With the very opening line—“Milford, Kansas. Population 200—not counting animals.”—you know you’re in for quite a story. Indeed, radio personality Anthony Rudel recounts a pivotal time in American culture and media, one that seems so quaint and almost ironic, given the instantaneous nature of communications today. It’s like the old man sitting on the porch steps talking about, “Remember the day when we all sat around the Victrola and listened to the Babe call out his shots …”
Nostalgic, certainly, but as goes the cyclical nature of human life and societies, so Rudel’s in-depth history of the period in American history between 1922-1941 is timely. Extremely timely, in fact. While today we have bailouts, yesteryear there was the Depression, and the parallels—economic recession, journalistic integrity and fear-mongering, governmental uncertainty, big business disguised as religious fundamentalism, a world of advertisements dictating who we are and what we need to buy—conjure images we only need to peek outside our window to witness. Before we get there, we have another starting point: goat balls.
Well, goat tissue to be exact, but Rudel begins (and nearly ends) his journey with John Romulus Brinkley, a self-appointed doctor (read: quack) who treated thousands upon thousands of men with a “deflated tire” by inserting goat tissue into their genitals. The man turned his career as an ex-Vaudville salesman into a multi-million dollar business.
He was one of radio’s early pioneers, using his charismatic and emotional voice to sell Midwestern women elixirs they didn’t know they needed to cure problems they didn’t know they had, and turned the sleepy town of Milford into a pharmaceutical wonderland … for a time. Like all good things that aren’t real (and even those that are), they must end. And so it did for Brinkley, on 26 May 1942, dying while reading his Bible. His former fortune a mere sliver of what it was, with his attempts at sidestepping American regulation by building a radio tower in Mexico eventually failing him.
This is not a story about Brinkley, though his rags-to-riches tale about a career and bank account made in radio is not unique. Rudel recalls some pretty amazing tales, like the atheist-turned-evangelical Aimee Semple McPherson, who turned a million dollar church into a national business before supposedly running away with another woman’s husband while claiming to be kidnapped in the desert. Yes, radio had a big part to play in her life, just as it did for the Scopes monkey trial, in which Tennesseans upheld (and probably still uphold) that any teaching that denies creationism is punishable by law.
These and many more fascinating stories all occurred during a time when America went from a newspaper-informed society to one of instant access—at the speed of radio waves, which of course pales in comparison to the Internet. Now, for the comparisons.
There are a few constants that run through the course of radio history, the more prevalent being “a battle in what would become the war over who actually owned the radio spectrum: individuals or the government.” Like today’s Cyberworld, very few regulations existed in the early days, when the governing body—mostly led by progressive ideas and legislation by Hoover—had to push the idea of listening to invisible waves to its nation. Once it caught, however, radio spread like wildfire, and then the government had to work in reverse.
The 1920s was a time of numerous contradictions, none greater than the constant partying of that roaring decade being tempered by Prohibition. Of course, when the Depression hit, things flipped, without irony an exact precursor to the Internet boom of the ‘90s deflated by the nation’s current recession.
The outspokenness of certain public figures against their administration also mimics the current era. During the 1932 election campaign season, the first to spend absurd amounts of money on radio advertising (which, up until a few years prior, was being debated as to whether the industry should make money for advertising or be “free” for the people), Will Rogers attacked Herbert Hoover at a rally by stating that the Republicans “give us three bad years and one good one, but the good one is the voting year. Elections are always just a year too late for the Democrats.” That year they weren’t, however; due to his large radio presence, Roosevelt was victorious during those economically challenged times.
And what do we have today? A president-elect who harnessed the power of email and online fundraising to win in a landslide victory. Remember, John McCain admitted to just learning how to use email during the campaign, while my inbox was flooded by messages, links, and pleas from Obamanites. In fact, Rudel realized this point and blogged eloquently about it, summing up by writing, “Barack Obama and his campaign have once again redefined how media and politics can mesh seamlessly. Whether it was fundraising over the internet, or texting important information to cell phones, the Obama campaign brilliantly connected with voters.”
To understand the culture, you have to live in the culture, and so when politicians—when anyone—stays abreast of the evolving media, they emerge ahead. We too have our Will Rogers, many in fact, who for years have spoken out against the Bush administration, and used the power of the Internet to spread their gospel: Keith Olbermann, Jon Stewart, Steven Colbert, Greg Palast, and others are on top of their game.
During the Depression, radio was the balm of the culture; today, it is the Internet. While unemployment broke 20 pecent and shantytowns were generated by ailing families, Radio City Music Hall was constructed in midtown Manhattan, a symbol of the “upcoming” boon in the economy. Today, we have similar promises: I live in Jersey City, New Jersey, a stone’s throw from Manhattan, where developers are erecting 50,000 condominium and apartment units by the year 2020, each one emblazoned with a promise of “luxury” outside the scaffolding. So far, they’re selling out, though we’ll have to see how long that trend continues.
Most interestingly are the battles over advertising and air space of the radio era—whether or not it was a profitable medium (as one professional said early on, “Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?”), who could say what, who would be allowed to file for station letters (early on, anyone; as time passed, the process was mired in legislation), and, continuing along those lines, how much legislation should be placed on the airwaves. Today Internet radio is facing similar challenges, with help from major record labels believing a “pay-per-play” clause should be instituted, which would virtually wipe out the ability of anyone with a connection to broadcast—exactly what happened as the 1930s rolled around.
Rudel’s work is passionate and articulate, and makes a fantastic read for people interested in radio history and beyond. If you are concerned at all how our medias have developed over the course of the last century, and want to wager a guess as to where we’re headed, Hello Everybody! is a textbook example of what to expect.
As the sentiment goes, those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it. By shedding light on a specific time and place, Rudel gives us a guide to help watch for those roadblocks we thought we long since barreled over—yet they still exist.