Radio in the Movies: A History and Filmography, 1926-2010 is a history of how radio broadcasts have been depicted on film. The combination of two [End Page 35] forms of media is a fascinating topic, and many intriguing essays could be written about how the radio has been incorporated into movie plotlines. Radio in the Movies is a useful reference guide for anyone interested in cinematic portrayals of the radio, but despite its promise, it lacks sufficient insight into the nature of the medium or the quality of the radio-themed movies to be truly engaging.
The book is full of information, but it could use a great deal more critical analysis of its subject matter. One of the work's major disappointments is that there seems to be no correlation between the role that radio plays in a movie and the amount of space Etling grants it. A few hundred movies are mentioned in the text, and most of them only receive a sentence or two briefly describing the film. Sometimes a movie has but a single brief scene involving a sports announcer discussing an event over the air, yet it receives nearly a page of text.
In fact, while Etling might spend a couple of paragraphs on movies containing an extremely minor subplot revolving around the radio, he largely ignores movies in which the radio plays a far more prominent role. In recent years, there have been several high-profile movies centered on the radio, namely Robert Altman's A Prairie Home Companion and the Oscar-winner for Best Picture in 2010, The King's Speech. A Prairie Home Companion is referenced on the back cover and both movies are listed in an index at the end of the book, but neither is ever mentioned in the text. There are also a handful of factual errors in the text. Don Cheadle is described as an Oscar winner for Hotel Rwanda, but though he was nominated, he did not win. Also, the Whoopi Goldberg movie Eddie (1996) is said to have been released a decade before it actually was.
My focus on the book's shortcomings should not obscure the fact that Etling's work provides a comprehensive overview of the role that the radio has played in the cinema over the past several decades. Yet he does very little to tie the summaries together, and that gives the text a highly episodic feel, as the focus shifts from one movie to another every few sentences.
The book is divided into six chapters, each covering a different recurring theme in radio-centric movies. Perhaps the most intriguing chapter subject is "Play 'Misty' for Me: Psychos on the Air," which focuses on a combination of unhinged disc jockeys and deranged fans. One of Etling's most insightful passages appears in this chapter, where he writes:
If, as discussed in Chapter Two, movies are to a degree a reflection of the times in which they are produced, then Hollywood's depictions of the radio world in recent years would be somewhat unsettling. First, it would appear that much of America, or at least that segment that listens to and calls talk radios, has relationship issues. Many of these seem to be of a sexual nature, and those calling talk shows about their personal situations often appear to have additional psychological and sociological problems, not the least of which is a frequent propensity [End Page 36] to engage in some kind of violent behavior. Listeners displaying a variety of deviant personality traits have been common in the radio films of the past four decades.(152)
Were the book filled with paragraphs like this, which addresses how radio in films might mirror broader societal evils, then the book might have been a treasure. As it stands, the reader is left wanting to know a lot more about the movies alluded to in this book, what Etling thinks of them, and what they have to say about American society.