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Great radio history books for the holidays

If you are a total, gob smacked radio fan like me, you never tire of reading history books about the subject. Here are some of my faves:

Anthony Rudell’s Hello everybody! The Dawn of American Radio is a wonderful introduction not only to the beginnings of American radio, but to the culture of the 1920s and early 1930s. You get a front row seat for a unique cast of characters: Aimee Semple McPherson, medicine crackpot John Romulus Brinkley, Father John Coughlin, crooner Rudy Vallee—the whole shebang overseen by a shy Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover. The narrative concludes with the Roosevelt fireside chat years.

Warning to policy wonks (I include myself in this category): Hello everybody! doesn’t get very deep into the regulatory history of the era, which is why it makes a great gift for your non-policy wonk radio loving friend.

Susan Douglas’ Listening In: Radio And The American Imagination is the best single volume discussion of radio in the United States, period. Its witty, compelling narrative challenges you with a fascinating assessment of the cultures that radio has promulgated, up to and including free form and talk radio. No surprise that Douglas is particularly strong about the politics of gender—given her equally wonderful study, Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female With the Mass Media.

Listening In‘s sections on the emergence of audience research and the rise of Hi Fi radio are particularly strong. This book is a must have for any serious history of radio collection.

Jesse Walker’s Rebels in the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America takes you all the way back to the wireless morse code boys of the Progressive Era, and lands you down with the pirate radio crowd of the 1980s and 90s. I’ll quote one of the book’s first blurbers:

“Rebels on the Air is a joyous, smart, lucid, hilarious, critical and engaging celebration of community based, non-commercial radio in the United States. Jesse Walker vividly captures the people, their visions and achievements, their friends and enemies—all in a book that is great fun to read.”

That was me who said that (back when I was famous, sort of). The tome lays it all out from a libertarian perspective, and includes extensive coverage of community radio and the Pacifica stations through the turbulent 1990s (borrowing just a tad for the early period from my tome Pacifica Radio: The Rise of an Alternative Network). There’s a particularly strong chapter about grassroots radio around the world. Ten years after its publication, Rebels is still a great read.

Mark Fisher’s Something in the Air: Radio, Rock, and the Revolution that Shaped a Generation is a smart, engaging history of commercial radio from the 1940s onward. It takes you through the formative days of Top 40 and how radio transformed itself at the height of the television era. Something gets all the right connections between the youth culture and race, and pays close attention to important technological shifts like the invention of the transistor; the book also has an exquisitely dishy chapter about the payola scandals of the late 1950s.

Significantly for a Radio Survivor reader, Fisher’s book is the first study to successfully integrate a Pacifica station (WBAI in New York City) into a larger history of broadcasting—a task meticulously avoided by just about every mainstream scholar thus far.

NPR lovers: Jack Mitchell’s Listener Supported: The Culture and History of Public Radio is the book for you. It is a compassionate and critical look at the subject that gives you a broad overview from an insider’s perspective. I especially love the opening chapter about how 1960s era college radio managers turned the Corporation for Public Television into the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and won the funding that made NPR possible.

Dirty Discourse: Sex and Indecency in Broadcasting is authored by that dynamic scholarly duo, Robert Hilliard and Michael Keith. It’s a  great retelling of America’s ongoing effort to control broadcast potty talk, going all the way back to the suppression of Mae West (I still think that NBC should apologize to her). George Carlin and Pacifica vs. FCC gets the full treatment. A nice monograph on an important subject; still a big deal, in case you didn’t notice.

Bill Crawford and Gene Fowler’s Border Radio: Quacks, Yodelers, Pitchmen, Psychics, and Other Amazing Broadcasters of the American Airwaves is just a great yarn about all those miscreants on the Mexican border, from J. Romulus Brinkley to Wolfman Jack. You also get to meet Texas politico W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel, Patsy Montana (“I want to be a cowboy’s sweetheart”), and self-proclaimed cancer curer Norman Baker of Muscatine Mississippi’s KTNT (“Know the Naked Truth”).

I’m not sure I’d want to meet most of these folks in person, with the exception of The Wolfman. But I sure love reading about them in books like Border Radio.

Finally, if you know anyone who is planning to start a pirate radio station in the near future, please buy them a copy of Sue Carpenter’s 40 Watts From Nowhere. The book is sine qua non for anyone who aspires to run any kind of community-style radio signal, as far as I’m concerned, because it shows how different said institution looks from the bottom up (a volunteer) and the top down (a manager).

40 Watts chronicles Carpenter’s experiences founding and running two pirates: KPBJ in San Francisco and the far more successful KBLT in Los Angeles through the 1990s. Spoiler alert: the message of the book is that Ya Gotta Have Rules, even if you’re a rebel. Attention all media anarchists: Read 40 Watts so you’ll know what you’re getting into.


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3 Responses to Great radio history books for the holidays

  1. Zack Stiegler December 1, 2011 at 8:21 am #

    Great list, diverse list. The selections that I’m familiar with are certainly worthy of conclusion, and this also reminded me of a few things that I need to pick up (Keith, Crawford and Fowler).

  2. Zack Stiegler December 1, 2011 at 8:22 am #

    Err…worthy of “inclusion.” Not enough coffee this morning.

  3. Jennifer Waits December 1, 2011 at 10:48 am #

    I love a lot of these books. Another must-read is Radio’s Hidden Voice, which provides a great history of college radio’s early years (we’re talking the 1920s). This topic hasn’t really been touched by other scholars, so I was excited to get my hands on Hugh Slotten’s book. I did an interview with him back in 2010:

    http://www.radiosurvivor.com/2010/03/09/college-radios-hidden-history/

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