Friday, June 19, 2009

Radiography: Best Books About Radio

For my first post for I Still Love Radio, I thought I'd put together a list of my favorite books about radio. Sure, I like listening to the radio just as much as the next guy, but what I really like is reading about radio. Thus, the following books range from general audience to academic and are listed in chronological order, with the newest title listed first. My criteria for putting them on a list like this are that they were enjoyable and informative to read the first time around, and that they’re worth returning to every now and then for reference or pleasure. Most of these titles are too old to be still circulating in public libraries, but many can be purchased affordably secondhand. My favorite places to start are any good local used bookstore or

Are there other titles that should be listed here? Are there any that shouldn’t? Please let me know . . .

Something in the Air: Radio, Rock, and the Revolution That Shaped a Generation (2007) by Marc Fisher
Highly readable, thoroughly researched look at the rise of radio in the television era by Washington Post columnist Marc Fisher.

Manipulating the Ether (1998) by Robert J. Brown
This is a fairly academic study of radio in the 1930s and early 1940s, with particular attention paid to FDR and to the October 30, 1938 broadcast and aftermath of the War of the Worlds. It’s readable and a good reference to an important era in radio history.

On The Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio (1998) by John Dunning
As encyclopedic as its title suggests, this is a terrific reference work as well as a fascinating read. Many entries are multi-page essays that bring in additional contextual references and paint thorough, accurate pictures of particular shows, personalities, stations and networks.

Radio Voices: American Broadcasting, 1922-1952 (1997) by Michele Hilmes
A refreshing modern interpretation of radio’s golden era, from one of the most interesting radio scholars and authors working today. Michele Hilmes is also the author of a fascinating book about the relationship between Hollywood and broadcasting called, not surprisingly, Hollywood and Broadcasting.

On A Note of Triumph: Norman Corwin and the Golden Years of Radio (1986) (originally published as Norman Corwin and Radio: The Golden Years) by R. LeRoy Bannerman
Radio god Norman Corwin’s life story, with a focus on his most productive radio years. (Note: could be confused with Corwin’s own slim volume, On A Note of Triumph (1945) which is the script of his VE-Day radio broadcast.) Several books of Corwin’s radio scripts were published in the 1940s, and all are worth reading not so much for the individual works, but for Corwin’s wry production notes and other observations that accompany each. See This Is War!, 13 By Corwin, More By Corwin, and Untitled and Other Radio Dramas.

Radio In The Television Age (1980) by Peter Fortanale & Joshua E. Mills
So many of the best radio books focus on the glory years—the 1920s to the late 1940s. Thus, this refreshing title looks specifically at how radio stumbled and then adapted to the rise of television.

Don’t Touch That Dial: Radio Programming in American Life from 1920 to 1960 (1979) by J. Fred MacDonald
This is one of the first books about radio to go back and look critically (and not simply nostalgically or sentimentally) at the output of the major networks from the 1920s to the 1960s, and to look at the social impact of the medium and the programming. MacDonald has written a number of books about media, but this is his best.

The War of Words (1970) by Asa Briggs
Of the five volumes in Briggs’ monumental series on the history of the BBC, this is my favorite. Briggs’ mined the BBC Written Archives, and the series often feels like a procedural drama with more characters and acronyms than I can track—nonetheless, he is to be commended for taking on and completing a mammoth project. This is a must-read for anyone interested in WWII radio.

On The Spot Reporting: Radio Records History (1967) by George N. Gordon & Irving A. Falk
An entertaining look at the feats that only radio could perform, bringing live (and, in the oft incorrectly recalled case of the Hindenburg disaster, recorded) accounts of war, destruction, political conventions and other major events into the livingroom. In my favorite part, Gordon and Falk trace the origin of Ed Murrow’s signature “Good night and good luck” sign-off to his 1940 Christmas broadcast from war-torn London—something I’d done independently myself (though Gordon and Falk beat me to it by nearly 40 years).

It Sounds Impossible (1963) by Sam J. Slate & Joe Cook
An entertaining account of radio’s first four decades by two men who witnessed most of it. It’s short on citations, but the stories ring true with other accounts of the same period. This is the radio book for people who don’t like radio books!

Star Spangled Radio: Radio’s Part in WWII (1948) by Edward M. Kirby & Jack W. Harris
A mildly jingoistic account of all the great things that American radio networks and personalities did in support of the war effort. The much-underreported story of radio in the Pacific is given its fair share, along with an interesting tale of the American battle with the BBC to launch and then control a radio service for Allied troops headed into France in 1944 (several books penned by BBC types tell the British side of this little-known radio rift among otherwise allied forces—including Maurice Gorham’s Sound and Fury). Also includes the story of the creation of Command Performance, the radio program for the troops that begat the Armed Forces Radio (and, eventually, Television) Service.

News On The Air (1947) by Paul W. White
This is more of a text book, but it’s smartly written by Paul White, the production mastermind behind CBS’ rise to dominate radio journalism. While Edward R. Murrow, with whom White often battled for CBS founder William Paley’s praise and attention, was risking his neck atop a blitzed London rooftop, it was often White or a member of his staff back at CBS in New York making sure the American public could hear the live report over the Columbia network.

From D-Day Through Victory In Europe (1945) and From Pearl Harbor Into Tokyo (1945) by the Columbia Broadcasting System
These are pocket-sized paperbacks published by CBS within days of VE Day and VJ Day respectively. Each features transcripts of notable broadcasts made by CBS personnel during the war, including the oft-neglected corps of radio journalists working in the Pacific. (Note: WWII radio in the Pacific is covered by Kirby and Harris’ Star Spangled Radio (see above) as well as William Dunn’s Pacific Microphone and Cecil Brown’s From Suez to Singapore.)

The Stuff of Radio (1934) by Lance Sieveking
Sieveking was a BBC producer and radio playwright, and his book examines the early years of radio drama broadcasting in England. It is one of the rare early works to analyze and critique radio’s output and look to the future dramatic possibilities for radio (and for television, which began in London in 1936).


  1. Well you've definitely done your research, which accounts for why your commentary sounds so well-groomed. And what an expansive (if not exhaustive) list of resources for the neophyte radiohead.

  2. AS writes via email:

    Re the blog: I Still Love Radio, Friday June 19, 2009 "Best Books About Radio."

    Consider also the first two volumes of Erik Barnouw's trilogy. "A History of Broadcasting in the United States:" (subtitles follow):

    A Tower in Babel: To 1933, Vol. 1 (1966, Oxford University Press)
    The Golden Web: 1933 to 1953, Vol. 2 (1968, Oxford University Press)

    I read both in 1969 while studying for my final exams in Physics at the University of California. I highly recommend them. You can find them on Barnes and Noble for about $100 each (hardcover), but about $80 for BN Members, and less in the used market.

    My (partial) response:

    I do have Mr. Barnouw's books and they are wonderful--probably the best comprehensive source for an account of American broadcasting history and you're right, they should be on my list. I think I hesitated to include them because of some West Coast grumbling about Barnouw that I've heard over the years and that I mentioned in a later post--here's an excerpt (below), as well as a link to the full post (about D-Day)

    East Coast Bias?
    I've spoken with more than a few radio history enthusiasts who live on the West Coast who believe that written radio history favors the East Coast. Specifically, the work of Erik Barnouw, notably his three-volume set of American broadcasting history (A Tower In Babel, The Golden Web, The Image Empire) published by Oxford Press. This same series has been criticized for being CBS-centric (Barnouw worked for CBS in the 1940s), elevating Murrow and company and relegating NBC's World War II broadcasting to distant also-ran status. I believe there's an element of truth to these feelings. While I can't necessarily refute Barnouw's findings, I do believe that significant work remains to uncover and document radio's development--that much from the West Coast and elsewhere can be added to the narrative (beyond simply criticizing the work of another writer/researcher) to make a more complete picture. And I think that's pretty exciting . . .