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The Impacts of Radio on American Society in the 20th Century. Essay

As the technology takes us to another level in the mass media communication, it is important to look back in history and trace the origins of the much advanced world. The current high definition technology being employed in the media industry is a recent phenomenon that was preceded by unrefined technologies of the 20th century. The radio in particular was a major component of the mass media industry and was revered more like the automobile of the 20th century. The radio is regarded as the first ever mass media technological advancement that caught America by storm.

The radio turned the Americans to great listeners, entertainers and educators, and joined all the age groups in one common culture. This paper shall look at the impacts the radio had to the American society of the 20th century. The Radio: The discovery of radio caused a revolution in the media industry. It enhanced immediacy as compared to the print media more like what the telephony had on letter writing. The radio enabled the listeners have an experience of what was happening as they witnessed through their ears and imaginations. Tom Lewis observes that;

Rather than read about Lindbergh meeting President Coolidge after his flight to Paris, people witnessed it with their ears and imaginations; rather than learn of President Roosevelt’s thoughts on banking from a newspaper story the next day, people listened to their president speak to them from the White House (Lewis, 1992, para 2). The invention of the radio in the 20th century caused crazy imaginations amongst the American population as it revolutionized the way they talked and thought. Through the radio they were able to be informed of new products. Basically, the radio brought the world closer to Americans (Jenkins, para 10).

The radio traversed geographical boundaries and closed the gaps between individuals. People soon developed a liking for everything that was available on radio ranging from songs, talk, advice and drama. Individuals were swayed by the radio wave and they opted for larger and more powerful sets as they demanded for a superior sound conformity. Radio meant that in the historical development of mankind, a single individual was capable of speaking to many other individuals and could influence them by the use of the microphone. Broadcasting was borrowed from the concept of the farmer scattering seeds in the field to grow.

One speaker was able to ‘sow information seeds’ among the people (Lewis, 1991, p 5). In order to understand the ways in which the radio was able to affect the society, we need to consider the time when the effects were greatest. This was during the 1920s and the 1930s. Broadcasting began on 2nd November 1920 when station KDKA in Pittsburg broadcasted the outcomes of the Harding-Cox Presidential elections. At first radio was listened to with awe but later on in the third decade of the 20th century, with the infamous depression taking toll on the individuals, the radio was the only means of escaping the realities of the moment (Hilliard, p 8).

The Radio in 1920s: Following the broadcast of the Harding-Cox election, the radio moved fast to catch the imaginations of many American citizens. By 1923, there were over 550 radio stations across the United States stationed in major cities. It was estimated that close to half a million households owned a radio which was a massive increase from a paltry 60 thousands the previous year (Hilliard, p 12). The radio caught the US by storm as everyone seems to invest in broadcasting with newspapers, banks, institutions, and towns opening up their radio stations.

Farms, private individuals and other unthinkable sources established their broadcasting services as radio stations were spread allover (Lewis, 1992, para 2). At the beginning, individuals were amazed at the thought of listening to sounds via the air and could listen to virtually anything being broadcasted. The broadcasters on the other hand offered an array of programs ranging from a mix of culture, schooling, amusement and information. Basically, the programming was initiated by station WJZ which pioneered regular broadcasting in New York. Other stations followed suit and developed programs for their listeners.

There were brisk radio sales during this time and Radio Corporation of America (RCA) became prominent as its stock was very important. RCA formed the first national radio, the National Broadcasting Company in 1926 (Lewis, 1991, p 8). The number of listeners following the launch of NBC was to grow tremendously especially upon the arrival of Charles Lindbergh from Paris who was considered as a hero of the time. Lindberg arrival made NBC to link 50 stations located in 24 states (Hilliard, p 34). This was in 1927 and it was estimated that over six million radios were owned by Americans.

The demand for radio increased and broadcasters developed into personalities. During the elections of 1928, the radio played a significant role in the politics of the day. The radio became a substantial campaign tool as politicians used the radio to campaign. Politicians were to adjust their politicking by cutting their speeches short as they turned to the use of radio to reach the electorate. The new medium was effective in limiting the campaign speech to about 10 minutes (Barnouw, 1966, p 12). As the decade elapsed, the impacts of radio on the general public were recognizable.

The radio had changed the lives of individuals in a manner that no one could have predicted. The radio unified the country in a unique manner as the waves traversed the regional boundaries and leveled the cultural boundaries that were to be found between the regions. Individuals stopped looking at themselves as coming from a particular state as the radio was able to bring the whole nation in to the households. Any event that was broadcasted gave the Americans the chance to share the common experience (Lewis, 1992, para 4). The Radio after Depression:

During the third decade of the 20th century, the radio played a great role in unifying the nation. The radio was influential in the day to day lives of many Americans and it was estimated that close to 20 million radios were spread across the American households. The radio was regarded as one of the most prized asset of the home. Despite the economic upheavals of the depression, the radio continued to enjoy popularity amongst the American population as most could dispose other household assets but not the radio. The radio helped individuals to cope with hardships of the depression (McDonald, para 10).

During this time, there were changes in the radio as announcers started offering lighter fair of comedy, variety and popular music programs. This was in addition to the inspiring and educative talks among other programs. Listeners looked at the radio as a sure way to escape their economic hardship. Hilarious programs like the “Amos ‘n Andy” aired on NBC became popular as they helped Americans laugh away the hardships of depression. The radio took over the advertising industry with dramatized commercials and sometimes blended with humor (Lewis, 1991, p 23).

There were dark messages coming from the radio as well for instance, Father Coughlin from Detroit used the radio to excoriate the rich and blame them for the predicament of the poor. He was able to organize his listeners into the “National Union for Social Justice and the Radio League of the Little Flower” (Lewis, 1992, para 9). He denounced the international financial institutions and blamed them for depression. Franklin Delano Roosevelt used the radio in unifying the fearful nation especially after the print media was opposed to his new policies.

He resorted to the use of radio in reaching to the Americans on the ground and people believed him. He successfully elaborated on his banking holiday policy and Americans were convinced. In the late 1930s, what was happening in Europe did overtake the radio in the US. The events leading to World War II took precedence on the radio with German invasions of her neighbors enjoying wider coverage. In 1939, the advent of the TV meant that the radio no longer could hold the fame it had enjoyed for the past two decades (Barnouw, 1968 p 45). Conclusion:

The radio has been credited for having traversed the American society especially during the 1920s and 30s when everyone was amazed by the invention. The radio became central to the lives of most Americans and it overtook the print media as it was fast and created a personal touch with the audience. The radio was used to unite the country especially during the economic hardships of the 1930s. The radio was also used to educate the public and shape the lives of many Americans. Though the invention of the television impacted on the influence of the radio in the society, the radio remained relevant and continued shaping the American culture.


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