Friday, September 18, 2009

American Radio Networks: A History
By Jim Cox

Published by McFarland
Order via or 800-253-2187

236 pages $45 softcover
10 photos, appendix, notes, bibliography, index
Available October 2009

Though the big media landscape is changing, most of the last 50 or so years of American television were dominated by the three major networks: ABC, CBS and NBC. Cable networks and latecomers Fox and the WB have obviously made their marks on television in the past few decades, but it’s only very recently that the future of the Big Three has become so tenuous.

A fact often overlooked in the doom and gloom speculation about the future of the Big Three is the roots of these entities in the very earliest days of mass media, when radio was king. ABC, CBS and NBC all trace their origins to the late 1920s—more than 80 years ago. Nowadays, It’s hard to point to any American company with that much history that continues to dominate its sector. That the networks even still exist could be considered remarkable given the technological, cultural and economic shifts of the second half of the 20th century.

Jim Cox’s highly readable new book, American Radio Networks: A History, takes a long overdue look at the origins, early history and contemporary status of the radio networks of the American Broadcasting Company, Columbia Broadcasting System, National Broadcasting Company and the now defunct Mutual Broadcasting System.

The most effective portions of the book are the chapters that deal respectively with the origins and history of each of the four major American radio networks, as well as the rivalries between them. This information and these stories have not been told with this detail in one place before, and previously were only found far less comprehensively amongst a scattering of titles. Even among the earlier titles, most woefully neglected among the four radio networks was the Mutual Broadcasting System, which, unlike the others, was organized as a cooperative of sorts, with independent affiliates producing and sharing programs around the country. Cox provides the most thorough account of Mutual ever published.

Cox’s account of the government-forced separation from NBC of its “Blue Network” and its sale to Edward Noble in the early 1940s is the most detailed (while still accessible) description of this fairly significant event that I’ve ever read. It’s little known by most people these days that the Blue Network was eventually renamed ABC, and that ABC and NBC are essentially competitors as well as fraternal twins separated by a custody battle.

What would have been a helpful means of providing context to the histories of the networks would have been a thorough explanation right up front of how radio networks and radio stations made money—explaining why the Paleys and Sarnoffs and Nobles of CBS, NBC and ABC, respectively, organized in the first place and why and how they needed and used affiliated radio stations around the country. I wanted to read more about the so-called O&Os—the lucrative individual radio stations in major markets “owned and operated” by the networks, and about the affiliate agreements that made network radio profitable for the networks and for the affiliates.

I also have a few minor quibbles with Cox’s breezy, sometimes jocular writing style which occasionally results in some long-winded sentences, as well as his unfortunate use of the word “web” as a synonym for “network.” In the Internet age when everything is web this or web that, it’s distracting to read about programs on “the web” in reference to the 1930s. A section of the book devoted to specific network programs is interesting, but it seems tacked on to the more relevant material. A brief paragraph about NPR is jarring, and doesn’t belong in this book.

Cox is at his best when he sticks to the period roughly from the 1920s to the early 1960s—he’s obviously a master of this material, and has a lot to say. I’ve read several of the radio histories that Cox has written, and American Radio Networks is an essential addition to any media history collection or reference shelf, and a fascinating look at pivotal times in American history for an influential industry.

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