Lunga e interessante recensione, quella apparsa sul WSJ di oggi, di un nuovo volume dedicato alla storia della radio commerciale americana. Hello Everybody! scrive Randall Bloomquist, direttore della programmazione di WGST-AM, una talk station di Atlanta, contiene un ammonimento per tutti quando parla della reazione che i quotidiani cartacei ebbero quasi 90 anni fa davanti alla nascita delle prime stazioni radio. Che vennero immediatamente percepite come mortali concorrenti sul mercato delle notizie. Fu una reazione sbagliata, perché la radio doveva essere vista fin da subito come una opportunità per arricchirlo, il mercato. Ma sembra, conclude Bloomquist, che la lezione sia stata salutare: oggi i quotidiani cercano di adattarsi meglio all’arrivo di un “concorrente” forse ancor più poderoso come Internet.
A Journey Across the Dial
Con men, crooners, controversialists: the story of American radio.
By RANDALL BLOOMQUIST
By Anthony Rudel (Harcourt, 399 pages, $26)
It is easy to forget, given today’s consolidated and corporatized radio industry, that the medium was given life in this country by a remarkable band of hobbyists, hustlers, preachers, quacks, con men and the stray unstable genius. Hard to recall, too, that radio in its early days barely avoided the sort of heavy government control that probably would have deprived us of every colorful persona on the radio, from Jack Benny and Fibber McGee to Casey Kasem and Rush Limbaugh.
The story of radio’s rise sprawls across dozens of themes, hundreds of cites and towns, and countless memorable characters. Anthony Rudel’s “Hello, Everybody!” tries to get it all between the covers of a single book — an unenviable and perhaps impossible task, given that so many aspects of radio’s pioneering era might warrant books of their own. Still, Mr. Rudel surveys this roots period, from Guglielmo Marconi’s first wireless patents in the 1890s to the inauguration of Franklin Roosevelt, “the man who cemented radio broadcasting’s role as the most important arrow in the political communications quiver.” Along the way we meet other masters of the airwaves, including evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, crooner Rudy Vallee and Depression-era demagogue Father Charles Coughlin.
Perhaps most interesting are the players who have faded from popular memory but were major figures in their day. Consider “Dr.” John Brinkley, who bought his diploma from the Eclectic Medical University of Kansas in 1916. It’s not hard to find overblown medical claims on radio nowadays, from advertising for weight-loss pills to paid programming, but today’s dubious doctoring has nothing on Brinkley. His specialty was sexual rejuvenation for men — including a ghastly procedure involving the implantation of goat testes in his patients.
Among those who went under Brinkley’s knife hoping to become “the-ram-that-am-with-any-lamb” was an elderly Los Angeles Times editor. He had been volunteered for the procedure by Times publisher Harry Chandler, who invited Brinkley to the West Coast in 1922. If the treatment succeeded, Chandler said, the Times would promote him; if it failed, the paper would expose him as a fraud. The editor duly told his boss that the operation had worked, and Brinkley was soon famous in Southern California. But his celebrity was truly established the following year when Brinkley built a radio station, KFBK, in tiny Milford, Kansas. During the Roaring Twenties, he would become “a central player in the greatest communications revolution ever seen,” Mr. Rudel writes.
The faux physician used KFKB almost exclusively to pitch his services. When the American Medical Association and other authorities finally began to close in, Mr. Rudel reports, Brinkley responded by launching a campaign for governor of Kansas, and when that effort failed, he high-tailed it to Mexico. There he built XER, one of the powerful “border radio” stations that boomed his message across the U.S. with a then- whopping 50,000-watt signal.
Brinkley turns up in “Hello, Everybody!,” along with other border-station operators and a host of key figures in the history of American radio, including Edwin Armstrong, Lee DeForest and David Sarnoff, the technical giants who competed ferociously to bring radio to the air. But they are all given only a brief turn before Mr. Rudel must rush on to his next topic. And therein lies the trouble with the book: Just when it’s getting interesting, the story breaks away, like a radio program with too many commercials jammed into it. Only a bravura writer or extraordinarily gifted historian could meet the challenge that Mr. Rudel has set himself. A long-time radio professional, Mr. Rudel clearly loves the medium, but he offers no new scholarship or striking perspectives. He says in an author’s note that “radio’s real story was best told in the daily newspaper articles that reported on every technological advance and every programming development.” The book often reads like a synthesis of those articles.
“Hello Everybody!” is at its most valuable when it chronicles the early regulatory fights over the new medium. In the days after World War I, the Navy pushed hard for control of all “wireless” facilities, which were then used primarily used for point-to-point messaging. If the admirals had succeeded in that grab, which was blocked by Congress, the advent of broadcast radio would no doubt have been delayed and the industry might have developed more along the lines of European radio, with a great deal of government control.
Commercial radio was born Nov. 2, 1920, when Pittsburgh’s KDKA broadcast election returns to a handful of wireless hobbyists. By 1922 there were more than 200 stations crowding the available spectrum, causing so much interference with each other that the medium’s viability was threatened. Herbert Hoover, then the secretary of commerce, tried at first to encourage voluntary agreements among broadcasters to limit interference between their stations. When that failed, he received authority for the Commerce Department to impose technical order on the industry. By 1928, the AM dial was structured much as it is today. Some of Hoover’s other attempts to shape American broadcasting were less than, well, American. The future president wanted to largely ban advertising and recorded music from radio in favor of a system where listeners enjoyed live performances broadcast over stations funded by a 2% tax on radio receivers.
Mr. Rudel’s recounting of the early relationship between newspapers and radio is cautionary. Rather than embracing the new medium and turning their newspaper operations into communications companies, publishers came to view radio as a rival for news consumers and advertising dollars, going so far as to bar the newspaper-owned Associated Press from providing material to radio stations. Today, the inky trade’s aggressive effort to capitalize on the Internet shows that, after nearly 80 years, the message is finally coming through, loud and clear.
Mr. Bloomquist is program director of WGST-AM, a news/talk station in Atlanta.