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American Babel

A colorful social and cultural history of the often-overlooked independent radio stations of the 1920s, which played an integral role in shaping the American broadcast system through innovative commercial practices, all the while incurring the wrath of the large corporate stations trying to fulfill radio's utopian cultural potential.

American Babel
Rogue Radio Broadcasters of the Jazz Age

Clifford J. Doerksen

2005 | 176 pages | Cloth $47.50
American History / Film Studies/Media Studies
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Table of Contents


1. The Education of Frank Bannister
2. Serving the Masses, Not the Classes
3. Brows High and Fevered
4. "Exit the Jonas Hayseed of 1880"
5. That Doggone Radio Man
6. Wilbur Can Beat the Devil
7. The Dawn of the Golden Age


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


When I began the research that led to the writing of this book my intent was to write about border radio stations, the high-powered pirates that cropped up on the southern side of the Texas-Mexico border in the 1930s to bombard the United States and Canada with hillbilly music, fundamentalist preaching, populist politics, seedy mail-order merchandising, and advertisements for quack medical treatments. The border-blasting tradition was started by Dr. John Romulus Brinkley of Kansas and Norman Baker of Iowa, pioneer broadcasters whose licenses were among the first to be revoked by the Federal Radio Commission on the grounds that the programs their stations provided were at odds with "the public interest, convenience, and necessity." I came to this subject as a fan of the Carter Family, the seminal protocountry-music act who spent much of the 1930s making prerecorded programs to be broadcast by Brinkley's ultrapowerful border station, XERA.

As I traced the careers of Baker and Brinkley back to the days before they were pushed off of the airwaves by federal regulators, however, I lost interest in the border blasters in favor of a general study of independent radio broadcasters in the 1920s, some of whom made the border pirates look fairly staid. The field, I was happy to discover, was seriously underdeveloped. Almost all of the scholarship on early broadcasting was narrowly focused on the "Big Four" corporate players: Westinghouse, General Electric (GE), American Telephone & Telegraph (AT&T), and the Radio Corporation of America (RCA). By and large the early 1920s were treated as a messy prelude to the rise and consolidation of the tidy network systems: it was a period of undifferentiated chaos to be covered as quickly and efficiently as possible in order to get to the big players and the main events in which they starred. The five hundred or so independent stations on the air at the time were generally treated as bit players, if not mere background scenery. To me, they soon came to represent something more significant.

An apocryphal tradition has it that when asked why he robbed banks, the bandit Willie Sutton answered, "Because that's where the money is." Historians operate on similar principles: they gravitate toward the largest available troves of documents. As Michele Hilmes acknowledges in her Radio Voices: American Broadcasting, 1922-1952, there are drawbacks to this approach. Hilmes writes: "Many-the vast majority-of broadcast hours are lost forever. What does exist tends to privilege the dominant and centralized sources. I have drawn heavily on NBC records for this study because they make up a very large proportion of what has been preserved and is accessible to the historian. Records and accounts of the larger and more successful stations, programs, and performers are more likely to survive than those that actually may be of more interest to the post-structuralist scholar: those small stations providing a different service to a more marginalized audience, those programs deemed of specialized interest or least appeal whose scripts and records have long been destroyed, limited regional and local broadcasts, those efforts that never made it to realization precisely because they went against the grain of dominant practice. Much research needs to be done in these lesser-known areas to bring them to other scholars' attention and to reflect more fully our diverse and conflicted media heritage."

In a sense, this book is my attempt to fulfill the research mandate proposed by Hilmes—except that I am not a poststructuralist and I take issue with her assumption that small stations were necessarily marginal. I have found, to the contrary, that many of these were among the most successful and popular stations of the day, and that many of the commercial and cultural practices that eventually came to dominate and define American broadcasting originated among them.

Obviously the profiles of independent broadcast pioneers in this book are just as dependent on documentary sources as any previous history was (I have heard the recorded voice of just one of the broadcasters profiled here, William K. Henderson of station KWKH, Shreveport, Louisiana). Turning up information on these largely neglected stations was partly a matter of persistence and partly one of dumb luck. Had I not spent a week in the basement of Christ Community Church in Zion, Illinois, I could not have reconstructed the story of WCBD, a phenomenally popular midwestern station dedicated to gospel music and flat-earth geophysics. But I also got luckier than any historian can reasonably hope to be when I met Maureen Walthers, editor and publisher of the Times Newsweekly, a neighborhood newspaper in Queens, New York, formerly known as the Ridgewood Times. I telephoned Ms. Walthers in 2001 to ask her if she knew where I might look for papers relating to WHN, a hugely influential vaudevillian radio station founded eighty years earlier by her predecessor at the helm of the Ridgewood Times, George Schubel. "Oh, I've got a whole box of papers from the radio station," she told me. "I was going to throw them out the last time we moved our offices, but I said to myself, 'No, you should hang on to this because someday a historian is going to come looking for them.'"

The box she saved included documents that provided invaluable insight into the minds and motives of key but forgotten contributors to the commercialization of the American airwaves. Most of the papers inside were about eighty years old, but one was dated 1980. It was a short but highly informative memoir typewritten by WHN's original engineer, William Boettcher, who was just a few years out of his teens when the station took to the air in 1921. In 1980 the octogenarian Boettcher apparently felt a need to record and register his participation in what he correctly saw as unheralded historic events. Walthers was unable to tell me how Boettcher's brief testament found its way into the business papers of George Schubel. Probably, she reckoned, he simply mailed it to the Times Newsweekly office and some thoughtful person dropped it into the box.

The flipside to the story of the fluke preservation of George Schubel's papers and Boettcher's memoir is my distant brush with the recovery of equivalent files of another New York station, WHAP, which in 1925 presented itself to the city as a nonprofit broadcaster dedicated to the highest cultural and civic values, but which was actually a propaganda front for a rich, racist, ultraconservative cult of heretical Christian Scientists. In 1998 I met the daughter of WHAP's primary announcer, Franklin Ford. It turned out that I had discovered a lot about her father's life that she had never known. "He was known as 'the Strange One' in our family," she told me. "He was always very secretive. We knew he had some sort of background in radio, but that was all. Although as I grew older I did learn enough about his politics to think they were repugnant-he was a big admirer of Joe McCarthy, for instance." She further recalled that a filing cabinet full of her father's radio-related papers had sat unopened for decades at an industrial plant owned by her family, but that it had been hauled away to the dump some eight or ten years earlier. Finding that filing cabinet became the subject of a recurring dream that still visits me from time to time.

The first purpose of this book is to provide a sense of what these forgotten radio stations were like and what they meant to the people who listened to them. But in the course of my research, I kept bumping into material relating to the issue of broadcast advertising that seemed at odds with a premise common to several recent contributions to the historiography of early radio. Much of this literature treats the commercialization of the American airwaves as something engineered from above by corporate interests and consolidated in the face of universal public resistance. But the longer I looked at the independent stations and their audiences, the clearer it became that attitudes toward broadcast advertising were strongly conditioned by socioeconomic standing. Antipathy toward commercialization was strongest among the well off and well educated. People lower down the economic scale minded it less or even liked it. It was the latter class of listener that was served by the independent stations, who were thoroughly and brazenly commercialized at a time when corporate broadcasters were eschewing advertising in the name of good taste and high cultural ideals. In other words, commercial broadcasting originated at a grassroots level, as a populist deviation from polite corporate practice.

In airing this thesis in various forums over the years, I have found that it strikes different people in different ways. A minority embraces the idea that hostility to broadcast advertising was essentially bourgeois as intuitively, even self-evidently correct; another minority vehemently rejects it as a slur on the virtue of the working classes and a justification of the cultural crimes of present-day media conglomerates. I hope that readers belonging to the first category will not find my frequent returns to matters of class redundant, and that those belonging to the second will keep an open mind in relation to all the various proofs I have piled up.

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