Listening to Radio: 1920-1950

Listening to Radio: 1920-1950

Susan Smulyan

Ray Barfield, a professor of English at Clemson University, had a great idea. In Listening to Radio: 1920-1950, Barfield reports on the memories of radio listeners. The book is best when it presents a history of radio listening in the words of the listeners; it’s not as good when it slips into a history of the radio programs. The accounts of when and why the radio audience listened, what their parents thought, who listened with them, and what sets they used, all of which the reader encounters in the book’s first section (‘How They Listened to the Radio’) remind us of what oral history does well. Barfield and his informants are aware of the limitations of memory as historical evidence but sometimes they can’t help trying to remember when particular shows appeared, who starred in them, and what it all meant, especially in the book’s second section ‘What They Heard’ and those endeavors prove less helpful and less interesting.

Listening to Radio combines two approaches of current interest to scholars–audience response, particularly to popular culture, and people’s use of historical memory. Although he doesn’t make reference to the work on historical memory of George Lipsitz in Time Passages or Michael Kammen in Mystic Chords of Memory; or of studies of popular culture audiences such as Andrea Press’s Watching Television; Janice Radway’s, Reading the Romance or Susan Douglas’, Where the Girls Are: growing up female with the mass media, much less the work of feminist film critics on the relationship between viewers and screen image, Barfield is clearly moved by a similar curiosity. As well, Barfield joins his informants in being a fan of Old Time Radio (OTR), as the hobbyists call the radio of this time period, and clearly enjoys compiling stories of the ‘good old days’.

The lack of scholarly apparatus (both the primary and secondary research, apart from the interviews, seems somewhat random) may allow Barfield to approach his interviews with a fresh ear. He writes: ‘The purpose of this book is to let those veteran listeners speak for themselves: to describe their program choices, to recall their preferred listening places and companions, to offer their own perceptions of the special role that radio played in their daily activities during the decades before the television set assumed a major role as electronic household god’ (pp. xi-xii). The author treats the interviews as texts, skilfully interweaving the lengthy selections from them included in the book with finely drawn, yet simple, introductions. For all his care in working with the listeners’ words, Barfield tells readers almost nothing about how the interviews were obtained, in what form they existed (as conversations on tape? as answers to questionnaires?), what questions the interviewer asked, and where researchers might review transcripts of the interviews. Such methodological notes do more than simply conform with boring academic convention, they allow the reader to understand the context in which the interviews occurred and thus better grasp the nuances of the stories provided.

Professional historians will not learn much new about radio in this book (which is perhaps another limitation of oral history) but the listeners’ stories do make the experience of being in the radio audience very fresh. I would use the first section of the book in undergraduate classes, but would talk with students about the informants’ frequent negative comments about the present when compared to the past. Since all the informants are recalling their childhood and young adulthood, their memories would have the benefit of appealing to young people and infuriating them with odious comparisons at the same time. One of the main reasons to use the book in teaching is Barfield’s careful attention to diversity. The book nicely takes differences into account in discussing families (‘In some places, family listening encompassed more than two or three biologically connected generations living in a household; it might involve boarding houses, college or orphanage dormitories, military or WPA barracks, or mill village populations, each depending on a single receiver’ [39]); showing that girls listened to action programs as well as boys; discussing both urban and rural experiences; and illustrating the immigrant experience with radio.

Collecting listener experiences with radio broadcasts of 1920 through 1950 remains an important task and in Listening to Radio, Barfield makes a good start. I’d have found the book more useful if it focused on the experience of listening, included methodological information, and contextualized both the experience of listening and the complaints of the informants about later broadcasting. But I agree with Barfield when be writes, ‘The anecdotes and comments gathered for this study have proved to be evocative, interestingly varied, often insightful, and invariably enthusiastic’ (p. xii).

SUSAN SMULYAN, Brown University lian’ (p. 233

COPYRIGHT 1997 Carfax Publishing Co.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group