Old-time Radio Primer: K Stands for Knowledge

Well, I don’t know. About my last poll, I mean. With this survey, the responses to which are captured below, I wanted to raise questions about the ways in which the mass media reflect our everyday lives or fail to do so. Can we rely on the media to represent—to talk to and tell of—those who are exposed to them? Will future generations watch archive footage of Big Brother or Desperate Housewives in order to learn about life in America during these early years of the 21st century? To what extent can popular culture serve as a time capsule by means of which scholars yet unborn might presume to enter our minds and mine our psyche?

The question of representation through media is of interest to anyone who, in some aspect of his or her existence, is not or cannot conform with the norms propagated and enforced by them. To anyone, in short. We all have qualities that, we sense, marginalize us, be it a particular of our physical being, our mentality, or our upbringing. Whether simplistic or symbolic, popular culture cannot reflect all that renders us distinctive. It is apt to alienate us at times, to create moments in which we do not feel that we are being considered or addressed, moments in which we resent being inaccurately depicted or altogether ignored.

Such instances do not merely affirm our individuality; they make apparent that those creating popular culture have a vested interest in shaping us in their image. Yet to demand that media be more sensitive to our differences may result in their leveling, an insistence on universality that makes popular culture even more generic. Political correctness, which is largely the invention of litigious societies, accomplishes no less.

However bland its offerings may strike those whose senses have been dulled by long exposure to pictures that leave little to the imagination, radio in the pre-television age (the 1930s, ‘40s, and early ‘50s) was not nearly as concerned about offending minorities as television is today. It was indifferent to millions whom sponsors did not consider relevant, either because those millions were unlikely to become potential consumers of the products advertised or because their business was not deemed desirable as it clashed with the image in light of which advertisers wanted goods and services to be received.

It does not follow, however, that we cannot glean knowledge about American life from recordings of soap operas, comedy programs, and thrillers. The soap operas of the 1930s may drive home anxieties about the depression; 1940s radio comedies will tell you much about life on the homefront; and the thrillers of the 1950s create more or less readily translatable scenarios of fear, prejudice and hatred during the McCarthy era.

Propaganda and advertising, it is true, were meant to trigger anticipated reactions, even though the reactions of those tuning in can never be entirely predicted, which, in turn, can make the most generic program highly personal to anyone listening. Yet there is nothing intrinsic in the recording of such programs that gives us access to those very personal responses. The theater of the mind is still open to us today; but how about the mind of anyone else staging productions in this legendary venue?

Faced with the challenge of tracing real lives in presumably faceless escapism, it might help to conceive of popular culture not so much as a reflector of everyday life but as its generator; not, to modify the old and meaningful analogy, as a shallow reflecting pool, but as a radiating sun. Programs create their audiences, in a real and literal sense. And while not all minds are quite so cooperative, the sun of these broadcasts nonetheless captures the shadows of those who were cast or outcast by this light.

Instead of listening for echoes of those who once sat before their receivers, we might discover them in the act of reception. All it takes is the imagination and empathy of today’s listeners to turn indistinct outlines into responsive minds as distinctive as we believe our own to be. To consider chiefly as occasions to determine, dream of or deride otherness (as historic, nostalgic, or camp) diminishes the opportunity of reading with an understanding ear.

This is by no means my last word on the subject of radio as a depot of cultural knowledge or a dispenser of knowledge about culture. As these contradictory reflections suggest, I don’t have any definitive answers to the question I posed; if ever I develop them, I hope to have the humility to become suspicious of my simplifying mind. As always, I prefer to keep circulating ideas rather than put a full stop to the inquiry.

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