- Points on the Dial: Golden Age Radio beyond the Networks
The so-called "golden age" of radio (the 1920s through the 1950s) is often cited as a time of focused listening to live, commercially sponsored national network broadcasts. Radio, according to several historians and critics of the medium, unified the nation during this time, not only in terms of programming, but also, as part of or resulting from that programming, socially, politically and culturally. Points on the Dial: Golden Age Radio beyond the Networks by Alexander Russo disputes and disrupts this vision of network-centered radio, positing instead a vision of intermingled national, regional and local programming, along with distinctly different regional and local sponsorship patterns and methods of distribution. The result is a diversity of practices, obscured until now by the network-centric focus of current radio history, which set the stage for radio in the second half of the 20th century.
Current, consensual histories of radio view the development of network-centric systems of content production [End Page 184] and distribution as "a natural function of consumer choice and democratic action," says Russo (p. 188). Radio networks responded to consumer desires for new products and diversions and built systems to highlight the production and distribution of live content meant to convince audiences that they were hearing exactly what they would hear were they present at the site of the original production/presentation. Russo's account of radio broadcasting's development challenges this view. For example, Russo argues that the rise of radio networks was based on the desire for a larger share of the potential national advertising market rather than on national unification as the networks claimed. Networks forced local stations to carry specific programming and the accompanying advertising. Local stations often acquiesced, as this was the only way to obtain the most popular programming then demanded by audiences. Advertisers were forced to place advertising buys in markets that did not represent their customer base. This packaging of content and access provided best benefit to the networks but not always to advertisers, local stations or audiences.
Rather than and despite a unified network-centric model, Russo says much of radio's historical record always exhibited "a hybrid system with local, regional and national interests, tastes and concerns intermingling throughout institutions, programming and audience responses" (p. 189). Such internetworks "required constant revision and modification" (p. 19) in order to influence the construction and maintenance of imagined communities and audiences. This work of the network, although it appeared uniform, consistent and singular, was, in fact, limited, unstable and hybrid.
To develop this point, Russo devotes chapters to radio's geographies, as he calls them: national, regional and local information networks alternatively seen as sites of community and conflict; sound-on-disc recordings as an alternative distributive technology to wired networks; the spatial and temporal flow of spot advertising; and locating human attention in a world increasingly mobile and not focused on a single radio.
National networks were unable to extend their wired connection capabilities to every market, every community, leaving gaps that were filled by regional and local broadcasters more attuned to the wants and needs of their audiences. These audiences needed content, and program producers and distributors responded with electrical recording technologies such as sound-on-disc transcriptions of live events that avoided the problems and outright prohibitions associated with using recordings. Whether regional or national, programming was increasingly produced with intentional content gaps that could be filled with spot advertisements and programming that focused on genres or content tailored to specific locations and identities, thus localizing national brands by giving them seemingly local presences.
Finally, changing and often distracted practices of listening to radio programming resulted in local radio stations developing programs based around talk and music, both of which could be location specific in their appeal. As a result, rather than specific content that required listening at specific times, radio became more of an accompaniment to one's life, an endeavor that could...