rise and fall

Two books on radio, from two ends of its history.

“Hello Everybody,” by Anthony Rudel, is a history of the early rise of the medium. The bulk of the story is situated after the breakthroughs that led to radio, and ends, more or less, as Roosevelt takes office. As such, f.m. isn’t addressed at all, nor is a lot of time spent on technology in general. This is a social history of radio, what was said over the air and how and why it was important. Rudel writes about the role of baseball and boxing broadcasts, early forays in “news” and how it was mixed up with celebrity from the start, how entertainers and politicians figured out the best ways to use radio.

In his credits, Rudel acknowledges the work of a couple of newspaper reporters, for the New York Times and Washington Post, who had radio as their beat and who were writing every day. As such, there’s a deeply sourced quality to Rudel’s writing; one of the pleasures of the book is the tick-tock of major events.

As well, Rudel has the advantage of writing a history of radio – the book was published in 2008 – well into the internet age. He knows how connected we are now, and that informs his writing about how unconnected everything was back then. It’s as thrilling as any history of the early internet.

Want to know how the story ends? You could do worse than “Radio’s Digital Dilemma: Broadcasting In The 21st Century,” by journalist turned academic John Nathan Anderson. Anderson has specialized in an area of radio arcane to most people – the botched push since the 1990s to transition regular f.m.and a.m. to something called “HD” radio. You probably haven’t heard of it, because most people don’t have an HD radio or use one.

Anderson is a critic, but he’s also good with research and facts, and is careful to give all sides their due. The story he tells is that of a technology which promises much – it’s digital! it’s CD quality! it’s new channels for different audiences! – but struggles to deliver. Along the way, he meticulously documents how the drive for HD (which doesn’t stand for “high definition,” by the way) serves to give incumbent radio station owners, and especially large chains, even more of the broadcast spectrum than they had to start, while raising the bar to entry for anyone wanting to get into the business.

And while his story is focused on HD, by the time you’re through you can’t help but think he’s written a first draft of an obituary for radio in the 21st century. HD, as a way to keep audiences listening to “radio,” is already far back in a pack now dominated by audio delivered over the internet – traditional radio stations, “stations” that are internet-only and very often, a rich stew of programs that have radio as an ancestor, but are really becoming something else, something that will look back on things like HD and shake its head and wonder “What were they thinking?”

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