Radio Active: Advertising and Consumer Activism, 1935-1947

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9780520235908: Radio Active: Advertising and Consumer Activism, 1935-1947

Radio Active tells the story of how radio listeners at the American mid-century were active in their listening practices. While cultural historians have seen this period as one of failed reform—focusing on the failure of activists to win significant changes for commercial radio—Kathy M. Newman argues that the 1930s witnessed the emergence of a symbiotic relationship between advertising and activism. Advertising helped to kindle the consumer activism of union members affiliated with the CIO, middle-class club women, and working-class housewives. Once provoked, these activists became determined to influence—and in some cases eliminate—radio advertising.

As one example of how radio consumption was an active rather than a passive process, Newman cites The Hucksters, Frederick Wakeman's 1946 radio spoof that skewered eccentric sponsors, neurotic account executives, and grating radio jingles. The book sold over 700,000 copies in its first six months and convinced broadcast executives that Americans were unhappy with radio advertising. The Hucksters left its mark on the radio age, showing that radio could inspire collective action and not just passive conformity.

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From the Inside Flap:

"Irate listeners attacking anti-union advertisers, boycotts of soap operas, a bitter ex-federal official who took up the cause of consumers--Newman brings us all of this and more, revealing in her stunning new book how twentieth-century consumers--especially women--contested commercial radio in its glory years. With tremendous clarity and analytical sophistication, she shows that far from 'duped consumers,' radio listeners were savvy, sassy, and effective activists who talked back plenty to commercial radio. Analyzing the dynamics of as a contested zone between listeners, advertisers, radio stations, and new consumer intellectuals, Newman deftly and persuasively reframes our understanding of the cultural politics of consumption."—Dana Frank, author of Buy American: The Untold Story of Economic Nationalism

"Cultural historians often claim that audiences were far from passive victims of mass media manipulation, but Kathy Newman is among the first to reveal how ordinary people actually responded. Focusing on the major mass medium of the 1930s and 1940s, the radio, Newman brilliantly tracks the dialectical process through which audience attention became a commodity that broadcasters set out to sell to sponsors and then how listeners, often women, turned their new-found importance to their own ends as assertive consumers. This is cultural history at its best, bringing together as it does the influence of intellectuals, the workings of cultural institutions, and the reactions of popular audiences."—Lizabeth Cohen, author of A Consumers' Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America

"Lively and accessible, Newman's fascinating account of the characters and concerns behind anti-commercial activism illuminates an overlooked facet of radio history. Her cast of middle class reformers who used radio's own commercialized address to mobilize the consumer movement reminds us of advertising's complex and contested relationship to twentieth-century American culture, and points towards the same forces at work today, now on a global scale."—Michele Hilmes, co-editor of Radio Reader: Essays in the Cultural History of Radio

"An important contribution. . . . More than any other work to date, Newman deconstructs 'the' radio audience and demonstrates how this often-referred-to singular entity was really a heterogeneous body with multiple forms, faces, and concerns. She shows how radio listeners used information they learned on air to launch social movements that had broad economic and political consequences in American society."—Steven J. Ross, author of Working-Class Hollywood: Silent Film and the Shaping of Class in America

About the Author:

Kathy M. Newman is Associate Professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University.

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