This story was published in Radio Recall, the journal of the Metropolitan Washington Old-Time Radio Club, published six times per year.
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"The Rise of Radio, From Marconi Through The Golden Age"
by Alfred Balk
(McFarland & Company)
Reviewed by Edgar Farr Russell III, © 2007
(From Radio Recall, August 2007)
Study the cover of "The Rise of Radio, From Marconi Through the Golden Age" and you'll see the famous picture of inventor Guglielmo Marconi gazing thoughtfully in your direction. What do you suppose he is thinking? Could he be reflecting on how radio evolved from its earliest days of simple point-to-point transmission to become the dominant form of communications from the 1930s to the 1950s? Maybe Marconi looks stunned to learn that today's deregulated radio has the highest profit ratio of all media outlets! Whatever he is pondering, we may feel qualified to offer him our own thoughts after we read this concise but detailed history written by Alfred Balk, former editor of "Columbia Journalism Review" and "Saturday Review" as well as published author or co-author of seven other books. It is not surprising to learn that he is also a vintage radio collector.
With his journalistic background, Mr. Balk has chosen to put a very human face on "the sweeping drama of radio history". In Part I: Radio's Rise, he introduces us to the famous-- Marconi and Edwin Armstrong; the infamous-- Lee de Forest; the nearly forgotten pioneers-- Reginald Fessenden and Charles "Doc" Herrold among others, and the moguls-- NBC's David Sarnoff and CBS's William S. Paley.
Succeeding chapters in Part I bring us other fascinating topics such as the parade of enthusiasts who created a demand for radios; the giant corporation AT&T which developed the technical means for networks to be created; the advertising agencies which represented thousands of clients desiring to get their message (or sell their products) over the airwaves; and a look at some of the great broadcasters and broadcasting cities outside of the East coast. Featured here are Powel Crosley, Jr owner of "superstation" WLW in Cincinnati who gave breakthrough opportunities to future stars like Rosemary Clooney, The Mills Brothers, actor Eddie Albert, and writer Rod Serling. The author also recounts the story of Detroit's own George W. Trendle, creator of "The Lone Ranger".
The book then transitions in Part II: The Age's Stage to bring to the forefront the groundbreaking programs, performers, writers, and directors that are still so beloved today by Old Time Radio fans. Some like Jack Benny are well known to the general public. Others like the innovative comedy writer and performer Ray Knight should be! Many different genres of program are introduced and discussed in power-packed chapters averaging six-to-eight pages each -- adventure, mystery, children's shows, and musical programs are a few of the examples.
The last major section, Part III: Pinnacle, Precipice, Abyss takes the reader on a journey from the end of Radio's Golden Age through the 1950s when upstart Television came into its own. The section continues up until present day where one company may own a thousand stations! The author closes with a discussion of how key issues may impact on radio's listeners and television's viewers in the future.
To make a history this detailed and informative requires a lot of research. The author has certainly done this. Mr. Balk accurately discounts the youthful David Sarnoff's role in the rescue of the Titanic's passengers. But he accepts the now questionable account of Reginald Fessenden's Christmas Eve 1906 broadcast of music. Mr. Balk's bibliography is extensive as is his section of end notes. In addition he interviewed legendary professionals such as Frank Stanton, Sylvester "Pat" Weaver, Fred W. Friendly, Robert Lewis Shayon, and Norman Corwin. He also met and spoke with such delightful sources of insight as Marconi's daughter, Gioa.
While he provides a great deal of solid historical content, there is one major aspect which is troubling to me. Mr. Balk, ultimately, uses this book as a platform for his own beliefs on such controversial subjects as "talk radio" and the "Fairness Doctrine". Here he betrays a bias that changes the tone of the book from one of information to one of advocacy for his particular position. With this caveat understood, however, readers are better prepared to read his words and come to their own conclusions. That said, this is a valuable addition to the literature on the history of radio and the individuals and organizations that created and sustained it through the years.
The soft-cover book which costs $35.00 runs 358 pages, is augmented with 62 photographs of both renowned stars and important, but seldom seen individuals. It features extensive source notes, bibliography, and index. The book is available from McFarland & Company at www.mcfarlandpub.com or by telephone at 800-253-2187, $35 Plus postage.
Edgar Farr Russell, III is a writer, director, and actor whose work has appeared on National Public Radio, local cable television, and on stage. He is also a member of the Metro Washington Old Time Radio Club.