Bumb on Doerksen, 'American Babel: Rogue Radio Broadcasters of the Jazz Age'

Clifford J. Doerksen
M. J. Bumb

Clifford J. Doerksen. American Babel: Rogue Radio Broadcasters of the Jazz Age. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005. 157 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8122-3871-6.

Reviewed by M. J. Bumb (American Studies Program, The College of William and Mary) Published on Jhistory (October, 2007)

Air Ephemera

When WMBC announcer Jerry Buckley died in 1930, nearly 50,000 people attended his funeral in Detroit, where, in just two short years, Buckley had gained a large following by exposing governmental corruption. As a "local station," WMBC was part of the vanguard of independent stations during the 1920s. It is hard to imagine a figure like Buckley inspiring so much postmortem allegiance today. But for the time in which he lived--when broadcast radio went largely unregulated and uncorporatized--his riverboat-gambler charisma and his dedicated listeners were not atypical. As Clifford J. Doerksen shows in this entertaining book, these independent stations exercised an outsized influence compared to their corporate counterparts. More crucially, they also "presaged the commercial and cultural future of American broadcasting, [pioneering] program formats and business practices that persist to the present day" (p. 20).

What is at stake in that argument is a significant wrinkle in the historiography of early U.S. radio. Historians such as Susan Smulyan, in Selling Radio (1994), and Robert McChesney, in Telecommunications, Mass Media and Democracy (1993), have premised their studies on a corporate-engineered effort to commercialize the American airwaves. Doerksen argues instead that the audiences of the independent stations supported advertising-financed programming, responding favorably to spots for dress shops, furniture and department stores, taxicabs, eateries, and even "direct sales" of consumer goods (really just infomercials without the impastoed smiles and pastel-lit studios). An acceptance of advertising on the airwaves was no small feat given the expectations that accompanied radio's birth. In Doerksen's words, radio's promise included "imminent perfection of intelligent and totally transparent politics, the overnight assimilation of immigrants, the revitalization of rural life, the extension of high education to any and all, the reinforcement of right religion and the universal dissemination of genteel cultural values" (p. 13).

Anything commercial was deemed incongruous to the moral stewardship of this new medium. Advertisements were pathogenic: to contaminate this technology with the crudity of commercial product would, it was thought, cannibalize the very appeal of its miraculous transmission. Even Madison Avenue, though then obsessed more with scientific metrics, treated the medium as sacrosanct. Corporate stations responded in kind, playing the sort of music (opera, classical, European) and dispensing the sort of starch-collar commentary (dignified, didactic, yawnsome) that would satisfy middle-class sensibility and highbrow aesthetic. Pittsburgh's KDKA, established by Westinghouse Corporation in 1920, was the progenitor of the corporate mold, where nonstop recital music and Brahmin enunciation filled the day and night.

Not yet consolidated under the corporatocracy that would guide the medium during its "golden age" before the advent of television, independent stations were another story. In Doerksen's argument, these "lower-class" (p. 9) independent stations, from big city to rural hinterland, supplied the Protestant brimstone and political slant, "old-time" music (later country and western) and Tin Pan Alley pop that the majority of the public actually wanted. The examples with which Doerksen endows his argument are stocked by a colorful cast of ideologues and demagogues, all seized by a combination of technolust, entrepreneurship, and populist fervor. In a series of biographical vignettes framed as chapters, we learn how the independent stations collectively operated outside the axis of corporate organization yet managed, by decade's end, to shift the cultural register completely. The template for an urban "station of local interest" (p. 48) was George Schubel's WHN in New York, launched in 1921. His fabulously named announcer, Nils Thor Granlund, besides having boorish diction, initiated the practice of remote broadcasts from cabarets and jazz clubs. By contrast, another New York station, WHAP, played classical music while hewing to an almost ghoulish regiment of racist and nativist announcers, not least of them "professional anti-Catholic" Franklin Ford (p.64). At first it relied upon the philanthropic backing of Mrs. Augusta Stetson, a disciple of Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science; its ambitious schedule of round-the-clock misanthropy soon required transfusions of cash from its listeners. In Zion, Illinois, not far from Chicago, the Reverend Wilbur Glenn Voliva's WCBD effectively publicized the existence of an incorporated utopian community whose members were also its traveling salesmen.

Outside the metropolitan centers, pride of countryside and preference for "straight talk and plain dealing" (p. 82) led the rural stations to the most overt forms of commercialism. "Direct sales" advertising--where competitors quoted their product prices on air for farmers to ponder in the convenience of their homes--flourished. Grain magnate Charles Vincent created WAAW in 1925 largely, it seems, to signpost his business in Omaha. Likewise, KFNF in Shenandoah, Nebraska, was a company concern of Henry Field, whose employees moonlighted on air as gospel vocalists and barn-dance musicians. Less savory figures populated the rural landscape. At KFKB in Milford, Kansas, medicaster John Romulus Brinkley spun so much pseudoscience that the Federal Radio Commission (FRC) yanked his license in 1930 (the first time one was pulled). And not to be outdone, millionaire William K. Henderson, proprietor of KWKH in Shreveport, Louisiana, eructed nightly rants against chain stores and even presidential candidates. Herbert Hoover was by turns "a harebrained ninny-com-poop," "a Quaker skunk," and (my favorite) "a cross between a jackass and a bulldog bitch" (p. 95). You were not going to hear such things in Pittsburgh.

To confederate is not to conflate, and Doerksen is careful to note that these independent stations are only representative and individually unique. However, we can pull together some common denominators. One shared enthusiasm, especially among the country crowd, was an intense antipathy toward jazz music. Scores of complaint letters (which Doerksen excerpts at length) written to government agencies indicate how "smutty" (p. 84) jazz was judged by the middle class and country alike. (Doerksen does not analyze the racial and cultural dynamics of this hatred to any real degree--something the book would have benefited from immensely.) Another subterranean current is the array of quacks and faddists, not to mention business moguls, who arguably provided their audiences only with what would gratify their egos or profit their businesses. They are not to be blamed, of course, for following their bliss, but Doerksen could have been more critical of their allegedly populist allure. And the fact that the FRC often investigated, capriciously it appears, stations with a religious mission raises several unanswered questions about governmental tolerance of first-amendment freedoms in 1920s America.

What is most important here is that, despite genteel anxiety about commercialism, those who listened to independent stations had no problem identifying themselves as consumers. That these lowbrow listeners were removed from genteel culture does not diminish their standing: they helped, in fact, extirpate that culture. "In pursuit of profits," Doerksen writes, "these stations flooded the airwaves with popular cultural fare that, under other circumstances, would likely have been far less prevalent or, in some cases, not heard at all" (p. 127).

When the corporate networks began to consolidate and to commercialize, the independents were made moribund. No longer did the Commerce Department bestow licenses to anyone with an outstretched hand; as a consequence, the most remarkable thing about 1930s radio was how pasteurized it became. It would be decades before radio recovered the range of risk and depth of expression that the independent stations took for granted. Even so, this slim book reminds us of the prelapsarian period in which today's radio--its vox-pop programming, its vulgar profiteering, its stupefying celebrities--was forged and the debt, for better or worse, we owe its founders.


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