"A vigorous and well-documented revisionist argument . . . subtly hilarious . . . elegantly researched and written."—Journal of American History
"This book is the secret history of everything I've always wanted to know about my own medium. I read this book hungrily, turning the pages fast."—Ira Glass, host of Public Radio International's This American LifeWhen American radio broadcasting began in the early 1920s there was a consensus among middle-class opinion makers that the airwaves must never be used for advertising. Even the national advertising industry agreed that the miraculous new medium was destined for higher cultural purposes. And yet, within a decade American broadcasting had become commercialized and has remained so ever since.
"A lively, well-written, deeply researched book that will significantly further our understanding of both radio history and American cultural history. Doerksen lays out precisely how stations and entrepreneurs previously dismissed as marginal to the emerging corporate consolidation actually helped shape American broadcasting with their innovations."—Daniel Czitrom, author of Media and the American Mind: From Morse to McLuhan
"An intriguing blend of music and ad history, American Babel uses archives and source materials to examine stations, radio personalities, and their social influence."—Midwest Book Review
"A significant step forward in revising our understanding of radio's initial decades. . . .Doerksen should be commended for his thematic emphases, his thorough archival research, and his wide-ranging review of 1920s radio publications. Together they provide a vivid portrait of these stations, their audiences, and the reactions of mainstream corporate broadcasters."—Enterprise and Society
"Well-written. . . . Provides a wealth of information regarding the social context of early radio. . . .The concluding chapter reveals Doerksen's brillance in summarizing the major issues that faced audiences during the 1930s."—Journal of Radio Studies
"A vivid and exciting detective tale. . . . An important intervention into the scholarly debate about the origins of the American system of broadcasting."—American Historical Review
"A freshly written, accessible, and engaging tour across the dial of early American radio. Doerksen successfully combines archival material and various obscure sources to reconstruct the programming of these long-forgotten stations."—Technology and Culture
Much recent scholarship treats this unsought commercialization as a coup, imposed from above by mercenary corporations indifferent to higher public ideals. Such research has focused primarily on metropolitan stations operated by the likes of AT&T, Westinghouse, and General Electric. In American Babel, Clifford J. Doerksen provides a colorful alternative social history centered on an overlooked class of pioneer broadcaster—the independent radio stations.
Doerksen reveals that these "little" stations often commanded large and loyal working-class audiences who did not share the middle-class aversion to broadcast advertising. In urban settings, the independent stations broadcast jazz and burlesque entertainment and plugged popular songs for Tin Pan Alley publishers. In the countryside, independent stations known as "farmer stations" broadcast "hillbilly music" and old-time religion. All were unabashed in their promotional practices and paved the way toward commercialization with their innovations in programming, on-air style, advertising methods, and direct appeal to target audiences. Corporate broadcasters, who aspired to cultural gentility, were initially hostile to the populist style of the independents but ultimately followed suit in the 1930s.
Drawing on a rich array of archives and contemporary print sources, each chapter of American Babel looks at a particular station and the personalities behind the microphone. Doerksen presents this group of independents as an intensely colorful, perpetually interesting lot and weaves their stories into an expansive social and cultural narrative to explain more fully the rise of the commercial network system of the 1930s.
Clifford J. Doerksen is a film critic for Time Out Chicago. He earned his Ph.D. degree in history from Princeton University.