For most Americans in the mid-twentieth century, radio was an amazing invention. With just a twist of the dial a listener could tune in the greatest personalities in world affairs and show business. Radio brought current events and entertainment directly into the home, and it required little of a listener except time and imagination. It was often called a "theater of the mind" because broadcasting, as an audio-only medium, was fully realized only in the mind of the listener. Each person in the audience provided his own mental imagery of friendliness and sincerity when the pleasant voice of President Franklin D. Roosevelt began chatting with him from in front of an imaginary fireplace. It was the individual listener, too, who mentally provided the props and stage effects for the broadcast of a Shakespearian drama, and the substance that spoken words only suggested in an adventure or mystery program.
The physical principles of radio were not important to the average radio user. He cared little, and knew even less, about the way the vacuum tubes in the receiver actually worked. As long as they began to glow when he turned the knob and heard a familiar click—that was all he generally understood about broadcasting. The average listener was not really concerned with how the "air" or the "ether" carried sound waves, or about the way in which a station could transmit electrical impulses and have them received by a million radio sets simultaneously. What he did care about, however, was the programming he heard once he turned on his receiver.
For the vast majority of the citizenry, radio and the programs it carried were synonymous. To enjoy good programming, the American listeners were willing to endure static, transmission interference, commercials, shows they did not enjoy, and a certain amount of family argumentation over control over the receiver. But when they really liked a series, they remained loyal for two or three decades. Whether it was the adventurous Lone Ranger (twenty-two years), the heart-wrenching Ma Perkins (twenty-seven years), the uproarious Jack Benny Program (twenty-five years), or the soberly factual Lowell Thomas and the News (forty-six years), when a radio listener fell in love with a program, it was for keeps.
While scholars have produced substantial studies of the history of broadcasting, and encyclopedic compilations of program descriptions, little has been done to relate programming and program content to the life of the average listener. As a study in popular culture, this present book attempts to tie together the loose ends. It seeks to relate, within a historical context, the importance of broadcasting in the lives of most Americans. By bringing together the content of radio and the evolution of national life from 1920 to 1960, this book offers a perspective which sees culture—and especially the commercialized mass culture of the United States in the twentieth century—as a reflector and creator of popular values, attitudes, fantasies, and realities.
The book is divided into two complementary sections. The first traces the history of radio and its programs, seeking to understand the ways in which broadcasting arose and collapsed during the period 1920-1960. The second section looks more closely at distinct types of programs or social themes within radio during this time span. In this manner, merging the historical overview with in-depth genre and thematic considerations, the fullest comprehension of the significance of radio in popular culture can be gained.