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From AJR,   April 1999  issue

Celebrating the Intimate Delight of Radio   

Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination

By Susan J. Douglas
Times Books
432 pages; $27.50


By Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.

     

My first summer away from home, I took a job at a newspaper, moved to a strange town, and booked a room in a run-down hotel. I had no television, telephone or roommates for company, only an ancient console radio that got three or four stations. For an entire summer, that radio was my best friend.

As Susan J. Douglas recognizes in "Listening In," my experience was not uncommon. For many people, radio may be the closest thing to a friend that an inanimate object can be. We are constantly grumbling about how we hate our television sets, but who ever hates the radio?

"Few inventions evoke such nostalgia, such deeply personal and vivid memories," Douglas writes. Listeners have "a deeply private, personal bond with radio.... We often listened alone. Radio kneaded our psyches early on and helped shape our desires, our fantasies, our images of the outside world, our very imaginations."

"Listening In" trades on this nostalgia and intimacy, exploring radio's impact on our culture and worrying about trends toward homogenization.

Douglas, a professor at the University of Michigan, reinforces some obvious McLuhan-esque points about radio and imagination, but she pushes her analysis further, into trickier territories. She believes that how we listen helps shape our "inner selves," and she pays special attention to radio's "central role in enacting and mediating between models of masculinity."

Douglas also wrote "Where the Girls Are," an excellent analysis of "growing up female with the mass media." In her new book, for some reason, she is listed with the affectation "Susan J. Douglas, Ph.D." Perhaps this helps explain why her writing, which can be lucid and witty, sometimes veers toward the pedantic. She pontificates, for instance, about "this orality that radio foregrounded" and about the disc jockey as "a totemic figure" with a "feral, hybrid persona."

The two-toned style--part high scholarship, part pop culture--can be disconcerting, but the book is ultimately enlightening. Its deeper aspirations--particularly the concentration on radio as a socializing force for male energy--deserve serious consideration. And her simple celebration of radio is a delight:

"Driving alone at night, in the darkened car, reassured by the night-light of the dashboard, or lying in bed tuned to a disembodied voice or music, evokes a spiritual, almost telepathic contact across space and time, a reassurance that we aren't alone in the void."

Radio both folds us into the larger community and lets us find private hideaways and act out rebellions (through underground music or talk radio, for example). As Douglas notes, it constructs both "imagined communities" and "niches and outposts for...different tastes, attitudes, and desires."

As omnipresent as radio is today (the average person listens about 21 hours a week, according to an industry forecast), it may be hard to remember what life without radio was like. Its invention transformed our culture, sports, news--our total relationship with the outside world.

"Possibly radio's most revolutionary influence," according to Douglas, "was the way it helped make music one of the most significant, meaningful, sought-after, and defining elements of day-to-day life, of generational identity, and of personal and public memory."

Our connection to music is "so emotionally intense" that just a few bars of a song can alter our moods, transport us back in time, evoke powerful memories and presences. Radio plays a central role in so many rite-of-passage moments: cruising the strip with the car radio at full blast, lying on a beach with the transistor playing, primping for the prom with the bedside set tuned to romance.

In a chapter titled "Playing Fields of the Mind," Douglas presents "a meditation on listening on the air to sports." Here, too, Douglas pays careful heed to how we listen, to the imaginative and "dimensional" demands radio makes on our minds. "Of all the modes of listening that radio devised and nurtured, few may be as rich, as cognitively absorbing, or as transporting as listening to a sport like baseball," she writes.

Similarly, radio revolutionized the news experience. It brought, for the first time ever, "the actual sounds of political rallies, air-raid sirens, or gunfire, right into people's living rooms." Watching endless World War II footage on the History Channel and elsewhere, it is easy to forget that "this was, first and foremost, a radio war that millions listened to and imagined."

Broadcast news, she concludes, "created a sense of intimate participation in 'a larger world'...an insistence that Americans become much more aware of the world around them."

Probably the key subtheme for Douglas is radio's impact on males and masculinity. "It was men and boys who brought this device into the home," she points out, "and tinkering with it allowed them to assert new forms of masculine mastery."

She contends that radio "helped make the enjoyment of music more legitimate for men." By allowing them to exercise and express emotion through music, it softened "traditional male attributes, such as physical strength" and led to "countercultural reformulations of masculinity."

Setting the jargon aside, I suspect she is onto something, as she is when she reports that romanticized coverage of World War II GIs gave us a new "perfectly calibrated masculinity...the strong, brave, everyday guy who was a team player...altruistic and selfless."

She also pays deserved tribute to another altruistic group, ham operators, for their public service during crises and their innovative spirit.

At the moment, though, all is not well. The free spirit of early radio finds itself contained and mechanized in the conglomeratized era. Today's reduced choices and sterile prefab formats do little for imagination or community.

Even so, Douglas is somewhat optimistic. People, she believes, will demand better radio, for a simple reason: "We want--and need--to listen."