In the early years of radio listeners had great say in shaping the future of their favorite soaps, sports, and serials. Before the “sophisticated” marketing tools of today radio executives listened to their audiences. Telegrams, letters, and other communiqués helped inform the future of radio––down to plot twists, the choice of broadcasters, and microphone placement.
Although there were attempts at creating homogenized radio stations, robbing local markets of their character and depriving far-flung listeners from the rich character that these regional stations displayed, listeners thwarted these attempts, creating and supporting early pirate stations and championing others that resisted corporate mandates and instead stepped boldly into the next frontier.
Elena Razlogova chronicles all this in The Listener’s Voice: Early Radio and the American Public, a well-researched volume that comes close to hitting its mark but does not make the kind of bold strides its characters did––the very thing that would allow the topic the rich vibrancy it so clearly deserves. Razlogova’s prologue, “The Moral Economy of American Broadcasting”, describes the populist rebellion against the rising tide of the impersonal and the importance which defying this trend had in uniting the American public. The language they used? Impassioned? Their protests? Hopeful.
It’s this early spirit that Razlogova writes about with appropriate passion that informs the rest of the narrative. Reading this, you can almost feel the author attempting to make connections between the populist sentiments of early radio and digital communications today––on at least one occasion she uses the phrase “social network” when discussing the bonds radio created. But she resists temptation and holds out on creating an explicit connection until the book’s epilogue, when she discusses the similar ethics that govern contemporary concerns such as Wikileaks.
Hers is, of course, an historical account, but with such obvious parallels looming in the ether, it seems forgivable that she would more explicitly acknowledge these similarities, allowing readers to spring forward into discussion with this material in hand rather than attempting to supplement it in order to make more concrete the somewhat nebulous connections present here.
Additionally, many of the seven chapters seem worthy of longer studies themselves––while her insightful discussions of the way that listener demands set the tone for sports broadcasting, from its advent until the present day, how listeners helped write scripts for early radio programs through their mail, their pleas, their demands, their suggestions, and the role that payola played in the early days of R&B broadcasting, are all equally fascinating, the ultimate impression the reader arrives at is one of feeling that the conversation is somehow incomplete and that these disparate elements might benefit from more in-depth coverage. (And, as has been previously stated, more explicit bonds.)
Razlogova is a writer but not a stylist, and thus the voice found here is pleasant enough but not as distinct as it might be. What we ultimately have is a decent book from a decent author on a topic that demands something bold, something audacious. In the end The Listener’s Voice is a primer, rather than an authoritative tome.