"And then is heard no more": Radio between Covers

As much as I dislike mathematics and however arithmetically challenged I am without a calculator, I very much enjoy compiling lists and studying figures such as box office statistics. I am less interested in watching contemporary film than in finding out how many others have. It gives me an idea of what is popular without having to subject myself to yet another sequel of an indifferently constructed CGI clones. My kind of picture is, on average, at least half a century old. Today, I considered the list of films I have screened of late and rated them, on a scale from one to ten, at the Internet Movie Database. It is not an easy task, this kind of opining by the numbers, as I remarked here previously; but I enjoy cast my votes all the same. You may follow my voting history here. This being the night on which western cinema is being celebrated—I also added a few titles to our own movie database containing the DVDs in our video library.

Not that I am entirely visual-minded on this my day of reckoning. Once again, I am cataloguing my library of books on broadcasting, a collection that has grown considerably since last I attempted to inventory it. While I am at it, I am scanning some of the covers, so aptly referred to as dust jackets and put them on display where they are more likely to tickle someone’s fancy rather than irritate throat and eye. Pictured are first editions of Francis Chase’s Sound and Fury: An Informal History of Broadcasting (1942), Charles Siepmann’s Radio’s Second Chance (1946), and fred allen’s letters, edited by Joe McCarthy (1965).

There is “no glory in radio,” Allen remarked in a letter to Abe Burrows (heard here) upon the future Pulitzer Prize winner’s retirement as a radio writer: in pictures, or in the theatre, you can work less, make as much money and acquire a reputation that will mean something. A radio writer can only hope for ulcers or a heart attack in his early forties. With few exceptions radio is a bog of mediocrity where little men with carbon minds wallow in sluice of their own making. for writers with talent and ideas, after it has served its purpose as a training ground, radio is a waste of creative time.

Chase’s title, borrowed, like my response above, from Shakespeare, echoes the attitude of those who ignored radio’s offerings as trivial. Not that they would have thought of the average soap opera as a “tale told by an idiot.” Rather, the tale was being delivered by calculating businessmen and women on behalf of those who sold the product that gave such fare its name. To them, radio signified nothing but what is measured in dollars and cents. Unlike Siepmann, however, Chase did not reject the system of commercial sponsorship that begot the trifles beloved by millions. To Siepmann, the “question” was whether those” salesmen of soap and food, drugs and tobacco, the most reliable interpreters of the kind of information and ideas on which a free, democratic people will thrive.”

In the service of commerce, radio writers often lacked self-respect or pride in their work. Even a gifted satirist like Allen denied the quality of his material, something he would not have done had it appeared in print, the medium to which he aspired without finding the time or strength to fulfil his ambition. In a wistful missive to novelist Herman Wouk, one of his team of writers who (as related here), quit the broadcasting racket to make a name for themselves in drama and literature, Allen concluded that

a radio program is not unlike a man. it is conceived. it is born. it lives through the experiences that fate allots to it. finally, the program dies and like man, is forgotten except for a few people who depended on it for sustenance or others whose lives had been made brighter because the program had existed.

To me, the “glory” of radio is that there was none in it. Going on the air was, quite literally, the business of self-effacement. The medium’s ephemera, albeit preserved to this day, are symbolic of our own inconsequentiality, our struggle to be heard before being silenced for good, better or worse.

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