History

Out of the Dark

A new history of rural radio pays insufficient attention to the regulations that shaped the stations.

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Out of the Dark: A History of Radio and Rural America, by Steve Craig, The University of Alabama Press, 228 pages, $42.

Steve Craig's Out of the Dark is, as its subtitle says, a history of radio and rural America. While the narrative reaches to the present day, the book's focus is on the years before World War II. Since then, Craig argues, the changes in rural life and rural broadcasting have been so dramatic that their "distinctive nature has all but disappeared."

This is mostly a story of consumption, not production. A great proportion of the programming received by rural listeners in prewar years came from high-powered stations in distant cities and from regional affiliates of national networks, not from local programs on local stations. The reasons for that pattern lie in decisions made in Washington, DC, which Craig does a reasonably capable job of outlining, albeit with some curious omissions.

Thus Craig has a good discussion of the four radio conferences called by Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover in the 1920s, in which industry leaders pushed for rules that would favor a centralized commercial broadcasting system. But Craig's account of how the Radio Act of 1927 came to be is brief, and it takes the rationale for the new law at face value; he neglects Thomas Hazlett's scholarship suggesting that the legislation was both unnecessary and innately skewed toward the biggest and most politically powerful broadcasters. Craig does note that the new Federal Radio Commission's spectrum allocation plan favored commercial operations with a large coverage area over "the smaller 'public' stations run by land grant colleges and other educational institutions, nearly all of which were relegated to part-time operation."

This on-again, off-again attention to the political economy of broadcasting continues throughout the book

The rest of this article can be read at the Journal of American Studies, where it originally appeared.