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American Babel

Rogue Radio Broadcasters of the Jazz Age

By Clifford J. Doerksen

Publication Year: 2005

When American radio broadcasting began in the early 1920s there was a consensus among middle-class opinion makers that the airwaves must never be used for advertising. Even the national advertising industry agreed that the miraculous new medium was destined for higher cultural purposes. And yet, within a decade American broadcasting had become commercialized and has remained so ever since.

Much recent scholarship treats this unsought commercialization as a coup, imposed from above by mercenary corporations indifferent to higher public ideals. Such research has focused primarily on metropolitan stations operated by the likes of AT&T, Westinghouse, and General Electric. In American Babel, Clifford J. Doerksen provides a colorful alternative social history centered on an overlooked class of pioneer broadcaster—the independent radio stations.

Doerksen reveals that these "little" stations often commanded large and loyal working-class audiences who did not share the middle-class aversion to broadcast advertising. In urban settings, the independent stations broadcast jazz and burlesque entertainment and plugged popular songs for Tin Pan Alley publishers. In the countryside, independent stations known as "farmer stations" broadcast "hillbilly music" and old-time religion. All were unabashed in their promotional practices and paved the way toward commercialization with their innovations in programming, on-air style, advertising methods, and direct appeal to target audiences. Corporate broadcasters, who aspired to cultural gentility, were initially hostile to the populist style of the independents but ultimately followed suit in the 1930s.

Drawing on a rich array of archives and contemporary print sources, each chapter of American Babel looks at a particular station and the personalities behind the microphone. Doerksen presents this group of independents as an intensely colorful, perpetually interesting lot and weaves their stories into an expansive social and cultural narrative to explain more fully the rise of the commercial network system of the 1930s.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press


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pp. vii-xi

When I began the research that led to the writing of this book, my intent was to write about border radio stations, the high-powered pirates that cropped up on the southern side of the Texas-Mexico border in the 1930s to bombard the United States and Canada with hillbilly music, fundamentalist preaching, populist politics, seedy mail-order merchandising, and advertisements for quack medical treatments. The border-blasting tradition...

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pp. 1

In late December 1921 a farewell reception was held in New York City for the Viennese composer Richard Strauss, who had been touring America. A novel entertainment had been arranged for the occasion: three piano rolls recorded by the composer were to be ‘‘shot from’’ the experimental transmitting station WDY, maintained by the Radio Corporation of America in nearby Roselle Park, New Jersey. At...

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Chapter 1. The Education of Frank Bannister

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pp. 2-20

The year 1930 was a bad time to be a commercial traveler, and Frank Bannister, a midwestern sales agent for a New York pharmaceutical concern, was facing both middle age and hard times, his drugstore commissions dwindling to nothing in the worsening Depression. The Detroit-based salesman was seeking temporary solace in a Toledo speakeasy when he fell into conversation with a fellow ‘‘drummer’’ working a different line, that of selling commercial broadcasting time. ‘‘Selling...

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Chapter 2. Serving the Masses, Not the Classes

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pp. 21-56

Late in 1921 George Schubel decided that his corner of Brooklyn—the neighborhood of Ridgewood (today part of Queens)—would benefit from a radio station. Publisher and editor of the weekly Ridgewood Times, Schubel was not a ‘‘radio bug,’’ but he asked around the neighborhood for technical help and found it in the form of twenty-one-year-old William Boettcher, who operated a radiophone transmitter (call sign 2WU) from the attic of his parents’ house. Engaged...

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Chapter 3. Brows High and Fevered

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pp. 57-70

By and large it was the large corporate stations that occupied the cultural and ethical high ground in the 1920s, while commercial independents espoused more commercial and populist cultural agendas. An exception to this rule was WHAP, an exceptionally well-heeled independent that joined the increasingly crowded ether above New York City in late 1925. Easily the most militant defender of genteel cultural values...

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Chapter 4. "Exit the Jonas Hayseed of 1880"

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pp. 71-91

In early 1925 Omaha grain merchant Charles Vincent acquired a broadcast license and a two-hundred-watt transmitter and, under the call sign of WAAW, began providing daily program service to his region of the midwestern grain belt. As Vincent explained to the Radio Division of the U.S. Department of Commerce, his motives for doing so were largely prudential, stemming from...

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Chapter 5. That Doggone Radio Man

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pp. 92-104

As a radio personality, Henry Field of KFNF was often observed to be especially popular among farm women. No one ever said the same of Field’s notorious contemporary, William K. Henderson—a.k.a. ‘‘Doggone’’ Henderson, ‘‘Ol’ Man’’ Henderson, and ‘‘Hello World’’ Henderson— owner and operator of station KWKH in Shreveport, Louisiana. Where Field...

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Chapter 6. Wilbur Can Beat the Devil

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pp. 105-116

In early 1923 the Reverend Wilbur Glenn Voliva, who liked to style himself as ‘‘the world’s richest holy man,’’ signed a contract with the Western Electric Company for the delivery of a five-hundred-watt radio transmitter.1 In short order...

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Chapter 7. The Dawn of the Golden Age

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pp. 117-128

‘‘Do you remember, a few years ago,’’ the journalist Jack Woodford asked the readership of the cultural review The Forum in early 1929, ‘‘how we all felt a vague sort of elation when the radio first came to our attention? Ah, at last, we said, here is something . . . something . . . we were not quite sure what. Something overwhelming...


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pp. 129-147


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pp. 149-157

E-ISBN-13: 9780812201765
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812238716

Page Count: 176
Publication Year: 2005