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Immaterial Culture

Literature, Drama and the American Radio Play, 1929–1954


Harry Heuser

Immaterial Culture engages with texts that are now largely unread and dismissed as trivial or dubious: the vast body of plays – thrillers, narrative poetry, comedy sketches, documentaries and adaptations of literature and drama – that aired on American network radio during the medium’s so-called golden age.
For a quarter century, from the stock market crash of 1929 to the introduction of the TV dinner in 1954, radio plays enjoyed an exposure unrivalled by stage, film, television and print media. As well as entertaining audiences numbering in the tens of millions for a single broadcast, these scripted performances – many of which were penned by noted novelists, poets and dramatists – played important and often conflicting roles in advertising, government propaganda and education.
Reading these fugitive and often self-conscious texts in the context in which they were created and presented, the author considers what their neglect might tell us about ourselves, our visual bias and our attitudes toward commercial art and propaganda. The study’s ample scope, its interdisciplinary approach and its insistence on the primacy of the texts under discussion serve to regenerate the discourse about cultural products that challenge the way we classify art and marginalise the unclassifiable.


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Chapter 1 The “time between commercials”: Radio Culture and Criticism


Radio was sacred, mysterious, and people talked about it in hushed tones […], and ministers preached on its enormous potential for good […]. Newspapers printed editorials about “The Responsibility of Radio” and urged the new industry to follow a path of sober adherence to solemn duty. To use such a gift and a godsend to peddle soap – would people stand for it? — Garrison Keillor, WLT: A Radio Romance (1991) “Radio is vaudeville. It is trivial. It is the market place,” scof fed 1940s radio drama producer and Variety critic Robert J. Landry. His jeers, though, were not aimed at the broadcasting industry. He was mimicking the “habit of satire of all things radiogenetic” that, he claimed, were “typical of the modern intellectual” who, rather than listening up, looked down on radio from a “platform of amused contempt.”1 For the culturally less elevated, a soapbox would do. Playwright-producer-director Norman Corwin, the “patron saint of quality programming,”2 responded to the denigration of radio writing by declaring that the “snobs” were “wasting their breath.” Radio would 1 Landry, This Fascinating Radio Business (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1946) 326–7. 2 R. LeRoy Bannerman, Norman Corwin and Radio (Birmingham, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1986) 5–6. 2 Chapter 1 persist, every now and then, in producing new and challenging work – persist in spite of the very barf lies who moan at five cents a word because the industry never tries anything new, yet who are the first to throw tin cans at the new thing...

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