Radio: Much more than a communicative tool

by James McBride

Radio is an interesting contraption that has been fundamental too much of human’s existence during the 20th century. As a communicative tool, radio contributed heavily to the two World Wars and also acted on its own as a communal gatherer and storyteller while establishing itself as one of the most important inventions in human history.

When I think of radio, the picture I get in my head is one where there is a rather young looking man sitting next to a receiver, a donut in his hand — perhaps nodding off for a bit. All of a sudden the radio comes on and a connection is established and someone is transmitting that they are ‘walled off and must send in reinforcements’. The young man jumps to attention and tries to communicate but all he eventually hears is static.

It’s an image that is not purely shrouded in the myth or the fantasy of my mind. The young radio operator, the military background, the eventual white noise as those on the other end go silent; they are all part and parcel of the history of radio. When it comes to how we see the usefulness of communicative inventions, the historian often turns to how the invention worked in a military setting. The reasons for this are rather obvious when one looks at the technological revolutions and inventions of the 20th century, combined with globalized conflict and western governmental systems that would eventually thrive on the infamous Military Industrial Complex.

Figure 1: A vintage World War 2 radio.

Radio was no different when it came to its relative ubiquity. In the early 20th century, the first radios began to appear and were often termed a ‘wireless’. The switch to the word ‘radio’ occurred in 1912 and, as I would personally like to think, was due to the trying process of coming up with the right way to pluralize ‘wireless’ which was deemed too difficult for the everyday person.

In any case, radios would become the cause-celebre of new inventions because of its inherent wireless quality and how much of the lower classes would eventually have access to cheaper models. Even before the widespread selling of radios, those who did not have enough money to purchase these contraptions would usually pool their funds with their neighbours which would then leave you with this communal radio set up in a place where many people had access too. This was especially important during war-time when families sat around a radio wanting to hear what was happening on the continent and who was winning and who had perished fighting. Thus, the practical purpose of radios as a communal device that gathered people together, much like a good storyteller can, is readily apparent.

Jumping forward to the post-war years, I’ll shift gears into something a bit more abstract. In Stephen King’s non-fiction book Danse Macabre, King writes of what makes a good horror story and why we like to terrify ourselves so much. In the book, there is a wonderful chapter on the usage of radio that I’ll go into some depth.

King describes the mid-fifties as ‘the deathbed of radio as a strong fictional medium,’ (King, 113). For all intents and purposes, King was right. Radio was being supplanted by the craze that was the television. Somehow, King still found himself listening to the radio and its programs like Mystery Theatre and The Adventures of Chickenman. The listeners of radio had no visual expectations to fill in their reality by virtue of radio’s purely auditory medium (120). ‘When you made the monster in your mind, there was no zipper running down its back,’ (123) King writes to describe listening to a Radio horror show. The infamous worldwide broadcast of War of the Worlds sent people screaming into the streets after it had aired (124). Radio, in its golden age of horror storytelling, became a tool that reached a massive number of households and reinforced post-war fears of communism and the Red Scare.

Even now, radio is much more than a tool that Grandma used to turn on at 6’oclock to listen to the news because for one reason or another she could not stand Peter Mansbridge yammering on the television. The aforementioned un-reality of radio, its lack of a visual medium in terms of its communication, allows the listener to dream up whatever their imagination wills. Radio made the status quo of its stories become much more fluid as they shifted from person to person. King’s melancholic end to his chapter echoes the bygone age of radio as he writes:

‘In spite of all the nostalgia we might want to feel, it is impossible to go back and re-experience the creative essence of radio terror; that particular lock pick has been broken by the simple fact that, for better or worse, we now demand believable visual input as a part of the set of reality.’ (129)

Radio is now what you turn on in the car when you’re bored. As a communicative tool that created military victories and inspired a young Stephen King with its unique way of storytelling, radio was the jack-of-all-trades of inventions. It was capable of doing many disparate things, until of course, we forgot it was even there to begin with.

- King, Stephen. Danse Macabre.

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