Sunday, October 4, 2009

Out of the Dark: A History of Radio and Rural America
By Steve Craig

Published by The University of Alabama Press

228 pages $42 hardcover
Notes, bibilography, index

Every week, Garrison Keillor and the cast and crew of Prairie Home Companion pay tribute to a little-remembered though still influential chapter in American broadcasting history: radio's heyday in rural, agricultural America.

The rise of radio antennae among the corn and wheat stalks is the subject of a fascinating new book by Steve Craig called Out of the Dark: A History of Radio and Rural America ($42, The University of Alabama Press). While Craig never mentions Keillor or his contemporary public radio cohorts, the DNA of Prairie Home Companion can be found, as any PHC fan knows, in the weekly program known as the Grand Ole Opry. It was Keillor’s visit to the Opry back in the 1974 (as a writer for The New Yorker) that first inspired him to create PHC.

Grand Ole Opry is one of the last surviving of the so-called “barn dance” and "hayride" programs that proliferated in the 1920s. Craig explains how big urban stations found it profitable to create programming such as the Opry that served listeners in the hinterlands as well as the big cities, and how the concept of “clear channel” stations (AM stations on special frequencies with powerful transmitters whose signals routinely traveled (and still travel) hundreds of miles) was promoted by the US Department of Agriculture. Out of The Dark shows that bureaucratic agriculture’s calloused fingerprints are all over the early days of radio, from the presence of key individuals on the Federal Radio Commission (forerunner to the FCC) to "extension" programming developed by the Department of Agriculture and distributed through radio networks and rural stations.

It wasn’t so long ago that rural, agricultural America felt as if it were another country. As recently as the 1980s, many areas distant from major cities lacked access to even that most basic staple of 20th century American culture: programming from the big three broadcast TV networks (and, of course, access to cable, satellite and Internet). A visit or drive through these areas a generation ago was like a trip to another time and place. It wasn't quite Deliverance, but people in these areas were exposed to far less broadcast media than urban residents, and they didn't participate to the same degree in the shared culture. But with radio, in its heyday, the situation was different. Radio connected rural Americans and urban Americans to the same pre-TV national culture until the 1950s, when the bulk of network programming moved to video. It's only been in the last few decades that rural Americans have again been able to easily connect with national broadcast culture again, through cable, satellite TV and the web.

Craig describes how urban stations such as Nashville’s WSM (still home to the Grand Ole Opry 84 years later) and Chicago’s WLS (the “Prairie Farmer Station”—home to Herb Morrison of the famous Hindenburg crash description) offered specialized rural and agricultural programming (including extension information, commodity prices, crop-related weather reports and the National Farm and Home Hour) but, more importantly, also made it possible for rural listeners to share in the same network comedy, drama and news programming in the evenings as their urban counterparts. Because of this, the development and strengthening of a common national identity via broadcasting in the 1920s and 1930s was not strictly limited to urban areas.

In addition to specific information about rural radio, Craig also provides insightful and excellent contextual information often lacking in other more general radio histories, including how the NBC, CBS and Mutual networks actually functioned as networks; differences between sustaining and sponsored programs; and esoteric though important issues with networking programming (mostly broadcast live in this period) and time zone differences in the US.

Quibbles with Out of the Dark are few and minor. Conclusion sections in each chapter are text book-like and tend to stifle the narrative for the general interest reader. Also, the book has no photographs other than on the dustjacket; a few select images of key individuals and publicity stills from the handful of programs discussed would have been a nice addition to Craig’s thorough research and enjoyable prose.

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