The Changing Spaces of Reading and Writing

Research Assignment 3:Tv to Radio

Mass Media—Radio to TV 1950-1970

 Radio and television are highly influential mass media. Transforming technological achievements do not end up in a vacuum, without repercussions— individuals, society, language itself, cultural, political and religious institutions are part of the sphere of media influence and in turn, influence media.  Radio is our ears on the world, and television our eyes on the world.

We allow these machines into our lives and homes. Life has changed between the time radio dominated the airwaves, and subsequent widespread adoption of TV. What unforeseen effects occurred? Do we as consumers stop to analyze these things? Does the TV belong in the children’s bedroom?

Historical and Cultural Perspectives

The radio and TV are both passive, non-interactive media—information only goes one way (Beatty, 1998). As each new invention arises, fears of how they may be used and misused contribute to a reluctance to adopt them. Looking back, they now seem more benign to authoritarian societies in the setting of our current times, as we now have the 2.0 web, which has empowered all with access and know how. Power is out of the hands of the few, and interactions and information access is around user-based choices, not network or radio station control of content. But as radio and then TV emerged, those times were important to the history of communication because this represented a way to transfer information—as instantaneous mass media, much different than the printed word. Aural, and then subsequently visual data was in the pipeline.

Kramer (p 5, 1991) proposes mass media is really quite old—he sees libraries as mass media which evolved from the very first mass medium, writing. He reviews how telegraph and Morse code were the first steps towards instantaneous communication. Morse’s first words on the device, he quoted were “what hath God wrought”; acknowledging the early inventors’ appreciation of the widespread impact for the future, reinforces the appreciation of the primary purpose of early mass media for military and commercial interests (Kramer, p. 9, 1991).  The history of radio started with the wireless telegraph. Marconi is most widely thought of the inventor but Nikola Tesla first patented radio technology. The first commercial trans-Atlantic service was carried out by Marconi in 1907, which spawned the era of audio broadcasting starting in 1919. The Radio Corporation of America or RCA was formed in 1919 and started the Americanization of radio (Kramer, p 15, 1991).

In the context of radio, I will focus on the CBC as representative of a nation’s media in both radio and television and representative of the transition that occurred. According to the CBC archival website on the history of CBC/Radio Canada, there were a number of landmarks, summarized as follows.

The year 1901 was marked by the first wireless trans-Atlantic telegraph, and 1922, the first private commercial radio stations in Canada. In 1927, the first national broadcast took place and by 1932 the government created the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission (CRBC). In 1937 76% of Canada was receiving CBC radio, and in 1939 CBC carried the declaration of war and subsequent wartime, and farm broadcasts and political messages as their primary messages.

In education, 1940 saw the first provincial school broadcasts, and in 1941 the CBC news service emerged. By the year 1943 the first English School Broadcast Department formed, which emphasized the role the government saw in the function of radio for the learning of young Canadians. In 1947 the first FM radio stations emerged in a few major cities, and the FM band was credited for carrying radio forward into the TV era, due to excellent music programming and audio quality.

By 1955, CBC television had emerged and reached 66% of the population and in 1958, the first coast-to coast live TV broadcast occurred and so, welcome to hockey night in Canada!  Canada developed the Canadian Radio and Television Commission (CRTC) Canadian content to protect the cultural integrity from being overwhelmed by American music, TV and film industries, by supervision and regulation of the telecommunications and broadcasting (mission statement from website).

Wikipedia reports that in 1950 one million American homes had televisions. Kramer (p 20, 1991) speaks of the rise of radio appreciation purposed to spread culture and educational experiences to rural and poor. The BBC in Britain was launched to meet this need.

Radio versus television: vying for the attention of the mass audience

In this section we will compare and contrast the effects of each media. Before one dismisses the radio as a predecessor, rather than as a continuing media influence, let us consider those parts of the world that do not have infrastructure for television even today. It seems in fact, we still pay close attention to the aural presentation, which harkens back to early orality and oratory, a concept explored at length in Ong’s book, Orality and Literacy (2002).  Kramer (p 16, 1991) quotes media guru Marshall McLuhan as saying “radio affects most people intimately, person to person, offering a world of unspoken communication between writer-speaker and listener”. That is not a concept that is intuitive, but reflects Ongs theory. Vukmirovic (p 4, 2005) states that “radio is the most accessible information channel in the world” which probably still holds true since the Internet is still not available in much of the developing world.

On October 30, 1938, listeners heard the following apocalyptical phrase, at the end of a realistic radio show, “2X2L calling CQ. Isn’t there anyone on the air? Isn’t there anyone on the air? Isn’t there…. anyone?”  That was the War of the Worlds radio broadcast that, according to history records on Wiki and elsewhere, spawned a plethora of concern, and even panic amongst listeners.  The broadcast simulated newscasts of a dire invasion. It was estimated 6 million listened, that 1.7 million listeners thought it true, and the event subsequently spawned 12 000 newspaper articles. Hitler said the panic was a sign of “decadence of democracy” and so the reaction rippled world-wide. This singular event demonstrates that in spite of disclaimers to the effect that it was fictional, radio can deeply influence and thus could subvert an impressionable audience. As far as long term influence, the event has since generated TV, movies, plays, and many analyses.  One show, lots of impact!

Kramer posits (p 22, 1991) that “world events, and the immediacy of radio news coverage made many listeners anxious about life in general” and cites the above show as an example.  In the early era of radio, it was a news vehicle. Hockey games, news, readings and discussions dominated the airways. According to Kramer (Pg 19, 1991) “broadcasting then and now, somehow makes people feel as though they are a part of something bigger than themselves, connected to the world out there”. Even though radio does not have the flashy visual aspect, it is still a powerful communication tool.

According to Vukmirovic (pp. 1-3, 2005) the radio is spoken language and one needs remembrance on the part of listener, and memorable discourse at the source. Remembrance is a selective memory process of a recipient. He cites a tri-modal theory involving the recipient, the media, and external recipient environment. Among recipient factors he feels attention, previous knowledge, attitudes and feelings, motivation, hearing skills, and recall strategies need to be taken into account.  Memory of media includes its position, the nature of the items, repetition, and how closely it meets the inner schema of the listener (Vukmirovic, p. 5, 2005). These considerations all make good sense, and help explain why the two people can hear very different things after they internalize the spoken broadcast. Kozma (1993) feels there is an interplay between physical technology, symbol systems (language, pictures, music), and processing capabilities (information received) so each medium has a profile of capabilities.

TV was invented in more than one location, and is most widely attributed to Farnsworth and Zworykin. As TV took hold in the 50s, the radio became a vehicle for popular music instead.  At that time, according to Kramer (p 27, 1991) “just as radio listening had displaced time previously spent reading, television now challenged radio as the preferred leisure time activity”,  and he cited a study which indicated “..the average American home had two TV’s with at least one of them on about seven hours every day”  and  “mid 1970s annual polls indicated that television had surpassed newspapers as the medium Americans most rely on for information, and also the medium perceived as the most credible and complete in news coverage”. Those cited studies indicate that TV had become THE pervasive medium of that decade.

 Kramer, (p29, 1991) relays that “it is well documented that people rarely watch a TV show, but rather TV, seeking the least objectionable program rather than choosing to turn it off when “nothing is on””. These observations ring very true and the phrase “couch potato” comes to mind. McLuhan sees TV as “cool” medium since it does require engagement of the watcher, but this has been widely debated.

Religious programming has become popular with TV evangelical shows spreading the Word the way the written word did with the Bible in the days of old. Political institutions have also taken the TV and used it for their own purposes, disseminating messages that sometimes border political brainwashing. Many feel that the use of media for these purposes is an abuse of power because with the exception of live debates, counter messages cannot easily be heard.  On the positive side of the coin, projects such as the UNESCO Bangkok distance education initiative described at, use radio and television to improve literacy and information transfer, but using foreign media producers, in this case Educational Radio Television (ERTV) in Italy.  The initiative is used in Afghanistan also, but the use of native peoples and production facilities would have been preferred in order to ensure that the needs of the learner are fully integrated. In Beatty’s CBC lecture, he agrees “television and radio created the mass audience on a scale that had been impossible in the past. “ He builds his case, noting they were perfect tools for authoritarian governments trying to control public thought, and for corporations marketing their products.  Beatty made another excellent point, noting that early centralization and limited TV and radio licenses restricted the public’s choice.

McLuhan (p 207, 1964) scolds society for being so blind when he says “the electric technology is within the gates, and we are numb, deaf, blind and mute about its encounter with the Guetenberg technology, on and through which the American way of life was formed”, and  on speaking about how deeply entrenched media can become, he notes “the effects of technology do not occur at the level of opinions or concepts, but alter the sense ratios or patterns of perception steadily and without any resistance.” McLuhan implies its influence seeps into our society while we are busy and so we are effectively blind to its effects. Kramer (p 30, 1991) identified many traps including TV ads targeting kids (e.g., cigarettes, clothes), cultural homogeneity, and gate keeping by the big stations to select news and views for the watcher.  He also lists violence, sex, and stereotypical portrayals as influencing the watcher and argues that even if the effects are indirect as modern media theories propose, these traps still have consequences.  Kramer explores issues of modelling after TV stars (soap opera example), and children modelling their behaviour (social, antisocial) in sync with characters, and states, “the conclusion is that children are indeed socialized by movies and television, especially when they identify with a character they watch” Kramer also notes popular current theory is that mass media consumption leads to a spiral of silence (after Noelle-Neumann). What he means by this is if everyone is exposed to an opinion, dissenters tend to not speak up. All of these explorations alert us to just how many hot-button issues we are not aware of as typical consumers.

Beatty (1998) states “mankind has always maintained an uneasy relationship with technology, simultaneously regarding it with both reverence and fear, uncertain about whether our machines would ultimately prove to be our slaves or our masters”.  This paranoia is reflected in the writings of the time such as in George Orwell’s book 1984.

If one stops to think, in a little less than two generations from the invention of the radio and the television, we have come a long way baby. Beatty (1998) concurs, noting it is the speed of change which overwhelms us.   Beatty (1998) cites the words over the entrance to the 1893 Chicago world’s fair “science explores, technology executes, man conforms” when making the point that we have a very uneasy relationship with these mass media boxes.  McLuhan (p 208, 1964) believes “subliminal and docile acceptance of media impact has made them prisons without walls for their human users”.

Regarding psychological influences, many propose that in the 21st century, many of the attention deficit disorders stem from fast paced moving picture consumption by our youth. It is startling to compare the average length for TV commercials which used to run one to two minutes, and now generally flash multiple engaging images in 10 to 15 second slots. The jury is still out on the effect on attention span, as it is on the effects on literacy. There are so many confounding factors it is hard to attribute any effects to just TV alone. Video games are an example of a potential confounder.                                                                                           

No discussion of modern mass media is complete without mention of McLuhan’s message versus media concept. The full sentence from which “the message is the medium” was drawn is as follows: “in a culture like ours, long accustomed to splitting and dividing all things as a means of control, it is sometimes a bit of a shock to be reminded that, in operational and practical fact, the medium is the message” (McLuhan, p 203, 1964).  On the same page he notes “..the content of any medium is always another medium” e.g., the written word is content of print media.  He would say then, I presume, that for radio, the listened to word is the content of radio and the moving picture and sound is the content of TV?  But further in that passage, he reframes it as follows, “for the message of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs”. I think what he means is that the message not the medium is what alters the human landscape. In support of that concept, McLuhan (p 206, 1964) gives an example of a Bedouin with a battery radio and how he is impinged with much new conceptually but he points out” Western man himself experiences exactly the same inundation as the remote native”.   On the contrary side of this, everybody wants it now is a philosophy widely infiltrating the masses—we are spoiled, and want different perspectives on lots of issues as they happen on the frontlines.

In closing, Andy Worhol said in 1968 “in the future, everyone will be (world) famous for 15 minutes”.  This may be coming to pass in a way for those using the Internet to post their blogs, video and music, though a new phrase has been coined to meet today’s times to the effect that everyone will be famous to 15 other people—a tongue in cheek to social networking. Radio and TV continue to both influence society in many ways and the effects of them are still under study due to the difficulty of isolating their influence on the listeners and watchers.


 Beatty, P. CBC Speech Archives (1998). Coping with Convergence: Social and cultural change in the age of digital technology. March 20 Lecture to UWO. Accessed online October 19, 2009 at :

Kramer, E.M. (1991). A supplementary chapter to accompany: Understanding Human Communication 4th ed. By Adler, R and Rodman, G. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc. Accessed October 19, 2009 at:

History of Radio. Accessed online October 19, 2009 at:

CBC –Radio-Canada Archive Website; 1901-1939. Accessed online October 19, 2009 at:

CBC –Radio-Canada Archive Website;1940s. Accessed online October 19, 2009 at:

CBC –Radio-Canada Archive Website; 1950s. Accessed online October 19, 2009 at:

CRTC Website. Accessed October 23, 2009 at:                                               

TV events: 1950s. Accessed October 19, 2009 at:

Ong, W. J. (2002) Orality and Literacy. Routledge, London and New York.

Vukmirov, D. (2005). Radio and communication. Accessed October 19, 2009 at:

War of the Worlds- radio show. Accessed online October 20, 2009 at:

Kozma, R.B. (1993).Will media influence learning? Reframing the debate. Educational Technology Research and Development. Vol 42, No. 2 pp 7-19. (print published in 1994). Accessed online October 14, 2009 at:                                                                                 

Marshall McLuhan. [n.d.]Accessed online October 20, 2009 at:


Unesco Education Project; Bangkok. [n.d.]. Accessed October 18, 2009 at:

Marshall McLuhan.  Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man 1964

 NY McGraw-Hill Publishing Co., May 1964. Excerpt from NEWMEDIAREADER, II, 13. MIT Press, Cambridge and London, 2003. Accessed online October 18, 2009 at

Andy Worhol. [n.d.]Accessed online October 21, 2009 at:


October 25, 2009   No Comments