Radio Goes to War: The Cultural Politics of Propaganda during World War II (review)
- Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies
- Center for the Study of Film and History
- Volume 35.1 (Fall 2005)
- pp. 87-88
- View Citation
- Additional Information
Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies 35.1 (2005) 87-88
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Four Hours a Day
Academic scholarship of American radio has been rapidly accelerating over the past decade or so, particularly regarding the "Golden Age" of the late 1920s through the late 1940s. Yet the propaganda aspects of WWII commercial broadcasting have been singularly neglected—except for a topically limited chapter in Michelle Hilmes' seminal Radio Voices, Barbara Divine Savage's book that focuses on race and radio during the war and the first part of Howard Blue's Words At War. Considering that by 1941 ninety percent of the American public listened to the radio an average of four hours a day, this represents a major gap in the understanding of the contribution to the U.S. war effort made by broadcast media. Although Gerd Horten's book is still in no way a comprehensive analysis of the propagandistic content in wartime American radio, it nonetheless is an impressive addition to the subject that deserves kudos for being the first monograph to deal exclusively with this important topic in mass media history.
Gerd Horten's study concentrates on the interrelationship between the commercial radio industry and U.S. government regulatory agencies, describing radio's enthusiastic participation as a "privatized war." An important point made by the author is that although there were a few didactic government—produced propaganda shows to explain to the public what the war was about during the first critical months after Pearl Harbor, the majority of wartime radio messages were incorporated, "integrated," almost seamlessly into established commercial programming.
In fact, the Network Allocation Plan (NAP) of the Radio Bureau of the Office of War Information (OWI) created a systematic rotating schedule for integrating war messages into commercial programming—their so-called "master morale plan"—often made more palatable for listeners by the familiar voices of America's most beloved radio personalities. A 1944 government survey indicated that Jack Benny's voice was more recognized than FDR's!
Horten highlights the intimate relationship between the public and popular radio personalities, increasingly closely associated with their sponsor's products—Jack Benny and Jell-O, Bob Hope and Pepsodent toothpaste, for example. The prewar trend of merging ads with the show smoothly transitioned into war programming, particlularly the standard mid—show ad, which often made it difficult for audiences to distinguish between ads and shows.
As in other mass media, radio advertising was also quickly linked to the war effort. Government tax breaks for informational ads accellerated this trend in radio—including so-called "brag ads" that touted the product and/or a company's contribution to the war effort. Horten is keen to point out the public's acceptance of these integrated war messages, but acknowledges that by December 1943 many listeners were wearied by round-the-clock war appeals.
The latter portion of the book concentrates on the content of selective programs by America's three major radio comics, Jack Benny, Bob Hope and Fred Allen. As in war films, rationing was a major source of humor, serving an obvious cathartic purpose. Something this reader had previously been unaware of was military restrictions upon radio weather reports—creating a unique reference point for many wartime gags. But there is little discussion by Horten of those techniques used by this non-visual medium to create mental pictures and to enhance emotive responses [End Page 87] for listeners, such as Bob Hope's famous sizzling steak with Lana Turner routine over Armed Forces Radio.
The prewar pro-interventionist slant of most national radio news broadcasters, such as H. V. Kaltenborn and Raymond Gram Swing is noted, but there is no indication by Horten of the incorporation of pro-war messages into commercial broadcasts prior to Pearl Harbor. Surely themes of spies and sabotage were making it...