Radio Mob:

Broadcasting Culture and the Question of Fascism in America, 1920-1945

By Wilson Kaiser| Originally published in the Vol. 6 no. 1 (Spring/Summer 2012) issue.

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At the outset of The Intellectual Appropriation of Technology: Discourses on Modernity, 1900-1939, Mikael Hard and Andrew Jamison note that “The twentieth century has been marked by a schizophrenic relation to technological development.” [1] The source of unreasoning optimism, blamed for a wide variety of social ills, the wide-ranging category of technology is perhaps as confusing today as it was when it first became a term of debate in the early twentieth century. With the publication of Lewis Mumford’s Technics and Civilization, this protean object of study came into the mainstream of American culture.[2] And with the emergence of the film industry, hand-held cameras, commercial magazines, and especially radio, technology suddenly seemed to become a ubiquitous aspect of daily life between the wars, provoking the “schizophrenic” responses that indicate the complex effects of technological development.

These new technologies could reach audiences on an unprecedented scale and in ways that had not been imagined before. The most representative of these new technologies was certainly radio, which took the United States by storm in the late 1920s. Historian Charles Beard summarizes the situation when he writes that between the wars, “entertainment over the air went wider and deeper throughout American society than any other type of amusement, diversion or suggestion […] receivers became almost universal in America.”[3] As the theorist of technology Friedrich Kittler has observed, radio presented a new problem in the history of communications because it spread indiscriminately to the widest possible audience.[4] Unlike Western Union’s telegrams, for example, radio waves could be pulled down by anyone with a receiver. Until the president of RCA and founder of NBC, David Sarnoff, saw the potential of what he called “broadcasting,” the multi-directionality of radio was a puzzling problem that required a fundamental shift in the notion of communications. Sarnoff understood that the commercial value of radio lay in selling time, the value of which depended on the type and size of the audience.[5] This shift was counterintuitive since, before these new technologies, communication tended to be directed toward a specifically delimited audience. CBS expressed both the risks and the promise of this new concept of communications in their slogan, “They’ve never met, but they’re all one family … to CBS.”[6] Who was this strange shifting mass that could tune in at will, and how could a program attract and hold such a diverse and shifting assemblage?[7]

Without doubt, radio was successful at capturing its amorphous audience. By 1932, Americans owned 16 of the 20 million wireless receivers in the world.[8] With a nation-wide population of just over one-hundred million people, this meant that radio culture already had a wide diffusion by the onset of the Depression. At that time, radios were estimated to constitute up to one-third of the average household’s furniture expense. In the mid-nineteen-thirties, at the height of interwar radio culture, “twenty-six million households owned at least one radio and spent an average of five hours daily listening.”[9] The cost of the radio persistently fell, until by 1938 the average price, ten dollars, was within the range of low-income families; the next year more than 10 million radios were sold. At the same time, radios became increasingly more accessible, so that by the end of the decade almost three million cars had Motorola radios and portable battery operated radios were common.[10] By 1940 there were 50 million receivers in the United States, making up more than one-half of the world’s radios, and over 90% of urban homes and 70% of rural homes had regular access to radio programs.[11] This rapid shift in the American technological landscape is perhaps best illustrated by the 1939 Rockefeller Foundation study, which found that for unemployed families radio had become an important source of moral and psychological support, the loss of which would have been considered a sign of absolute impoverishment.[12]

According to radio historian Michele Hilmes, “[d]uring the Depression radio had seized hold of the national imagination,” and she continues,

A hugely profitable industry had grown up. A national audience consisting of the vast majority of Americans tuned in to a wide variety of entertainment and information that reassured and unified the nation through hard economic times and wartime strife.[13]

Following this logic, radio’s capacity to generate a sense of social unity was an important aspect of its success between the wars. The millions of heterogeneous listeners who tuned in daily seemed to share a sense of community in the act of listening to the serial broadcasts of popular programs like Amos ‘n’ Andy or Toscanini’s Sunday concerts. Similarly, important events suddenly took on a national character, as when thirty million listeners tuned in to “witness” Charles Lindberg’s return flight to the United States in 1927, or when Orson Welles’ broadcast of the War of the Worlds in 1938 caused widespread panic in several major cities.

The influential historian of American culture Warren Susman puts Hilmes’ argument in stronger terms, writing that “[radio] sound helped mold uniform national responses; it helped create or reinforce uniform national values and beliefs in a way that no previous medium ever had before.”[14] This claim, expressed by Hilmes and Susman, that radio welded a national community, seems so logical and obvious that it has rarely been challenged. The fiction that radio helped create a united people has proved to be a handy way of explaining the appeal of radio culture as another in a long series of homogenizing communications technologies, as with Benedict Anderson’s argument in Imagined Communities that radio is merely an extension of the nineteenth-century print-nationalism that brought heterogeneous and far-flung populations together in the cultural imaginary.[15] And yet it is not at all clear that radio functioned simply by homogenizing its audience.[16] In fact, as Michele Hilmes argues elsewhere, radio appealed to an extraordinarily diverse group of listeners via a complex set of overlapping, contradictory appeals that found micro-points of connection with particular audiences, rather than drawing listeners into a homogenizing process that reduced audience tastes to uniformity.[17] After all, radio itself was far from homogenous: every hour brought something new, and every program contained myriad opportunities for locating affinities with its listeners, integrating itself into the flow of everyday life on an unprecedented scale.[18]

In its multiple, heterogeneous appeals, radio remained a confusing phenomenon, because it seemed to produce opposing effects, both bringing people together and isolating them, appealing to the crudest irrational desires and bringing listeners intense new experiences. The argument for radio’s uniformity tends to push its complexity into the background, but during the interwar period this new technology was intermeshed with a series of other developments, not least of which was the emergence of fascism in Europe and the active concern that its anti-democratic social formations would also find a home in the United States. In a period marked by a profound obsession with radio, this talking furniture seemed to magnetically draw in its listeners in a manner that, to contemporaries, strikingly resembled fascism’s ability to harness the enthusiastic masses. The prevalence of radio demagoguery in interwar America appeared to prove these fears, and radio’s ability to attract a diverse population seemed to embody the potential for turning masses into movements. If radio evinced a startling capacity to capture discrete hopes, fears and fantasies as they circulated through the listening masses, fascism appeared to be the natural political avatar of this new technology.

In the 1930s, the political force of radio’s appeal became an object of serious scrutiny for the first time. Important and influential critics of radio like Theodor Adorno, Rudolph Arnheim and Hadley Cantril actively explored the potentials and dangers of this new technology, arriving at diverse conclusions that nonetheless began from the shared premise that radio effectually constructed auditory crowds without identity and formed arbitrary popular assemblages that wielded real political and social power.[19] Apparently homogenizing but clearly multiplicitous and chaotic, radio appealed to emotions at the sub-rational level while also attracting listeners into complexly shifting social formations.


Given the multiplicitous nature of radio, it is surprising that it has been so insistently understood as standardizing American culture. Perhaps the most tenacious prosecutor of American radio as a homogenizing force has been the German philosopher Theodor W. Adorno. After the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research relocated from Europe to Columbia University in 1934, Adorno increasingly turned his attention to the “culture industry” of the United States, producing a series of widely influential works on American radio. And by 1939 Adorno was working on one of the most important early investigations of radio culture, the Radio Research Project funded by the Rockefeller Foundation.[20] The outcome of this steady engagement with radio was a body of work that situates radio culture in Adorno’s larger interpretation of fascism and the rise of mass culture.

In particular, Adorno was interested in the presentation of music through the radio, and the attendant loss of individual experience for the listener. As the intellectual historian Martin Jay summarizes, Adorno argued that, “[i]nstead of experiencing the music with its ‘auratic’ qualities intact, the radio listener heard it in a depersonalized, collective, objectivized form, which robbed it of its negative function.”[21] According to Adorno, this loss of mass culture’s critical capacity leaves it vulnerable to fascism, which he likewise interprets as a homogenizing force. The critical function of music, its “negative function,” is vitiated when it is filtered through radio; in this process, radio music is turned into a reproducible commodity rather than maintaining the particularity (or the “aura”) of its performative interpretation. For Adorno, this results in the simplification of music, its reduction to the most palatable experience available.

In his writings on radio and mass culture, Adorno caustically critiques the pre-fabricated tendencies of radio, calling it the “ideal of Aunt Jemima’s ready-mix for pancakes extended to the field of music.”[22] Radio’s simplification of music results in the elimination of its most complex and “negative” elements in the creation of an insipid and banal popular taste: “The listener suspends all intellectual activity when dealing with music and is content with consuming and evaluating its gustatory qualities – just as if the music which tasted best were also the best music possible.[23] This “pseudo-individualism” produces what Adorno calls “spectatoritis,” or the increasing passivity of the audience in the face of the musical pabulum pumped through commercial radio.[24] The end result of this radio passivity is the “retrogressive and sometimes even infantile type of person.”[25] In this characterization of radio culture, Adorno wants to create a clear distinction between the critical and the uncritical, the infantile and the participatory citizen, all the while associating the uncritical and infantilizing tendencies in radio with fascism.

In Dialectic of Enlightenment, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer take their stand against what they call the “false clarity” of “myth,” which they associate as much with the commercial aspects of mass culture as with the propaganda of fascist regimes.[26] As a purveyor of this myth, the “culture industry” persistently evacuates cultural forms of their complexity, they argue, and this “ruthless unity in the culture industry is evidence of what will happen in politics.”[27] Under the “culture industry,” technologies like radio become “psychotechnologies” in which the individual aspects of the personality are persistently whittled away, leaving the modern citizen “already virtually a Nazi.”[28] Advertising, like the propaganda slogan, makes words into “trademarks” without any sense to their sound. In this terrifyingly depersonalized and uncritical environment, a dictator like Hitler finds a ready-made apparatus for subjugating the people:

The metaphysical charisma of the Führer invented by the sociology of religion has finally turned out to be no more than the omnipresence of his speeches on the radio, which are a demoniacal parody of the omnipresence of the divine spirit. The gigantic fact that the speech penetrates everywhere replaces its content [...][29]

Adorno and Horkheimer argue that the ubiquity of radio sound replaces its “content,” resulting in the loss of our individual, critical capacities and thereby leading to fascism. The “psychotechnologies” of interwar American culture are thus allied with the threat of fascism and radio is a primary force in this erosion of critical individuality.

Adorno’s assertions about radio are grounded in the notion that technological mass culture homogenizes society and routinizes thought.[30] As culture becomes more uniform, it also becomes more vulnerable to manipulation by a single personality. Adorno focuses on this paradox in his most sustained engagement with American radio culture, The Psychological Technique of Martin Luther Thomas’ Radio Addresses. “The more impersonal our order becomes, the more important personality becomes as an ideology,” Adorno claims.[31] Continuing in this vein, Adorno adds,

The more the individual is reduced to a mere cog, the more the idea of the uniqueness of the individual, his autonomy and importance, has to be stressed as a compensation for his actual weakness. Since this cannot be done with each of the listeners individually or only in a rather general and abstract manner, it is done vicariously by the leader.[32]

The fascistic American radio demagogue Martin Luther Thomas exhibits this behavior, and as such he serves as Adorno’s illustration of the dangers of radio culture. “Thomas’s radio speeches offer an excellent example for one of the basic characteristics of fascist and anti-Semitic propaganda,” in their “calculated” production of “irrationalism” in his listeners.[33] In this interpretation, radio is a tool directed by a demagogue, rather than a multiplicitous field of appeals that draws in a heterogeneous audience.

In Adorno’s exploration of demagoguery, radio becomes a mere instrument for amplifying Thomas’s calculated propaganda, which is aimed at generating a “sham individualism” that is all the more easily “incorporated” into a “collectivity where [the listener] may feel ‘sheltered’ but where he has no say at all.”[34] The majority of Adorno’s study offers a point-by-point account of the various “rhetorical devices” used by Thomas to create this “sham individualism.” These devices, to which Adorno gives titles like “The Flight of Ideas Technique,” or “The Unity Trick,” are supposed to comprise a summa of Thomas’s radio strategies for manipulating his audience; however, because Adorno sees radio as a conduit for verbal tricks rather than medium that changes the quality and intensity of human relations, he provides an account of demagogy that explains almost nothing about the listeners’ every day experience of radio culture. As a mere dupe of Thomas’ radio technique, Adorno’s audience is not only incapable of discernment, but it is also devoid of the emotional responses that created the rich topography of responses actually comprising the social ecology of radio.

It is strange that Adorno should have chosen for his study a relatively minor figure like Thomas, since there were many other, more popular, radio demagogues in the interwar period. Probably the most infamous, the Catholic radio priest Father Charles Coughlin, had as many as ten million listeners at the height of his influence around 1935. Similarly, Huey Long gained a nation-wide following virtually overnight with his radio broadcasts advertising his “Share the Wealth” economic plan.[35] When Ezra Pound wrote to Long in 1935 offering his services as future U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, Long sent him some of these radio broadcasts.[36] Ezra Pound would also take up the microphone during the Second World War, completing 105 broadcasts between 1941 and 1943 on behalf of the Italian fascist regime, and after the war he was convicted of “radio treason” by the U.S. government.[37] As Timothy Campbell has argued in his study Wireless Writing in the Age of Marconi (2006), Pound conceptualized his role as a public poet through the model of radio reception and transmission, holding that “[a]rtists are the antennae of the race.”[38] In these three examples the priest, the politician and the poet all imagined radio differently and developed radio-audience hybrids that were particular to their individual styles rather than universal and homogenizing.

Likewise, all three of these figures expressed identifiable affinities with fascism. Father Coughlin, for example, championed the adoption of Mussolini’s corporate state structure and in an oft-cited comment in one of his broadcasts, he states: “We are at the crossroads. One road leads to Communism, the other to fascism. I take the road to fascism.”[39] Given that there are so many fascistic radio demagogues to choose from, it is striking that Adorno not only chooses a relatively minor figure from the 1930s but also declines to discuss Thomas’s contemporaries. If he had, he would have found that each of these demagogues (although they sought to use radio to create support for identifiably fascistic programs) is different from the other in his engagement with radio and his use of what Adorno would call “rhetoric.”

The notion that there is a singular form of radio demagoguery is unsustainable because any careful study of the period quickly makes obvious the superabundance of different, overlapping and contradictory radio-techniques both inside historically fascist countries and by fascistic figures outside of these countries. The effects of radio that Theodor Adorno tied to the culture industry and fascism was not so monolithic in the interwar period. Despite the pervasive tendency to see radio culture as homogenizing, the few specialists who wrote on radio between the wars did appreciate the complexity of its multiple appeals and the unpredictability of radio audiences. These were not only stronger models for understanding how radio drew in its listeners, they also developed a more nuanced consideration of fascism’s mass appeal. In what is widely regarded as the first major work on radio as a medium, German theorist Rudolph Arnheim’s Radio (first translated and published in the United States in 1934) explores the relationship between the technical features of radio and its peculiar appeal for audiences.[40] While Arnheim by no means rejects the concerns expresses by Adorno, his interpretation of radio as a medium (rather than merely an instrument) provides an important counterpoint to Adorno’s critique of the culture industry.

Beginning his technical study with an anecdote about the popularity of radio in fascist Italy, Arnheim goes on to argue that the most important feature of radio is that it is pure sound vibration: “[I]t should be realized that the elemental force lies in the sound, which affects everyone more directly within the meaning of the word, and all radio art must make this fact its starting point.”[41] Whereas Theodor Adorno worries that radio tends to conceal sense with sound, Arnheim demonstrates that there is no ultimate “sense” behind or somehow grounding the radio sound. And if Adorno sees radio as a direct factor in the manufacture of a fascistic homogeneity, Arnheim sees it as part of a heterogeneous acoustic world that permeates all socio-political spheres.[42] This does not mean that significance is free-floating on the air, Arnheim is careful to point out, but rather that in radio culture meaning is affective, inhering at the surface of the sound waves, the medium itself:

The “expressive characteristics” of sound affect us in a far more direct way, comprehensible without any experience by means of intensity, pitch, interval, rhythm, and tempi, properties of sound which have very little to do with the objective meaning of the word or the sound.[43]

The “intensity” of sound creates an affectively rich “aural world” that is full of meaning for each listener. This is a world that is full of meaning at the level of sound, Arnheim argues. With radio “we should feel ourselves back in the primeval age where the word was still sound, the sound still word.”[44] These Adamic overtones suggest that radio holds the capacity to change and enrich human speech, rather than unhinging the signifier from signified. In this vision of an “aural world,” Arnheim sees radio as a complex social technology with overlapping effects, some of which undoubtedly are available for manipulation by the Italian regime with which he begins his study but none of which are simply rhetorical maneuvers that signify a fascist mentality, as Adorno would have it.

In contrast to Adorno, Arnheim argues that the sound environment of radio culture expresses an intimacy that is linked to the particularity of the listener’s desire: “the wireless addresses those millions not as a mass but as individuals,” he maintains, because it has the extraordinary property of speaking “to everyone individually, not to everyone together.”[45] The “intensity” of radio sound appeals to the particularity of the desiring subject. In this “acoustic sphere,” aural appeals are not singular or discrete “as in visual space but overlay each other completely.”[46] For Arnheim, the “aural world” draws in its listeners with multiple, contradictory appeals that “overlay each other” in the complex interplay of competing radio programs, each of which evokes its own microcosm of the “acoustic sphere.” In radio culture, the diverse hopes, fears, and fantasies of the audience find multiple points of affinity with these overlapping appeals.[47]

In a chapter entitled “In Praise of Blindness: Emancipation from the Body,” Arnheim argues that our imaginations supplement this “acoustic sphere,” so that we reach out and create the radio environment as much as it reaches into our psyches. In this technological ecology, the borders of the body no longer correspond to their physical limits but instead are enmeshed in a network much larger than the individual as we form linkages with the technical apparatus of the radio that change our experience as humans. For example, Arnheim argues that the radio announcer should be “dehumanized” as much as possible so that he can be understood as part of the “pure sound” of radio in the modulation and structure of his or her (or its) voice.[48] In this aural world, physical traces evanesce, leaving only acoustic imprints that follow laws of pitch and intensity.

Along with these extraordinary insights, Arnheim also identifies many of the same concerns that preoccupy other thinkers and writers on technology between the wars. Addressing the concern that radio will create more conformity, Arnheim writes, “If our time seems destined to gather together in a unified popular community and culture people of different classes and educational status, it threatens, on the other hand, to create a uniform mode of life, which has nothing of the rich variety of the single form we so admire in nature.”[49] If cultural homogeneity constitutes one of the dangers of radio culture, however, Arnheim maintains that it would be an artificial imposition on the medium, rather than an attribute or natural tendency of the “acoustic sphere.” Likewise, in spite of his consideration of radio as a medium, in the final chapters, Arnheim also reinstates an ultimate distinction between the radio and the listener, the “tool and the workman,” that seems to work against his earlier claims about the “dehumanized” acoustic sphere.[50] Nonetheless, Arnheim’s insights into radio “intensity” and the particularity of its appeal are extraordinarily useful for thinking about the appeal of radio for a diverse audience between the wars.

In what is probably the most important American interwar study of radio, The Psychology of Radio, the sociologist Hadley Cantril develops strategies for understanding radio that, like Arnheim’s, help us to render Adorno’s model more complex and functionally descriptive.[51] Beginning with the observation that 78 million Americans are “habitual listeners” of radio, Cantril holds that “[i]f radio had not somehow satisfied human wants, it would never have attained its present popularity,” since “it is only the interests, the desire, and the attitudes of the listeners that can vitalize the vast inhuman network of the air.”[52] He also finds that radio “skeletonizes” the personality of the speaker and requires the development of “imaginative completion of the situation in the minds of the listeners.”[53] Just as Arnheim found that radio “dehumanizes” the speaker while at the same time engaging the active participation of the listeners, Cantril argues that radio creates complex social assemblages that are built around human fantasy in ways that change the quality of human culture. However, whereas Arnheim focused on the technical aspects of radio as a medium, Cantril is most interested in the sociological effects of radio culture and he therefore dedicates the majority of his study to the question of propaganda and what he calls “crowd building.”

While Arnheim begins his technical survey of Radio with a story about its force of attraction in fascist Italy, Cantril begins The Psychology of Radio with a discussion of American radio demagoguery. In a direct comparison with Hitler and Mussolini, Cantril notes that “radio spellbinders” such as Huey Long and Father Coughlin use colloquial language to provide simple solutions in the form of slogans.[54] The most important effect of these “spellbinders” is the “impression of universality,” in which each individual “believes that others are thinking as he thinks and sharing his emotions.”[55] As Cantril argues, the demagogue accomplishes this, not by homogenizing the crowd’s desires but by speaking to each member of the audience in what he calls a “linear relationship between the speaker and his auditors.”[56] With this ensemble of techniques, the radio demagogue is able to build crowds almost instantaneously, Cantril contends, because, unlike print, radio permeates space and is always available to its listeners.

Surprisingly, Cantril is optimistic about this “crowd building,” maintaining that through the “personal appeal” of the radio voice,

Millions of people listen to the same thing at the same time – and they themselves are aware of the fact. Distinctions between rural and urban communities, men and women, age and youth, social classes, creeds, states, and nations are abolished. As if by magic the barriers of social stratification disappear and in their place comes a consciousness of equality and of a community of interest.[57]

Tellingly, Cantril fails to connect his initial discussion of radio demagoguery (and its implication in fascism) with radio’s capacity to magically generate a depoliticized “community of interest.” On the contrary, the “crowd mind” shaped by radio is “[i]nherently a foe of Fascism and of cultural nationalism” because “[i]t presses always toward internationalism, toward universal democracy.”[58] While radio culture naturally tends toward internationalism, Cantril considers fascism and demagoguery, like the influential force of advertising propaganda in the United States, to be artificial influences:

The length, content, the selection, the wording, the coordination of broadcasts are not now determined primarily, as they should be, by the capacities and desires of the listener and by the intrinsic qualities of the medium, but by special autocratic interests.[59]

The relationship between the medium and the listener’s desires is interrupted by what he elsewhere calls the “dictatorship” of autocratic interests such as “advertisers and shareholders.”[60]

In contrast to these “minority” interests, Cantril associates radio with its vast appeal for “the middle classes and the underprivileged whose desires to share in the world’s events have been most persistently thwarted.”[61] “It is these classes,” Cantril argues, “that are the most loyal supporters of radio” because their everyday encounters with radio offer many and diverse avenues for intensive experiences:

For them radio is a gigantic and invisible net which each listener may cast thousands of miles into the sea of human affairs and draw in teeming with palpable delights from which he may select according to his fancy.[62]

The populist appeal of radio hinges on this capacity to “draw in” the diverse, emotively intense linkages floating in the ether, Cantril argues. In The Psychology of Social Movements, published the same year as The Psychology of Radio, Cantril uses strikingly parallel language to describe the populist appeal of Nazism: “[L]ike the people at a circus, potential Nazi followers were able to find, in a variety of appeals offered, some particular pattern which consciously or unconsciously attracted them.”[63] While the mass spectacle of the “circus” has an anti-democratic ring for Cantril, it is not clear that radio’s crowd appeal is different in its ability to draw the middle and lower classes into a sense of depoliticized, classless unity. 

As with Arnheim’s discussion of radio, Cantril has difficulty avoiding contradictory statements about radio’s polyvalent qualities. Both private and widely shared, diverse but intensively personal, the everyday experience of radio parallels fascism’s uncanny appeal between the wars. While Cantril and Arnheim sometimes veer toward the totalizing model of radio-nationalism, they also provide a description of the multiple appeals through which radio drew in the heterogeneous desires of its ever-changing audience. While Adorno shared their concern about the relationship between fascism and the new radio culture, his models of the culture industry and rhetorical manipulation describe a top-down structure that does little to help us understand the appeal of radio culture (and radio demagogues) in interwar America. By contrast, Arnheim’s emphasis on sound “intensity” and Cantril’s sociological stress on “crowd building,” provide us with other methods for describing how radio was understood between the wars that also help us understand why it was so often paired with fascism in the cultural imaginary: both radio and fascism seemed to magnetically attract its participants with multiple, contradictory appeals. The danger of the newly technologized mass culture, Arnheim and Cantril understood, thus lay in the multiplicitous everyday appeals generated by technologies like radio, rather than the homogenizing apparatus that Adorno identified with fascism.


  • [1] The Intellectual Appropriation of Technology: Discourses on Modernity, 1900-1939, ed., Mikael Hard and Andrew Jamison (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998), 1.
  • [2] Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1934).
  • [3] Charles Beard and Mary Beard, America in Midpassage: The Rise of American Civilization (New York: Macmillan, 1939), 644. Radio far outstrips its closest rival, film, in the amount of attention it consumed between the wars. Every week, radio garnered about one billion total hours of listening as compared with 150 million hours in front of the screen for Americans. See Hadley Cantril and Gordon Allport, The Psychology of Radio (New York: Peter Smith, 1941), 14.
  • [4] Friedrich A Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, trans. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999), 253.
  • [5] Conde Nast established his publications empire, beginning with Vogue in 1909, on the same new principle of selling space based on audience size and demographic, although the audience size was minute in comparison with what radio attracted.
  • [6] Robert Brown, Manipulating the Ether: The Power of Broadcast Radio in Thirties America (North Carolina: McFarland, 1998), 5.
  • [7] This was an abiding concern throughout the interwar period. Melvin Patrick Ely describes how the most popular radio program of the interwar period developed demographic data through a process of guesswork, using strategies such as soliciting fan mail. See Melvin Patrick Ely, The Adventures of Amos ‘n’ Andy: A Social History of an American Phenomenon (New York: Maxwell Macmillan, 1991).
  • [8] Wolfgang Schivelbusch, Three New Deals: Reflections on Roosevelt’s America, Mussolini’s Italy, and Hitler’s Germany, 1933-1939, trans., Jefferson Chase (New York: Henry Hot and Co., 2006), 66.
  • [9] Michele Hilmes, Radio Voices: American Broadcasting, 1922-1952 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 183.
  • [10] Brown, 2.
  • [11] Brown, 2.
  • [12] Schivelbusch, 68.
  • [13] Michele Hilmes, “Rethinking Radio,” in Radio Reader: Essays in the Cultural History of Radio, eds., Michele Hilmes and Jason Loviglio (New York: Routledge, 2002), 1-20.
  • [14] Warren Susman, “The Thirties,” in The Development of an American Culture, ed., Stanley Coben and Lorman Ratner (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1983), 228.
  • [15] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, (New York: Verso, 1983), 135.
  • [16] Marshal McLuhan gives an account of radio that is similar to, but not identical with, this standard interpretation of radio-nationalism. He argues that radio has the power to “re-tribalize mankind” in countries that have not yet been fully transformed by print culture. When this happened in Europe in the first half of the twentieth century, “the old web of kinship began to resonate once more with the note of fascism.” Rather than the homogenization of a vast, impersonal public, McLuhan sees radio as re-establishing the intimate personal ties of the tribe, which, in the context of technological modernity, he links with fascism. See Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: Penguin, 1964), 265, 259.
  • [17] Michele Hilmes writes that “one reason for radio’s neglect as a field of study is precisely that close analysis of radio begins to unravel the mask that U.S. commercial media have created for themselves: as a naturally arising, consensus-shaped, and unproblematic reflection of a pluralistic society, rather than the conflicting, tension-ridden site of the ruthless exercise of cultural hegemony, often demonstrating in its very effort to exert control the power and diversity of the alternative popular constructions that oppose and resist it.” See Michele Hilmes, Radio Voices, xvii. 
  • [18] Alice Goldfarb Marquis gives the following breakdown of radio programming in 1938 according to an FCC survey of 62,000 radio hours: 1/3 was advertising, and of the rest, 50% was music (mostly popular), 9% drama, 9% news and sports, 9% variety, 5% religious, 2% special events, 13% miscellaneous (mostly lectures). See Alice Goldfarb Marquis, “Written on the Wind: The Impact of Radio during the 1930s” in Journal of Contemporary History, 19, No. 3 (1984), 404.
  • [19] The political force of radio was dramatically illustrated by the radio demagogue Father Charles Coughlin, whose frequently anti-Semitic and pro-fascist diatribes attracted a stunning 11 million weekly listeners and swayed local and federal elections.
  • [20] As David Jenemann points out in Adorno in America (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007),1938 Adorno came to the US to join Paul Lazarsfeld’s Princeton Radio Research Project. In the course of his research, Adorno increasingly connected radio’s appeal to fascism. See also Adorno’s important talk, “What National Socialism Has Done to the Arts,” in Essays on Music, ed. Richard Leppert, trans. Susan Gillespie (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002).
  • [21] Martin Jay, The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute for Social Research 1923-1950 (Boston: Little & Brown, 1973), 191.
  • [22] Theodor Adorno, “A Social Critique of Radio Music” in Kenyon Review, 7, No. 2 (Spring 1945), 211.
  • [23] Adorno, 211.
  • [24] Adorno, 216.
  • [25] Adorno, 213. Adorno makes the same argument in a more extended form in his “Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propoganda.” Arguing that the Hitlerian dictator looks to strip the masses of their individualism and make them passive, Adorno equates propaganda with advertising in its tendency to standardize thought. See Theodor Adorno, “Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propoganda” in The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, eds. Andrew Arato and Eike Gebhardt (New York: Urizen Books, 1978), 133.
  • [26] Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans., John Cumming (New York: Continuum, 1999), xv.
  • [27] Horkheimer and Adorno, 123.
  • [28] Horkheimer and Adorno, 155.
  • [29] Horkheimer and Adorno, 159.
  • [30] Adorno’s influential interpretation of mass culture and radio extends to some of the most important documents of the interwar period. Shortly after he broke with the Institute for Social Research in 1939, Erich Fromm argued that radio contributed to the confusion and passification of mass audiences. Modern mass media, according to Fromm “paralyzes the ability to think clearly and causes the destruction of any kind of structuralized picture of the world.” In the flow of decontextualized information that makes up the new technological environment,

    Facts lose the specific quality which they can have only as parts of a structuralized whole and retain merely an abstract, quantitative meaning; each fact is just another fact and all that matters is whether we know more or less.”  Radio, moving pictures, and newspapers have a devastating effect on this score. The announcement of the bombing of a city and the death of hundreds of people is shamelessly followed or interrupted by an advertisement for soap or wine. The same speaker with the same suggestive, ingratiating, and authoritative voice, which he has just used to impress you with the seriousness of the political situation, impresses now upon his audience the merits of the particular brand of soap which pays for the news broadcast.

    Emphasizing a different element of Adorno’s theory of the “culture industry,” Franz Neumann, in Behemoth: The Structure and Practice of National Socialism, saw radio as part of a development toward fascism in which culture is orchestrated for the greater homogenization of the masses:

    The radio prescribes the exact amount of culture to be digested by the public, how much classical and how much light music, how much talk and how much news. The powers extend to the most intimate relations of man, to the family.

    Although both Fromm and Neumann differ from Adorno in important ways, their comments on radio illustrate the pervasiveness of the Adornian interpretation of the “culture industry” between the wars. See Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom (New York: Holt, 1941), 250. And Franz Neumann, Behemoth: The Structure and Practice of National Socialism (London: Victor Gollancz, 1942), 300.

  • [31] Theodor Adorno, The Psychological Technique of Martin Luther Thomas’ Radio Addresses (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000), 1.
  • [32] Adorno, The Psychological Technique, 1-2.
  • [33] Adorno, The Psychological Technique, 29.
  • [34] Adorno, The Psychological Technique, 27.
  • [35] Long’s popularity was translated into other aspects of radio culture, as he was also popularly known as the “Kingfish,” after a character in the widely syndicated radio program Amos ‘n’ Andy.
  • [36] Ezra Pound’s Economic Correspondence, 1933-1940, ed., Roxana Preda (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2007), 40. Pound received broadcasts of “Redistribution of Wealth,” “St. Vitus Dance Government,” and “Our Blundering Government,” which clearly express Long’s rhetorical strategies and his political program.
  • [37] Timothy C. Campbell, Wireless Writing in the Age of Marconi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), 134.
  • [38] Campbell, 123. The American fascist and leader of the Silver Shirts, William Dudley Pelley took the radio model even further, imagining it as a racial characteristic. He supposed that one of the superior aspects of the Nordic race was what he called their “radio eye,” which gave them stronger perceptual capacities. See Sokolsky, 264.
  • [39] Dale Kramer, “The American Fascists,” Harper’s (September 1940), 390. While Alan Brinkley argues in Voices of Protest that these statements by Coughlin cannot be taken simply as a sign of pro-fascism, it is worth nothing that many of Coughlin’s contemporaries understood his claims in precisely this light. See Alan Brinkley, Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin, and the Great Depression (New York, Alfred Knopf, 1982), 272.
  • [40] Rudolph Arnheim, Radio, trans., Margaret Ludwig and Herbert Read (London: Faber & Faber, 1936).
  • [41] Arnheim, 28.
  • [42] As Luisa Passerini, David Forgacs and others have noted, radio culture in Fascist Italy was also far from monolithic. See Luisa Passerini, Fascism in Popular Memory: The Cultural Experience of the Turin Working Class, trans., Robert Lumley and Jude Blooomfield (London: Cambridge University Press, 1987). And Rethinking Italian Fascism: Capitalism, Populism and Culture, ed., David Forgacs (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1986).
  • [43] Arnheim, 29.
  • [44] Arnheim, 35.
  • [45] Arnheim, 72.
  • [46] Arnheim, 121.
  • [47] Elsewhere in Radio, Arnheim makes the intriguing suggestion that the multiple, contradictory aspect of radio has the force of montage to draw together contradictory cultural elements. For example, Arnheim proposes placing microphones in different places and bringing them together in a single broadcast. In his writings on radio, Brecht cultivates a similar interest in the potential for radio montage. See Brecht on Film and Radio, trans. and ed., Marc Silberman (London: Methuen, 2000). 
  • [48] Arnheim, 143.
  • [49] Arnheim, 260.
  • [50] Arnheim, 265.
  • [51] Hadley Cantril and Gordon Allport, The Psychology of Radio (New York: Peter Smith, 1941). Cantril’s study was the outcome of the larger Princeton Radio Project, the only research project of its kind at the time, which was begun several years earlier and was strongly influenced by Cantril. See Brown, 229.
  • [52] Cantril and Allport, 3-4.
  • [53] Cantril and Allport, 14.
  • [54] Cantril and Allport, 7.
  • [55] Cantril and Allport, 8.
  • [56] Cantril and Allport, 9.
  • [57] Cantril and Allport, 20.
  • [58] Cantril and Allport, 22.
  • [59] Cantril and Allport, 270.
  • [60] Cantril and Allport, 271.
  • [61] Cantril and Allport, 259.
  • [62] Cantril and Allport, 259.
  • [63] Hadley Cantril, The Psychology of Social Movements (New York: John Wiley, 1941), 233.


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