The long road to radio studies.

Author:Keith, Michael C.

For most of the medium's existence there has been an insufficient effort by academics and scholars to assess and acknowledge radio's role in American culture. Barbara D. Savage, author of Broadcasting Freedom (1999), put it succinctly when she wrote:

Despite its ubiquitous presence in American life for over half a century, radio is a medium whose political and cultural power and influence are not yet reflected in American historiography, American studies, work on American race relations, or studies of the media and popular culture. (pp. 5-6) Until recently radio courses have mostly been of an applied or practical nature. That is to say, when an institution offered a radio course it was more often than not centered on station production or operations. That's fine, and we need to have that, but the idea of examining and evaluating the social and cultural nature of the medium has been given short shrift for too long, and this constitutes a material oversight in media education.

A number of factors have contributed to this. First of all, the medium's so-called heyday was brief. Studs Terkel astutely called it "the shortest golden age in history" (personal communication, 1999). Between 1920 and 1945, radio held the nation in thrall, influencing nearly every aspect of it through its Depression era presidential addresses, acclaimed war coverage, unique and compelling dramas, hugely popular entertainment shows, and so on. Then came television--the "enfant terrible" it was called by some because of its near evisceration of the audio medium--and radio's importance and popularity were swiftly eclipsed. Many media observers and critics felt the medium was no longer pertinent and that its days were numbered. Who would want to merely listen to westerns or comedies when one could see them as well? Such thinking prevailed among both programmers and advertisers to the detriment of radio.

Where Are the Syllabi?

When the number of college courses in electronic media increased in the 1960s and 1970s, they were nearly always more vocational and industry-centric than historical or theoretical in nature, and when that began to change, the focus was on television. The video medium held everyone's rapt attention, and radio was considered mere background and thus hardly worthy of academic attention because of its primary emphasis on popular music, most of which was geared for kids. While television inspired critical studies in the 1970s and 1980s, radio did not. It continued to be approached from a voc-tech, hands-on ("you too can be a deejay") perspective. Apparently, it failed to impress teachers and scholars that the world's first electronic mass medium had performed a unique, if not profound, role in the life of Americans for three quarters of a century. It was as if the medium's pre-television history had been purged from institutional memory and what radio had been doing since the advent of the video box was deemed devoid of social and cultural merit or substance and therefore not worthy of study.

In point of fact the scholarly examination of electronic media in general was slow to be embraced by many college and university programs and the study of radio--beyond the applied, that is--was prodigiously overlooked or snubbed until the last decade. To this day nary a single Ivy League college or university in this country offers a degree program in electronic media that assume a critical, historical, or broadly theoretical approach. At the same time when programs in television and radio exist at other major institutions they often are viewed cavalierly, if not contemptuously, as "curriculum-lite," i.e., lacking in academic cache or merit. Certainly this is a misguided and wrong-minded perspective given that the electronic media have played a central role in the day-to-day life of the nation since their introduction nearly 90 years ago. Considering this view it is not surprising that no endowed chair in broadcast...

To continue reading