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Radio’s America

The Great Depression and the Rise of Modern Mass Culture

Orson Welles’s greatest breakthrough into the popular consciousness occurred in 1938, three years before Citizen Kane, when his War of the Worlds radio broadcast succeeded so spectacularly that terrified listeners believed they were hearing a genuine report of an alien invasion—a landmark in the history of radio’s powerful relationship with its audience. In Radio’s America, Bruce Lenthall documents the enormous impact radio had on the lives of Depression-era Americans and charts the formative years of our modern mass culture.

Many Americans became alienated from their government and economy in the twentieth century, and Lenthall explains that radio’s appeal came from its capability to personalize an increasingly impersonal public arena. His depictions of such figures as proto-Fascist Charles Coughlin and medical quack John Brinkley offer penetrating insight into radio’s use as a persuasive tool, and Lenthall’s book is unique in its exploration of how ordinary Americans made radio a part of their lives. Television inherited radio’s cultural role, and as the voting tallies for American Idol attest, broadcasting continues to occupy a powerfully intimate place in American life. Radio’s America reveals how the connections between power and mass media began.

Read an excerpt.

288 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2007

History: American History, History of Technology

Media Studies


“In Radio’s America, Bruce Lenthall provides a perceptive and balanced overview of radio’s major contributions to American culture during its most vital years, years that were truly formative not only of American broadcasting but of our history as a nation as well. Lenthall encourages us to reevaluate what we think we know about the beginnings of mediated mass culture in the United States. His analysis, clearly written to appeal to a broad audience, refreshes old debates and sheds new light on unexplored figures and ideas.”

Michele Hilmes, University of Wisconsin–Madison

“This impressive and engaging book explores how broadcast radio was used and conceptualized by ordinary listeners, politicians, priests, doctors, dramatists, and intellectuals. Bruce Lenthall demonstrates great breadth of knowledge of the period as he synthesizes in a very readable fashion an enormous amount of material usually considered separately. This collage of unlikely elements fleshes out the rich and contradictory ways various sectors of the culture negotiated modern mass society by using radio to speak about their worlds.”

Lynn Spigel, Northwestern University

"Required reading for those who still believe that American radio, from its inception, encompassed only defenseless audiences and hegemonic broadcasters."

Michael J. Socolow | Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television

"...valuable for its clear and undistracted focus on important analytical questions raised by the rise of mass culture."

Lendol Calder | The Historian

Table of Contents

Introduction: “The Story of the Century” 1

1 Radio’s Challenges

 Public Intellectuals and the Problem of Mass Culture
 William Orton and the Mass-Consumption Critique 
 James Rorty and the Mass-Production Critique 
 African American Intellectuals and the Mass-Production Critique in Action 
 Related Solutions 
 Defenders of the Faith 

2 Radio’s Listeners

 Personalizing Mass Culture 
 The Mass Audience Listens 
 Consumer Bargaining 
 “When You Can’t Find a Friend, You’ve Still Got the Radio” 

3 Radio’s Democracy

 The Politics of the Fireside 
 Roosevelt on the Radio 
 Radio Democracy: The Politics of Intimacy 
 Radio Democracy: The Politics of Information 
 Once and Future Ideals? 

4 Radio’s Champions
Strange Gods? 
 Radio Stars 
 Voices of the People 
 Power . . . Corrupts? 
 Limited Amplitude 

5 Radio’s Students

 Media Studies and the Possibilities of Mass Communication 
 Paul Lazarsfeld and Social Pragmatism’s Hope 
 Herman Hettinger and Commercial Pragmatism’s Faith 
 Theodor Adorno’s Critical Theory: A Considerably Less Charitable View 

6 Radio’s Writers

 A Public Voice in the Modern World 
 Art of the Air 
 Public Speech, Public Art, and Mass Communication 
 Modernism on the Air 
 Muffled Voices 



History Division, Association for Education in Journalism & Mass Communication: Best Journalism & Mass Communication History Book

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