The Radio: Blessing or Curse? A 1929 Debate

Advisor: Advisor: Henry Binford, Associate Professor of History, Northwestern University, National Humanities Center Fellow. Lesson sponsored by  Bank of America

How did the debate over commercial radio reflect American attitudes toward technological change in the 1920s?

Understanding

Commercial radio broadcasting, a technological innovation in the 1920s, transformed American culture and politics. Whether those transformations were a boon or bane to society provoked as compelling a debate then as do the changes wrought by social media and the Internet today. The debate reflects the worry and hope with which Americans greeted new technologies in the 1920s.

Text

The Radio: Blessing or Curse? Selections from The Forum, March and April 1929

[For a related lesson see “The Phenomenon of Lindbergh” in America in Class® Lessons. And find more primary resources on the Twenties in Becoming Modern: America in the 1920s from the National Humanities Center.]

Text Type

Informational text with a clear purpose, slightly complex structure, and moderately complex language features and knowledge demands.

Text Complexity

Grades 9-10 complexity band.
For more information on text complexity see these resources from achievethecore.org.

Tier 2 vocabulary words are defined in pop-ups (full list at bottom of page). Tier 3 words are explained in brackets.

Click here for standards and skills for this lesson.

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Common Core State Standards

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.9-10.1 (Cite strong and through textual evidence to support analysis…)
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.9-10.4 (Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text…)

Advanced Placement US History

  • Key Concept 7.2 (I-A) (New technologies contributed to improved standards of living…)

Teacher’s Note

A monthly magazine of social and political commentary, the Forum (1886-1930) regularly invited pro and con essays on controversial topics from prominent writers and spokesmen. In 1929, as commercial radio neared a full decade of broadcasting, the Forum published two essays with opposing viewpoints of radio’s promise and consequence. “The transmission of intelligence has reached its height in radio,” hurrahed one. “New culture indeed. New nothing!” harrumphed the other. In the lesson text, the two essays are excerpted in side-by-side columns; presented below are selections from each essay with questions for analysis [full text online from unz.org].

This lesson analyzes excerpts from both essays. Anti-radio, the first excerpt was penned by Jack Woodford (a pseudonym of Josiah Pitts Woolfolk), a writer of pulp fiction and caustic commentary on the times. “Though it may mark me as un-American and even impious,” he later stated, “I must say I do not share the general enthusiastic opinion of radio.”2 In his Forum essay, Woodford lambasts radio as an innovation gone awry. Initially hailed as a boon to civilization, it delivers only pap—brainless diversions that erode listeners’ ability to think, inquire, and judge. His writing, laced with exaggerations and couched in sarcastic wit, amuses the reader while hammering home a point. To ridicule politicians’ boastful speechifying, for example, he writes “I heard Mr. Hoover calling himself the Messiah and Governor Smith calling himself the Redeemer.” He’s not accusing the 1928 presidential candidates of equating themselves with Jesus Christ; he’s mocking their bloviating rhetoric that promises undeliverable rewards for citizens’ votes.

But what if radio makes it easier for citizens to discern hollow oratory and partisan propaganda? This is the view proposed in the second excerpt by James Harbord, a retired army general who applied his wartime radio experience to his role as president of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) from 1922 to 1930. Radio isn’t weakening American democracy, Harbord insisted; it’s providing a modern guarantor of its health. No longer would frenzied political rallies stoke “mob feeling” to manipulate voters’ opinions. Now citizens could listen to politicians’ speeches in the calm of their living rooms and make personal dispassionate judgments. “To sum up the political effect of the radio, we may say that it is the greatest debunking influence that has come into American public life since the Declaration of Independence.” In contrast to Woodford’s style, Harbord proceeds with earnest and resolute prose, breaking into a final effusive tribute to radio’s promise of global harmony.

What is the basic disagreement between Woodford and Harbord about the social and political effects of commercial radio? What evidence do they offer for their positions, and how do they strive to persuade their readers? How does their commentary resemble today’s discussions about social media and the Internet?

This lesson is divided into two parts, a teacher’s guide and a student version, both accessible below. The teacher’s guide includes a background note, a text analysis with responses to close reading questions, access to two interactive exercises, and an optional follow-up assignment. The student’s version, an interactive worksheet that can be emailed, contains all of the above except the responses to the close reading questions and the follow-up assignment. The first interactive exercise allows students to explore vocabulary in context. The second focuses on evaluating evidence.

Background

Contextualizing Questions

  1. What kind of text are we dealing with?
  2. When was it written?
  3. Who wrote it?
  4. For what audience was it intended?
  5. For what purpose was it written?

Accommodated as we are to mass media, we must work to imagine the impact of commercial radio broadcasting in its early years. From the late 1800s, new electronic devices had been expanding the realm of shared human experience — people conversed on telephones, sent news through telegrams, played records on phonographs, and enjoyed films in local theaters. But until the radio, nothing offered such widely shared simultaneous mass experience. By turning on your radio, you could listen to a jazz band, a baseball game, a religious service, even a president’s speech, live, along with millions of fellow listeners. After the first commercial broadcast in November 19201 — when Pittsburgh’s KDKA reported election returns — commercial radio took off. Stations multiplied into the thousands and radio sales into the millions. Networks like the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) and the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) took the reins of nationwide broadcasting, and the federal government brought order to the airwaves by assigning broadcasting frequencies. It was revolutionary.

As with any technological revolution, the question of Radio’s long-term effects invited lively debate. Was it “a blessing or a curse”? Would it enlighten or dull its audience? Would people stop reading and conversing, preferring to become passive recipients of whatever the broadcasters beamed out? How would radio affect politics and elections? How would it influence the nation’s youth—the “digital natives” of their day who were growing up with radio as a given? Sound familiar?

This lesson analyzes the debate about radio as it was presented in 1929 in the Forum (1886-1930), a monthly magazine of social and political commentary that regularly invited pro and con essays on controversial topics from prominent spokesmen. Holding forth against radio was Jack Woodford (a pseudonym of Josiah Pitts Woolfolk), a writer of pulp fiction and caustic commentary on the times. Defending radio was James Harbord, a retired army general who applied his wartime radio experience to his role as president of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) from 1922 to 1930.

Text Analysis

Excerpt #1: Jack Woodford, “Radio: A Blessing or a Curse?” The Forum,
March 1929

Close Reading Questions

1. Woodford opens his article with a question. What effect does this have on the reader? Is it an effective opening strategy? Why or why not?
Opening with a question is an effective way to engagereaders. It “tricks’ them into engagement by provoking them to provide an answer.

2. What tone does Woodford establish in his opening paragraph? What specific words or phrases establish that tone?
His tone might be described as wistfully sarcastic. He achieves the wistful quality with his evocation of the “vague sort of elation” people supposedly felt “a few years ago.” The repetition of “something” adds to the wistfulness. He introduces sarcasm by exaggerating the claims made for radio: it will “bring peace on earth and good will to men,” “do everything but change the actual physical outline of North America.”

3. As we have seen, Woodford’s repetition of “something” helps to establish his tone. How does it help him make his point? What is his point?
Woodford’s repetition of the word sets up a sense of expectation, of anticipation, which the rest of the essay deflates. And that is precisely his point: radio, once promising, has turned out to be a disappointment.

1. Do you remember, a few years ago, how we all felt a vague sort of elation when the wonder of radio came to our attention? Ah, at last, we said, here is something . . . something . . . we were not quite sure what. Something overwhelming that was going to broaden American life and culture. Something that was going to bring peace on earth and good will to men. Something that was going to do everything but change the actual physical line of North America. Do you think I exaggerate? Get out the papers of a few years back and read the editorials. [ellipses in original]

4. To Woodford, why is commercial radio not only a disappointment but, worse, a broken promise?From paragraphs two and three, select three phrases Woodford uses to describe radio. How would you characterize the attitude they display toward radio?
It was to deliver “new points of view, new conceptions of life,” but it has not lived up to that promise.

5. From paragraphs two and three, select three phrases Woodford uses to describe radio. How would you characterize the attitude they display toward radio?
“Another disintegrating toy”
A “medium for advertisers”
“A blatant signboard”
“God’s great gift to man”
“The marvel of science”
“A mere excuse for failing to entertain”
“Sixteen-tube Super-sophistication”
“The wonder of the century”
He displays an attitude of disdain.

6. In paragraph two, how does the adjective “disintegrating“ add to Woodford’s criticism of radio? How would his point be weakened if he wrote “just another toy”?
The word “disintegrating” foreshadows his assertion that radio is on its way to oblivion. It suggests that radio is a transitory phenomenon. Omitting the word would suggest nothing about its future.

7. How does the image of radio-centered entertaining in paragraph three advance Woodford’s argument?
It wins us over to his side by depicting an unappealing socialsituation in which none of Woodford’s readers would want to find themselves. He is, in effect, saying that if you embrace radio, you are one of these sad, tacky, brain-dead people who sit silently listening to the radio while sipping watery gin.

2. And now we know what we have got in radio⎯just another disintegrating toy. Just another medium⎯like the newspapers, the magazines, the billboards, and the mailbox⎯for advertisers to use in pestering us. A blatant signboard erected in the living room to bring us news of miraculous oil burners, fuel-saving motor cars, cigar lighters that always light. Formerly, despite the movies, the automobile, the correspondence course, and the appalling necessity most of us feel for working at two or three jobs in order to be considered successful, we still had some leisure time. But radio, God’s great gift to man, eliminated that last dangerous chance for Satan to find mischief for idle hands. There is now very little danger that Americans will resort to the vice of thinking. . . .3. The marvel of science which was to bring us new points of view, new conceptions of life, has degenerated in most homes into a mere excuse for failing to entertain. Mr. and Mrs. Babbitt, who used to make a feint at conversation by repeating to each other and their guests the ideas which they had gleaned from the editorials in the morning paper, now no longer go to that trouble. . . . All the modern host needs is his sixteen-tube Super-sophistication [radio] and a ration of gin. The guests sit around the radio and sip watered gin and listen to so-called music interspersed with long lists of the bargains to be had at Whosit’s Department Store by those who get down early in the morning. If they are feeling particularly loquacious, they nod to each other. Thus dies the art of conversation. Thus rises the wonder of the century⎯ Radio!

8. How does the phrase “the rattle and bang of” function in the sentence? How does the sentence change when it is omitted?What information did Woodford obtain from the radio? How would you assess its value and importance?
In its onomatopoeia it allows us to hear the “frightful” music. Omitting the phrase robs the sentence of vividness and force.

9. In paragraph four what information did Woodford obtain from the radio? How would you assess its value and importance?
He “gleaned information concerning the thug who slew a cop, the man who scattered his votes in every precinct, the organist who eloped with his sister-in-law, the man who bit a dog,” useless, trite information..

4. It would not be so bad if the listeners were taking in something even slightly informing. But I have searched the ether [airwaves] hopelessly trying to find something with some sense in it being broadcast somewhere. I have heard only the rattle and bang of incredibly frightful “jazz” music, played so similarly that it is impossible to tell one piece from another. . . . During the political campaign I heard Mr. Hoover calling himself the Messiah and Governor Smith calling himself the Redeemer, as they read speeches written for them by “ghost writers.” For my patience in listening to “News Flashes,” I have gleaned information concerning the thug who slew a cop, the man who scattered his votes in every precinct, the organist who eloped with his sister-in-law, the man who bit a dog. . . .

10. What does Woodford want radio broadcasting to offer Americans?
Through inference we can deduce that he would like to hear music he does not consider “frightful,” serious news, and, as he says in the first paragraph, something “to broaden American life and culture.”

11. What future does Woodford see for radio?
“Blessed oblivion.”

5. And yet we believed that radio was about to set up a new culture in America. Dr. S. Parkes Cadman, presidential timber, Aimee Semple McPherson, the Sunshine Boys, all of them crying aloud⎯that is the culture which the radio to bringing to America. That sort of thing is the radio’s fodder, and it will continue to be radio fodder until the loudspeaker follows the iron deer into blessed oblivion. New culture indeed. New nothing!

Excerpt #2: James G. Harbord, “Radio and Democracy,” The Forum,
April 1929

12. In his opening paragraph what point is Harbord making about radio and American democracy?

  1. The ancient Greeks did not know about radio.
  2. Modern Americans are smarter than the ancient Greeks.
  3. Herbert Hoover is a better speaker than Demosthenes.
  4. Radio makes it possible for a vast nation to be a true democracy.


Answer: d

1. One of the ancient Greeks held that a few thousand souls was the outside limit for the electorate of a democracy⎯that being the greatest number that could be reached and swayed by a single voice. But the Greeks did not foresee radio, with its revolutionary effects upon the mechanism of democratic government. They did not imagine that the day would come when spellbinders like Demosthenes would give way to a Herbert Hoover talking confidentially to a whole continent. . . .

 

13. Compare and contrast the image of radio listening Harbord provides in paragraph two with the image Woodford provides in paragraph three of his article.List the “revolutionary effects” of radio on democracy that Harbord welcomes. How would he reject Woodford’s position that radio weakens American democracy?
Woodford’s listeners are dull. They sit solitary in their bored isolation as they suffer passively the attack of advertising. Harbord’s, on the other hand, are engaged citizens, voters, comfortable, alert, and attentive.

14. How does the response of party leaders to radio refute Woodford’s vision of its future?
Woodford thinks radio is headed for oblivion. Party leaders, however, recognized its power and invested heavily in it, suggesting that it has staying power as a vote-getting tool.

2. Now that radio has entered the field of politics, all that is changed [i.e., the distance between the government and the governed]. Voters may sit comfortably at home and hear the actual voices of the candidates. Every word, every accent and intonation comes to them directly without the possibility of error or misconstruction. The transmission of intelligence has reached its height in radio, for it goes beyond the power of the printed word in conveying the exact tone and emphasis of each phrase.

3. Despite these obvious advantages, our political parties were slow to see the possibilities that radio offered. It is reported that at the beginning of the last presidential campaign someone suggested to one of the National Committees [Democratic & Republican] that they make use of radio in their campaigning. A prominent member of the committee replied, “We haven’t time to monkey around with these novelties.” Yet, before the campaign was over, the two candidates were addressing an audience estimated at between thirty and forty millions in their radio speeches, and the national, state, and county campaign committees had spent about two million dollars on broadcasting. . . .

15. Which sentence best describes the thesis of paragraphs four and five? Cite three phrases in which Harbord makes this point.

  1. Radio is not an effective medium for political speeches.
  2. Radio makes political speeches dull and impersonal.
  3. Radio enables voters to make logical decisions unaffected by the emotions of the crowd.
  4. Radio appeals to mass audiences more than old-fashioned political rallies.


Answer: c
Textual evidence:
“elimination of mob feeling”
“The magnetism of the orator cools”
“the impassioned gesture is wasted”
“the purple period fades”
“the flashing eye meets . . . no answering glance”
“[The listener is]free from the contagion of the crowd”
“only . . .logic . . .can move him.”
“a funeral procession for the old-fashioned spellbinder”
“greatest debunking influence”

16. Why would Harbord use the phrase “contagion of the crowd” rather than “influence of the crowd”?
He wants to liken the emotional effect of a crowd response to a disease that spreads among people in close quarters.

17. How does radio free the citizen from the “contagion of the crowd”?
Radio listeners are not in crowds. Each is “solitary,” hearing the speech “in the privacy of his own home.”

18. In paragraph six Harbord directly attacks Woodford’s argument. Summarize the case he makes against Woodford.
Woodford attacks radio as a mere novelty, a toy for advertisers that will soon be discarded. Harbord, points to radio’s role in the recent election and, citing what it has already done and what it promises to do, predicts a bright future for it.

19. What predictions does Harbord offer in paragraph six?
Woodford attacks radio as a mere novelty, a toy for advertisers that will soon be discarded. Harbord, points to radio’s role in the recent election and, citing what it has already done and what it promises to do, predicts a bright future for it.

20. How might Woodford respond to these predictions? Cite evidence from his essay to support your answer.
He would dismiss them. They sound very much like the predictions he ridicules in his first paragraph.

21. Harbord does not address the cultural and entertainment aspects of radio broadcasting. Do you think he would have agreed with Woodford’s criticism of nonpolitical radio broadcasting?
Probably not. As president of the Radio Corporation of America he had a vested interested in radio entertainment and most likely would have defended it.

22. List the “revolutionary effects” of radio on democracy that Harbord welcomes.
Radio reaches a continental audience. It eliminates the possibility of misunderstanding a candidate’s positions, reduces the role of emotion in politics, increases the role of reason and rationality, reduces cultural barriers, and fosters peace.

4. One change that has been brought about by radio is the elimination of mob feeling from political audiences. The magnetism of the orator cools when transmitted through the microphone; the impassioned gesture is wasted upon it; the purple period fades before it; the flashing eye meets in it no answering glance. Though he be one of thirty millions, each individual in the audience becomes a solitary listener in the privacy of his own home. He is free from the contagion of the crowd and only the logic of the issue which the orator presents can move him.

5. The New York Times commented upon this effect of radio in the last campaign. “Radio has come into its own,” it said, “over the doubts, and some cases despite the vehement protests, of the older school of politicians in both parties.” For them the great public meetings, with its parades, bands, red fire, and crowd enthusiasm, has been the high point of a national campaign. The spellbinder—gesticulating, pounding, striding up and down, stirred to frenzy by the applause of his audience—has been regarded as the great votegetter. But this campaign has been almost a funeral procession for the old-fashioned spellbinder. If we have to sum up the political effect of the radio, we may say that it is the greatest debunking influence that has come into American public life since the Declaration of Independence. . . .

6. In view of what radio has done for government, it can no longer be waved aside as a “novelty,” a box of tricks, or, as Mr. Woodford prefers, an advertising agency. It is the only means of instantaneous general communication yet devised by man. While it brings only sound today, it promises sound with sight tomorrow. I venture the prophecy that in the campaign of 1932 we shall both see and hear the candidates by radio. Even today it links the nations together and works in the interest of enduring peace. The news of any important occurrence is flashed almost immediately to every part of the globe. International broadcasting will soon become a commonplace. Old and new civilizations will throb together to the same intellectual appeal and the same artistic emotions. The thought currents of all humanity will mingle, their flow no longer impeded by dividing oceans.

Follow-Up Assignment

In the student graphic organizer are four comments on radio offered by the American science writer Waldemar Kaempffert in a 1924 Forum article entitled “The Social Destiny of Radio.” [View the full text at unz.org.] Kaempffert applauded radio as a “powerful instrument of mass appeal” that offered enormous benefits to mankind. Direct your students to complete the chart by (1) hypothesizing the likely responses of Woodford and/or Harbord to Kaempffert’s statements and (2) comparing his comments with the current discussion about social media and the Internet.



VOCABULARY pop-ups

  • elation: great happiness and exhilaration
  • medium: a mode of conveying something; in this case, a means of communication (plural: media)
  • blatant: conspicuous, especially in an offensive way; in your face
  • feint: pretense, fake
  • gleaned: discovered or found out gradually, bit by bit
  • loquacious: very talkative
  • timber: person qualified for a particular position
  • fodder: cattle feed, i.e., a worthless product
  • oblivion: state of being forgotten, especially by the public (also, lack of awareness of what is happening)
  • vehement: emphatic, forceful
  • gesticulating: gesturing for emphasis, especially while speaking
  • debunking: exposing the falseness of an idea or belief, or discrediting exaggerated claims for something

1. First commercial broadcast by a licensed station.
2. Jack Woodford, “The Radio Racket,” The Forum, July 1929.

Images:
-Photograph entitled “The shut-in’s Sunday service,” Clark Music Co., March 28, 1923 (detail). Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-134575.
– Drawing by Julian de Mickey, in Jack Woodford, “Radio — A Blessing or a Curse?” Forum, March 1929. Current copyright holder, if any, unidentified in search.

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by satinka petersen on America in Class
Radio hummm

This lesson is a good one to start kids off on oppinion pieces and to start a debate for or against technology. This will also show that the argument of technology has been going on for many years. The articles while justifiably dated will provide a stepping stone to an argument for or against technology in the classroom.