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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 2 “Barbarians ready! Flash the orchestra!”: Stage and Studio


“Ma, when are they go-wun to begin?” cried Owgooste. As he spoke the iron advertisement curtain rose, disclosing the curtain proper underneath. — Frank Norris, McTeague (1899) “I suppose there were no more than a hundred listeners to the inaugural broadcast of KDKA,” remarked Frank Conrad, the “father of American Broadcasting,” on the tenth anniversary of the opening of the “first perma- nent radio broadcasting station in the world.” The historic day, 2 November 1920, marked the beginning of a radical transformation of the ethereal realm from a ham-and-DXer playground to the bread and butter of virtual bill- boarders, from the site of an amateur cult to a scene of consumer culture involving, by 1930, over six hundred stations and sixty million listeners. As more people read reports about – and advertisements for – those pioneering hour-long broadcasts emanating from the Westinghouse owned station in Pittsburgh, the demand for receiving equipment began to grow, and with it, as Conrad put it, an “implied obligation” to supply “programs with a fair degree of consistency.”1 This required the development of broadcasting content, formats and schedules that would recast erratic signal searchers and senders as constituents of a receptive mass audience, an audience convinced 1 Conrad, “Broadcasting’s Tenth Birthday,” Christian Science Monitor 1 Nov. 1930, Eastern ed.: 6. Conrad credited Westinghouse vice-president H. P. Davis with the “vision” of creating a “new industry by supplying the public with a new broadcasting service.” 16 Chapter 2 enough of the prof fered radio-phone service gradually to relinquish...

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