When Radio Ruled: The Social Life of Sound
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When Radio Ruled:
The Social Life of Sound
Theater of the Mind: Imagination, Aesthetics, and American Radio Drama. By Neil Verma. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012. 296 pages. $90.00 (cloth). $31.00 (paper).
Sound Business: Newspapers, Radio, and the Politics of New Media. By Michael Stamm. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011. 264 pages. $45.00 (cloth). $45.00 (e-book).
Radio’s Civic Ambition: American Broadcasting and Democracy in the 1930s. By David Goodman. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. 368 pages. $55.00 (cloth). Companion website: http://global.oup.com/us/companion.websites/9780195394085/.
The Listener’s Voice. By Elena Razlogova. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011. 224 pages. $40.00 (cloth). $40.00 (e-book). Companion website: http://thelistenersvoice.org/.
Radio Fields: Anthropology and Wireless Sound in the Twenty-First Century. Edited by Lucas Bessire and Daniel Fisher. New York: New York University Press, 2012. 298 pages. $72.00 (cloth). $27.00 (paper).

The scene: the boardwalk of Asbury Park, New Jersey, on a summer’s day in July 1921, teeming with ladies in white dresses and summer hats, men in suits and straw boaters. Real estate salesman Harold Warren sets up a radio (his carefully lettered sign calls it a “wireless telephone”) mounted on a roller chair to tune in to the heavyweight match between George Carpentier and Jack Dempsey, fifty miles away, for other beachgoers. This novelty draws a crowd. Someone takes a photograph. Warren sends it to the National Amateur Wireless Association, which publishes it in its magazine along with his rapt description of the clear transmission of crowd noise and even the bell between rounds. What makes this little moment worthy of pause, as Elena Razlogova explains [End Page 465] in the opening chapter of her book The Listener’s Voice, is that “it was not a live broadcast. Announcer J. Owen Smith in Hoboken had read a description wired from the arena, banging a studio bell between rounds. Listeners heard crowds when there were none” (11). She adds that emerging radio stations soon discovered that their audiences were eager for prizefighting and learned how to broadcast sporting events to enthrall listeners like the Asbury Park boardwalk crowd; but the story reminds us that radio broadcasting is a fiction masquerading as truth, an electronic signal perceived as human-made sound, a set of social relations mediated (not merely transmitted) by dynamic—and unpredictable—technology.

Razlogova’s book is one of a spate of innovative and provocative new works from the field of radio studies, which has been happily growing in its own corner but deserves to be more widely known.1 The books under consideration here treat a variety of perspectives: business history, intellectual history, cultural and media studies, anthropology, and aesthetics—but they share a common fascination with how radio constitutes cultural meaning now and in the past. While the “golden age” of analog broadcast radio may be over in the United States, the questions it generated about American identity, democracy, and culture are still as fresh as ever. When these scholars delve into radio’s fragmentary archival record to study radio’s past, it is not out of sheer nostalgia alone. As Lucas Bessire and Daniel Fisher, editors of Radio Fields, an anthology of new global research in anthropology of radio and mediated sound, put it: “Radio is the most widespread electronic medium in the world today. More than a precedent for television, film, or the Internet, radio remains central to the everyday lives of billions of people around the globe” (1). Radio is not over, and radio deeply matters. Studying it yields insights that will appeal to scholars across a range of disciplines.

One reason that radio remains such a productive topic is that it hosts a multiverse of meanings. In her meditation on the linguistic aspects of Zambian epistemologies of radio culture, Debra Vidali-Spitulnik explains that the word radio means, all at once, “the machine, the transmission, the institution, a program, a voice, and/or the sounds” (in Bessire and Fisher 260). The editors themselves argue that radio is “best imagined not as a thing at all,” for its “objectness is always potentially unsettled...