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Radio's America

The Great Depression and the Rise of Modern Mass Culture

Orson Welles’s greatest breakthrough into the popular consciousness occurred in 1938, three years before Citizen Kane, when his War of the Worlds radio broadcast succeeded so spectacularly that terrified listeners believed they were hearing a genuine report of an alien invasion—a landmark in the history of radio’s powerful relationship with its audience. In Radio’s America, Bruce Lenthall documents the enormous impact radio had on the lives of Depression-era Americans and charts the formative years of our modern mass culture.

Many Americans became alienated from their government and economy in the twentieth century, and Lenthall explains that radio’s appeal came from its capability to personalize an increasingly impersonal public arena. His depictions of such figures as proto-Fascist Charles Coughlin and medical quack John Brinkley offer penetrating insight into radio’s use as a persuasive tool, and Lenthall’s book is unique in its exploration of how ordinary Americans made radio a part of their lives. Television inherited radio’s cultural role, and as the voting tallies for American Idol attest, broadcasting continues to occupy a powerfully intimate place in American life. Radio’s America reveals how the connections between power and mass media began.

Author Information

Bruce Lenthall is director of the Center for Teaching and Learning and adjunct assistant professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania.


“In Radio’s America, Bruce Lenthall provides a perceptive and balanced overview of radio’s major contributions to American culture during its most vital years, years that were truly formative not only of American broadcasting but ofour history as a nation as well.Lenthall encourages us to reevaluate what we think we know about the beginnings of mediated mass culture in the United States.His analysis, clearly written to appeal to a broad audience,refreshes old debates and sheds new light on unexplored figures and ideas.”

— Michele Hilmes, University of Wisconsin–Madison

“This impressive and engaging book explores how broadcast radio was used and conceptualized by ordinary listeners, politicians, priests, doctors, dramatists, and intellectuals. Bruce Lenthall demonstrates great breadth of knowledge of the period as he synthesizes in a very readable fashion an enormous amount of material usually considered separately. This collage of unlikely elements fleshes out the rich and contradictory ways various sectors of the culture negotiated modern mass society by using radio to speak about their worlds.”
— Lynn Spigel, Northwestern University

"Required reading for those who still believe that American radio, from its inception, encompassed only defenseless audiences and hegemonic broadcasters."
— Michael J. Socolow, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television

Audience: Professional and scholarly;