Friday, March 21, 2014

Teaching the History of Media, Part 2: Radio

For my second half survey this semester, I am asking my students to evaluate the significance of shifts in media technology. We began the semester with a discussion of commercial photography.  You can read more about that assignment here.  Our second assignment focused on the radio in the 1930s.  

After reading Tom Lewis’s short OAH Magazine article, “A Godlike Presence: The Impact of Radio on the 1920s and 1930s,” the students were instructed to listen to several hours of radio programming from the 1930s to create an argument answering how radio changed the way that Americans understood themselves and their nation. 

I relied heavily on the Internet Archive's Old Time Radio Project, a truly remarkable resource.  I wanted to both give the students a broad overview of popular programming, while also allowing them to follow up on their own interests.   As a result, I required all of the students to listen to ten programs and then invited them to choose any additional five.  Here is a list and links for the programs I provided the students.  

Listen to all ten of these programs:
FDR's first fireside chat (1933)

Lone Ranger (1937)
News and Mary Lee Taylor Cooking show (1939)
Aunt Jenny Real Life Stories for Women (1939)
Jean Abbey Shopping Guide (1939)
News (1939)
Presidential address and address of French Premier (1939)
Commentary on presidential address (1939)
Amos 'n' Andy comedy (1939)
Father Coughlin radio program (1938)

Listen to any five of these depending on your interests:
Sunshine News Report (1939)

Certified Magic Carpet Quiz Show (1939)
Bachelor's Children Soap Opera (1939)
Pretty Kitty Kelly Soap Opera (1939)
Brenda Curtis Soap Opera (1939)
Big Sister Drama (1939)
Career of Alice Blair soap opera (1939)
Scattergood Baines comedy (1939)
Sports news (1939)
The Parker family drama (1939)
Joe E. Brown comedy (1939)
Strange as it Seems entertainment (1939)
Major Bowes Amateur Talent Show (1939)
Americans at Work, entertainment show on American workers (1939)

Here are two additional, entirely optional, programs that you might find interesting:
Music (1939)

Baseball Game (1939)

Students wrote on a variety of topics, but gender roles garnered the most attention.  These essays ranged from semi-obvious pieces detailing the many ways that the radio prescribed separate spheres to more creative pieces imagining how both women and men might use the radio as a means of imaginatively transgressing gender boundaries. Other students used the radio programs to consider one of our key themes for the course: How Americans understood the role of their nation in the world.  Another student intended to write a paper on the radio and the Great Depression, but after finding almost zero references to economic suffering, the student instead wrote a clever piece on the problems of relying on media as a means of understanding the past.  

I made at least one key error.  I should have provided the students a schedule of daily programming.  Most of the radio programs came from WJSV in Washington, D.C., and I very easily could have provided the students this schedule.  For students interested in exploring the gendering of radio programming, this would have been particularly useful.  

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