A Distant View of English Journal, 1912-2012

Jason Palmeri & Ben McCorkle



Radio: Production vs. Reception Over Time
Instructions: Click legend below to turn lines on and off. Double click or pinch graph to zoom in. Drag graph to move through time. Hover over the dots to make info about the articles appear; hover over a new dot to make info boxes go away. Click link below to reset the graph.

A quick look at the timeline above indicates that interest in radio-based pedagogy largely ran from the 1930s through the early 1950s. This span roughly parallels what is commonly known as the Golden Age of Radio, a period characterized by narrative-driven radio dramas (e.g., Dragnet, The Shadow), broadcast news, variety shows, and other types of non-musical programming. The radio was perceived to be the dominant cultural media force during the first half of the twentieth century, prompting Bernice Orndorff (1939) to write (using slightly purple prose):

We are becoming more and more conscious that radio is a powerful agent of propaganda, more effective even than the printed word; and it is the obligation of teachers to use this instrument for education in the right direction by teaching pupils to distill the good, the beautiful, the true from the array offered them. (p. 621)

During this period, while there was plenty of emphasis on reception (e.g., listening appreciation, writing reviews of radio plays, and the like), production regularly kept apace, and in some years—1939, 1941, and 1942 in particular—eclipsed reception. Most of these articles described assignments and collaborative class projects where students wrote, produced, and performed their own radio scripts. In some cases, teachers such as Doris Nelson (1939) and Wanda Orton (1939) solicited the aid of local radio stations to broadcast such performances, and in other cases, students used the school's local intercom system to "narrowcast" their programs. Some teachers who didn't have access to radio technology would lead their students in creating mock radio studios where the class would perform their scripts for a live audience, going so far as to employ "hacks" of everyday objects to emulate studio equipment. For example, Mildred Campbell (1937) described students fashioning a makeshift microphone from a broomstick and various machine parts (p. 754).

The high-water mark for radio, just before its precipitous plunge in 1952, was 1949, which saw no fewer than six articles on radio, all of them emphasizing reception. Here we notice a trend in terms of lifespan that other media tend to follow: an initial interest in production eventually gives way to reception. Of course, this waxing/waning effect doesn't happen in a vacuum, as other, newer media emerge and capture our collective pedagogical imagination; in this case, attention to radio-based production falls away alongside the birth of television.

Commonplaces for Teaching With Radio

When we look at the various commonplaces articulated by teachers using radio, a number of interesting observations emerge. For one, we notice the relatively small number of articles expressing the negative opinion that radio was harmful for students in their efforts to acquire alphabetic literacy skills. Expressing a worry about the "new medium" of radio that seems strangely contemporary, Joseph Mersand (1938) introduced a critical article about radio pedagogy by recounting a news story about a 12-year-old Toledo student who, apparently under the influence of graphic radio crime dramas, shot and killed his principal (p. 469). Despite such critiques, English teachers most frequently framed radio pedagogy via positive commonplaces: that teaching radio is engaging for students, changing the nature of literacy (typically framed positively), and enhancing alphabetic literacy. When we consider how the commonplaces break down according to production versus reception, the division is roughly equal for the most frequent commonplaces, but there are two instances in which the commonplaces clearly skew in one direction. "Requiring the moral/aesthetic judgment of the teacher" is decidedly a reception-oriented commonplace at 24 to 2, while "expanding audience beyond the teacher" is a production-focused commonplace at 21 to 3.

Although peak interest in radio ended in the early 1950s (thanks a lot, television!), sporadic interest continued to crop up throughout the timeline in decades subsequent to radio's salad days: two in the 1960s and 1970s, one in the 1980s, and three in the 1990s. For example, Bill Oates' (1994) article "Everything Old Is New Again," bemoaning the saturation of high tech popular culture emerging because of computers, advocates for returning to the Golden Age of Radio and resurrecting that era's technology, techniques, and genres for the high school classroom. That same year, in "The Radio Play's the Thing," Tim McShane (1994) described the successful writing, production, and performance of an original radio play by his middle-school students (and broadcast by a local radio station), arguing that the experience promoted student engagement, provided real-world context for their work, and allowed for greater creative expression than traditional writing assignments. In 1939, Lou Orfanella referred to radio as the "intimate medium" (in contradistinction to television) and listed several reception-oriented assignments aimed at revisiting the nostalgia of fireside chats and radio plays. These precursors eventually gave way to to more recent interest in podcasting, audio essays, and other digital audio production projects assigned in the classroom.