substantial arguments about radio’s authentic influence as a source of information. Moreover, the way that Lenthall frames a brief discussion of the print media later in the book—through the voices of a select few and a quarreling Roosevelt and Hoover—embodies the very issue that Lenthall revisits throughout each chapter, namely the threat of a media producer’s biased influence over consumers.

Lenthall maintains that radio exercised unprecedented influence over mass consumers during the Great Depression. He makes claims like, “Radio…transformed the United States,”[3] and, “radio lay at the heart of this new culture.”[4] He invokes the opinions of others, such as historian Lizabeth Cohen, who asserts, “radio did more than any other medium to create a shared working-class culture.”[5] Although radio’s impact on American culture and politics is indisputably significant, by not devoting sufficient analysis towards newspapers, Lenthall demands an unjustified faith from his readers that radio, not the print media, or any other form of media at the time, was the key vehicle by which mass culture was fostered and propagated.

Using the introduction to Radio’s America as a means to set the social, economic, and cultural stages of the late 19th and early 20th century, Lenthall mishandles an opportune moment to present radio’s precedence relative to other forms of media. As Lenthall touches on the standardization and centralization of American ideals and values through innovative, sweeping means of communication, like the telegraph, he proceeds to mention, “Similarly, the growing newspaper wire services and chains made it more likely that readers would receive the same information, with perhaps the same slant, regardless of locale.”[6] Lenthall, here, suggests the long-established print media participated in the creation of mass-culture through the growth of its industry. However, in referring to his notes, one does not find significant references to texts on newspapers and their connection with modern mass culture. Rather, Lenthall states, “Around the turn of the twenty-first century, some have understood the [cultural] changes in terms of a revolution of communications,” and proceeds to catalog an array of texts on radio.[7] There is no secondary text reference dedicated to the print media, rendering Lenthall’s notes an incomplete attempt to refer readers to outside sources on the “revolution of communications”.

One gleans from Lenthall’s brief mention of print media in his introduction that newspapers previously operated on a local level, enabling and distributing a variety of voices and opinions to people. However, as the print media developed into a mass-producing, corporation-controlled system of entities, it “increasingly replaced face-to-face contacts as sources of information…and those papers rarely depended on actual intimate ties between publisher and audience, but conveyed information to an abstract readership.”[8] Lenthall makes similar arguments in later chapters about the radio’s abstract audience and the perceived—not real—intimate ties between broadcaster and listener. He writes, “The development of national network broadcasting in the late 1920s meant that listeners across the country could hear the same…ideas. The mass audience received a standardized, mass-produced product.”[9] Besides the literal, physical difference in medium, it is not clear why or how radio was distinct from the newspaper in terms of producing information and influencing the masses on a public and private level. Lenthall describes both mediums as proliferating a narrower range of voices on a wider scale, but designates an inconsequential amount of discussion towards the newspaper, indirectly, and falsely, rendering it irrelevant. In chapter three, “Radio’s Democracy”, the reader gains one last fleeting, poorly framed glimpse at the newspaper as it relates to radio.

Roosevelt, Lenthall makes clear in chapter three, dominated the airwaves, successfully navigating the medium’s features to win over the country’s heart. Because of his prosperity on the radio, the president championed the medium and disparaged the print media, as he claimed the latter often failed to properly portray the peoples’ affinity for him. Lenthall writes, “The print media, some listeners and politicians like Roosevelt alleged, veiled rather than revealed. To Roosevelt and his supporters, radio circumvented that barrier: the radio president saw the medium’s ability to inform a mass public as its most vital virtue.”[10] This may be true, but again, by not including an apt discussion of those who supported newspaper and its potential to disseminate information and promote a mass culture, Lenthall’s treatment of radio is unwarranted. Lenthall proceeds to display excerpts from individuals’ letters to the president, all of which praise the president and the radio as supplying unprecedented levels of information. One person writes, “The papers print only what they see fit to print,”[11] and, “The day of the newspapers and other indirect communication is passing.”[12] Every letter Lenthall uses, despite the occasional Roosevelt political dissenter, lauds the president and expresses disappointment with the print media. Referring to Lenthall’s notes, it is evident that these letters come from the FDR Library[13] and, therefore, do not include readers’ letters to entities like the Chicago Tribune. Including readers’ letters to their favorite newspaper, if such letters existed, as juxtaposition to the overwhelming amount of veneration for Roosevelt and radio ought to strengthen the reader’s understanding of mass media’s influence over the people. Lenthall does, however, highlight one voice of defiance: Hoover.

Particularly when Herbert Hoover did not hold office, and therefore did not have access to the radio’s microphone, Lenthall observes, he vocalized the dangers that radio posed to liberal democracy and championed the print media. Lenthall describes Hoover as maintaining, “the print media…kept politicians in line, filtering out their falsehoods”, and directly quotes the president in a 1937 speech as proclaiming, editors “maintain hourly battle against [propaganda]….They have the job of discrimination between propaganda and real news, between untruth and truth.”[14] However, Lenthall proceeds to observe that print media was losing its ability to hold government in check. Upon referring to the respective notes, one merely finds a discussion and citation to the newspaper-government relationship during the Vietnam War—leaving out important details as to why Hoover’s claims may be fallacious in the context of his time.[15] In the text, Lenthall paints Hoover’s reservations about the radio somewhat fairly, but immediately points out the flaws in the president’s analysis of radio. He writes, “[Hoover] failed to appreciate the concerns of ordinary Americans,”[16] claiming that the citizenry as a whole felt cut off from adequate information and from their government. This swift change in the text’s point of view offers Roosevelt the upper hand in Lenthall’s book, bearing the author’s disposition to favor Roosevelt and radio over Hoover and print media. He discusses Hoover’s argument, but essentially sweeps it under the table as he invokes the abstract mass of citizens that are apt to do away with newspapers and accept radio. In this sense, Lenthall’s reader plays the role of malleable citizenry, and the author becomes the voice of unchecked authority over a unidirectional medium.

Lacking the appropriate representation of newspaper as a supplemental means of disseminating information in Radio’s America, Lenthall’s otherwise comprehensive and informative discussion of radio yearns for a solid ground on which to base its claims. Those claims, as made evident throughout the book, are of radio’s extensive, groundbreaking, and abstruse impacts on modern mass culture. Fleeting references to the print media do not adequately express in the text, or definitively prove in the footnotes, any significant distinctions between radio and the newspaper. Without adequately comparing radio with print media, Lenthall fails to contend radio’s unprecedented level of communication and influence in America. The short discussion of Hoover’s contention with radio and his defending the paper is structured in such a way that quells Hoover’s argument and applauds Roosevelt and the radio—resembling one of the book’s themes of a biased few with control over the airwaves and, therefore, a monopoly over information.

Lenthall, Bruce. Radio’s America: The Great Depression and the Rise of Modern Mass Culture. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2007.

[1] Bruce Lenthall, Radio’s America: The Great Depression and the Rise of Modern Mass Culture (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2007), 21.

[2] Ibid., 165.

[3] Ibid., 5.

[4] Ibid., 18.

[5] Ibid., 77.

[6] Ibid., 9.

[7] Ibid., 214. N 9.

[8] Ibid., 10.

[9] Ibid., 57.

[10] Ibid., 98.

[11] Ibid., 99.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 235. N 28.

[14] Ibid., 103.

[15] Ibid., 236. N 36.

[16] Ibid., 104.

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