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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 9 “Hawkers of feces? Costermongers of shit?”: Exits and Recantations


[T]he agreeable times that the career had given him, the boon of care- lightening amusement that he had helped to bring his countrymen […] were erased from his memory. In this great awakening of conscience […] he felt only the single quickening urge of the reforming enthusiast: Destroy! O for two pillars to tug down and bring the Philistine temple of radio and advertising tumbling to ruin! — Herman Wouk, Aurora Dawn (1947) In 1949, the advertising agency Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn sent out a questionnaire to determine just how much money was left to be made in radio or whether to concentrate instead on television, a medium in whose commercial exploitation the company was already heavily invested. Sixty per cent of the industry experts responding to the survey – executives of the four major networks, advertisers, and trade editors among them – pre- dicted that by the end of 1954 television would be “more important than radio.”1 Notwithstanding one critic’s enthusiasm about radio’s re-emergence as a “lively new source of entertainment and information” in 1952 – the “comeback most talked about” next to Judy Garland’s2 – the prediction proved accurate. By January 1955, only two of the so-called prestige dramas – Lux Radio Theatre and Hallmark Hall of Fame – were still on the air; both were gone before the year was half over. Gone also were network sta- ples like Lum and Abner, Death Valley Days, and The Shadow, all of which 1 Jerry Walker, “Radio Doomed by TV,” Editor and Publisher 21 May 1949:...

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