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Journal of Interdisciplinary History 33.1 (2002) 147-149

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Fireside Politics:
Radio and Political Culture in the United States, 1920-1940

Fireside Politics: Radio and Political Culture in the United States, 1920-1940. By Douglas B. Craig (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000) 362 pp. $45.00

Fireside Politics is intended to fill a void in radio, political, and cultural histories by examining radio's influence on political culture between the wars. It is organized in three parts. Part 1 reviews the early (1895-1940) organization of radio from the view of both commercial and public- policy interests. The second, and most significant, part illuminates the [End Page 147] intersection of political parties, politicians, the radio medium, radio networks, and radio listeners. In its third major division, the book explores the possibilities and problems of citizenship during the radio age.

The second and third parts cover 1920 to 1940 specifically. Institutions such as radio networks, the corporations that own them, political parties, governmental committees, and regulatory bodies are in the forefront of Craig's analysis. The content of radio programs and advertising is not a focus of the work, and although Craig's interest is in political culture, he does not dwell upon the content of political communication with radio.

Craig combed papers from cbs, nbc, and their respective corporate leaders. He uses records from the two major political parties and the Federal Radio Commission, as well as the fcc and Congressional committee hearings. Major political figures' and prominent broadcasters' papers from the early decades of the twentieth century were reviewed. In addition, Craig supports and frames his perspective by consulting several decades of periodicals, early communication research, and social thought. The breadth of sources is exceptional, and Craig's work with political parties and radio networks is a needed contribution.

In each major section, Craig attempts to focus his discussion by using three central concepts—sovereignty, exceptionalism, and citizenship. "Listener sovereignty," the belief that listeners are empowered in their choice of programs, significantly impacts the initial formation of the medium, its technology, regulation, and economic base. "Radio exceptionalism" contributes to the use of radio in political campaigns because radio "held the promise of a new beginning for American citizenship, governance, and community" (281). "Radio citizenship" is the main concern of the third part, in which Craig discusses cultural hegemony and the cultivation of passivity in citizen listeners.

Fireside Politics concludes that radio helped to eradicate a distinction between private and public space. Radio encouraged a consumer economy, and it fundamentally changed politics and political campaigns. Politicians had to address their constituencies differently; campaigns became professional; and campaign strategies necessarily changed. For Craig, the changes that radio brought were "powerful and long lasting," but "not profoundly disruptive" (281). He attempts to dispel the common assumption that radio was revolutionary. However, to emphasize its conservative nature detracts from radio's contributions. This is the crux of the dilemma in Fireside Politics.

Political culture is approached in three ways in Fireside Politics. First, Craig shows that political culture shaped the development of radio through its golden days. Second, Craig provides an account of the emergence of, what one might call, the "fireside model" in politics. Finally, Craig sketches how a political purpose for radio was discovered and shaped. But, because it is organized vis-Ă -vis listener sovereignty, radio exceptionalism, and radio citizenship, the contributions that Fireside Politics makes in these three approaches to political culture are not explicitly [End Page 148] realized. The account falls short of showing how sovereignty, exceptionalism, and citizenship changed through these years, largely as a result of the political use of radio and the fireside model of campaigning and governing. To his credit, Craig develops a comparison between U.S. broadcasting and broadcasting in Britain, Australia and Canada. In this comparison, the distinctiveness of the American system seems attributable to listener sovereignty and radio exceptionalism; however, there is a crucial point to be made. The idea, practices, and infrastructure of the nation and the state were more clearly articulated abroad...


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