“It’s sad that AM radio is almost dead,” Michael Socolow says, partway into a discussion of the evolution of radio broadcasting in the United States.
“Here in Bangor, Maine, you can occasionally still pull in WJR in Detroit, WTOP in Washington,” he says. “Just by doing that, you can get a sense of what it was like in the 1920s, the sense of radio transporting you to someplace else.”
For more than two decades, until the emergence of television, the radio was a central fixture in almost every American home. Families gathered around vacuum tube radios to hear news covered up to the minute, including the all-important presidential addresses to the nation, and entertainment by such household names as Amos ’n’ Andy, Jack Benny and Fred Allen — the Letterman of his day.
Most radios still have AM dials and it’s possible to hear the nostalgic hissing and almost musical signal modulation that comes with tuning in stations. However, the original practicality and necessity of broadcasting using amplitude modulation are things of the past.
For Socolow, a leading American radio historian, the loss is not just indicative of technological evolution. The historical perspective of radio puts in context today’s discussions about tomorrow’s media choices.
“Historical patterns indicate our media choices will be limited by the economy, by technology or by regulation, but it will be sold to you — the consumer — as less quantity and better quality,” says Socolow, an associate professor of communication and journalism at the University of Maine, whose research focuses on the development of the nation’s radio networks — the competition, the politics and the profitability from the 1920s through the 1940s. Radio’s heyday.
“I think when you look at the intersection of technology, communication regulation and economics, and the trade-offs, you need to have your eyes open in a way I don’t think Americans did in the 1920s and 1930s,” he says.
Socolow has spent nearly two decades reading and writing about broadcast and, to some degree, print media. A former CNN assignment editor covering the news of Southern California, including the O.J. Simpson trial, he also worked for three Olympics broadcasting entities — Radio-Television Olympica, Atlanta Olympic Broadcasting and the Sydney Olympic Broadcasting Organization.
The son of journalist and CBS producer Sanford Socolow, who produced “The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite” and later the “Evening News with Dan Rather,” and was a producer on “60 Minutes,” Socolow studies the why and how behind the evolution of broadcasting and broadcast news in particular.
Radio in America began in earnest around the turn of the century with the modernization of the telegraph, then the telephone. Among the first broadcast networks were the WEAF network, owned by AT&T, and the WJZ network, owned by General Electric, Westinghouse and their subsidiary, Radio Corporation of America (RCA). When AT&T sold its interest in radio and its network to the GE-Westinghouse-RCA group in 1926, a new company, the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) formed, followed by CBS and others.
It is at this point in the history of radio where Socolow begins his industry analysis.
Socolow looks beneath the surface at how technology, politics, regulation, economics, and social and cultural factors blended to influence the current state of broadcasting. His forthcoming book on the development of national network radio in the United States maps the landscape that allowed an oligopoly to structure broadcasting in the United States. His central question concerns why the United States only produced a few broadcast networks when existing technologies might have allowed for far more.
In one of his many published articles on networks, competition and politics, Socolow chronicles an attempt by a multitude of developing networks to persuade government regulators at the Federal Radio Commission to adopt a technical system that would have facilitated coexistence. Instead, Socolow says, network behemoths NBC and CBS managed to delay and ultimately kill consideration of a synchronous radio system.
“In early radio, NBC and CBS lost money,” he says. “The two companies rationalized the business and used the government to help their cause.”
In his research, Socolow also has explored advertising’s influence over consumers and the radio industry, the profitability of radio, competition and manipulation of the medium, and broadcast companies’ willingness to acquiesce to government propaganda in the 1940s.
His editorial columns in national newspapers have delved into such topics as the psyche of war correspondents, and the policy and economic implications of net neutrality. He also has examined how networks and media companies present themselves to the public.
Based on history, Socolow predicts some familiar patterns will emerge in the multiplying communications technologies that now encompass the Internet and its proliferation of blogs and social media.
“I’d say we’re in that period before the transition shakes out,” he says. “Traditional journalism jobs are going away. Newspapers are going out of business. I think the sad thing is the media environment we’re in right now can’t sustain itself indefinitely. I see consolidation. I see regulation following corporate demands.”
With the New York Times joining hundreds of other online publications and enterprises requiring paid subscriptions, Socolow says he believes free Internet content will become less and less available.
“The wide-open Internet was great while it lasted, but unfortunately it’s not going to last,” he says. “I think there are not enough tollbooths on the Internet to make money. I think we’re going to start seeing more tollbooths. I can’t see the corporations continuing to lose money.”
In the meantime, television viewer surveys show fewer young people watching the evening news today, which partly explains the abundance of adult-targeted pharmaceutical advertising that bookends and largely supports network evening news.
And something else has been happening over time with the evening news, Socolow observes: Broadcast organizations go to great length and expense marketing to people they think are their viewers. Decades ago, broadcast news icons such as Chet Huntley, David Brinkley and Walter Cronkite were household names. They brought the nation “news from the mountaintop” in an elite, authoritarian and almost ministerial manner, he says.
“In 1968, people who loved Walter Cronkite and people who hated Walter Cronkite still watched Walter Cronkite. People today won’t watch somebody they believe is biased, but they would in 1968,” says Socolow, who also studies how networks and media companies present themselves to the public.
Today, he says, there are dozens of recognizable news personalities and consumers are more subjective than ever about the networks they watch.
With so many emerging ways to receive news and entertainment, Socolow says the trend away from mass broadcasting to personalized, individualized programming by the consumer “will reformat what we actually consider to be ‘radio’ in the future. People will be listening to something resembling radio, but it won’t be ‘broadcasting.’”
But there will be radio in the future, he says, “so long as Americans are stuck in their cars. Radio is now almost completely wrapped around driving and commuting to work.”
Originally published in UMaine Today Magazine, Winter 2010