Radio and Television: Change Agents

Radio and Television: Change Agents

In his book Technopoly, Neil Postman (1992) argues that technology needs to be understood for both what it contributes to a culture and what it takes away.  According to Postman, it is a fundamental truth that technology will change a culture.  This paper explores how radio and television (TV) have influenced the cultural development of the United States, in particular how it created an opportunity for disengaged members of the citizenry to be informed, and/or engaged in political processes.  In the in early 20th century the notion of broadcasting pertained to the spreading of seeds in an agricultural context.  With the emergence of radio, broadcasting came to symbolize the spreading of ideas (Mishkind, B., 1995).  The broadcasting of ideas through radio and TV have been instrumental in influencing US public policy, such as the Civil Rights Act 1964.  Television coverage of the Civil Rights Movement redefined the country’s political landscape (Everet, A.) thus changing the culture of the United States.

Radio rose to prominence in the early 1920s. For those of us born during the time of television, it is easy to view radio as a mere prologue to the development of TV (Lewis T., 1992; Kear, L., 1992).  However, this would be an oversimplification of its influence on the American citizenry, and notion of one nation.  According to Tom Lewis, radio defined America as much as the automobile.  E.B. White, is quoted as stating “I live in a strictly rural community, and people here speak of The Radio in the large sense, with an over-meaning.  When they say “The Radio” they don’t mean a cabinet, an electrical phenomenon, or a man in a studio, they refer to a pervading and somewhat godlike presence which has come into their lives and homes (Lewis, 1992, pg.1).  This provides a glimpse as to how profound this technological innovation was perceived.  It was the first mass medium that could reach the entire nation by one person at one time, thus proving to be a powerful instrument in national affairs and domestic public policy.  Prior to radio, Americans primarily identified with a region and/or state.  Radio provided a means for Americans to view themselves as a nation. This proved to be an influential factor in political sphere in regards to elections and the development of public policy. Herbert Hoover’s campaign in the 1920s, for example, primarily depended upon radio leading his campaign manager to declare that the day of political speeches an event of the past.  Not only did radio influence how campaigns were run, but it also changed them from long oratories to short sound bites (Lewis, 1992). 

Radio and TV fundamentally changed the form and substance of political campaigns, thus presenting increased opportunity for public engagement, especially among the minority populations, such as blacks.  Prior to radio, the primary communication methods of during an election campaign were newspaper and localized speeches that tended to be long oratories (Lewis, 1992).  Naturally this severely limited how many people could be directly informed about election campaign issues because they had to attend the campaign speeches or have access to local news papers.  It is important to note, illiteracy was a major issue in the early 20th century.  According to National Assessment of Adult Learning (NAAL) the beginning of the 20th century 10.7 percent of the white population and 44 percent of the black population was illiterate.  At this time, the definition of illiterate meant they could not read or write on any level, not even their names (NAAL). The dependence on newspapers for information meant almost 50% of blacks were excluded from being informed about national issues.  By the end of World War II, 95 percent of all homes had a radio (Boyd, 2008).  Interesting enough, with the rise of mass media there was a corresponding rise in black literacy rates from a low of 56 percent to a high of 96.4 percent in 1969.  The dramatic rise in radio and television use within America homes corresponds with the increased emphasis on equality of rights for black Americans, as evident by the Civil Rights Movement.

 The convergence of the Civil Rights Movement and technological advances of television resulted in the nation viewing the struggle of blacks for equality within America, in particular the Southern United States.  The events leading up to the movement, for example, the murder of a young fifteen year old boy and blatant acquittal of his murders – led to a dramatic increase in the number participants in the Civil Rights Movement.  Numerous events, such as the Montgomery bus boycott, and Birmingham protest received national coverage and challenged the values and sensibilities of the nation.  In the case of Birmingham, the police had filled their jails and other areas to capacity with children protesters.  Therefore, on the second protest day they used high pressure water hoses resulting broken bones, and forcibly rolled children down the street, as well K-9s were used to attack other protesters (Cozzens, L., 1997) . “Newspaper and the print media provide a degree of separation from reality, but TV graphically brings happenings right into living rooms, complete with color, sound, time sequence, and even to some degree, the feeling” (Cybercollege, Part V, pg.1).  These pictures of conflict during the Civil Rights Movement, such as Birmingham incident, brought incidences of reality into America’s homes, thus shocking the nation toward changes in public policy.

Benjamin Hooks: TV’s Impact on Civil Rights

 The Civil Rights Movement resulted in President Kennedy proposing a bill to eliminate the legal authority to discriminate against blacks.   In order to demonstrate the support for the proposed civil rights bill, civil rights groups united to organize a march on Washington August 28th, 1963.  The influence and scope of television is underscored by 250,000 demonstrators marching on Washington, which were 150,000 more than expected.  It is at this time Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered the closing address, his famous “I Have a Dream” speech (Cozzens, 1997).  This event received extensive media coverage, and Kennedy’s civil rights bill was passed about a year later. 

“The Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Pub.L. 88-352, 78 Stat. 241, enacted July 2, 1964) was a landmark piece of legislation in the United States that outlawed major forms of discrimination against blacks and women, and ended racial segregation in the United States. It ended unequal application of voter registration requirements and racial segregation in schools, at the workplace and by facilities that served the general public (“public accommodations”).  The impact of this legislation included the prohibition of discrimination in public facilities, in government,[ and] in employment, invalidating the Jim Crow laws in the southern U.S. and it became illegal to compel segregation of the races in schools, housing, or hiring (Wikipedia Civil Rights Act 1964).

Undoubtedly, the influence of television showing 250,000 people from various parts of the United States marching on Washington served as a change agent for more inclusive political and social policies, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964. 


A logical inference is that these policy changes would not have happen in a timely manner without the visual representations of this conflict broadcasted throughout the nation.  In fact, without television it is in question that a struggle for civil rights would have happen because television was instrumental in fuelling the initial momentum that propelled it forward.  Furthermore, one is left to question if there is a relationship between the advances in radio and television with the dramatic increase in literacy rates among the black population.  Possibly, the black population’s engagement with the political system increased the motive and opportunity for education among black Americans.

Postman’s (1992) argument that technology changes a culture proved to be accurate as it relates to race relations in the United States.  Radio changed the country from one with a multitude of regional identities to the notion on one nation.  This is especially relevant within the context of race relations because TV provided the nation images that challenged their core values and sensibilities.  A number of factors coalesced with the emergence of TV, though it is clear that national coverage created a situation that required federal authorities to address long standing discriminatory practices in the Southern United States.  A question worth further study is the role of television as a change agent toward increased literacy rates among black Americans.  


Boyd, Lydia (2008). Brief History of the Radio Industry. Duke Libraries. Retrieved October 14, 2010.

Cozzens, Lisa (1997). Birmingham. Retrieved October 10, 2010

Cyber College. (2010, March 11) Social Impact of Television: Part V.  Retrieved October 10, 2010.

Everet, Anna. The Civil Rights Movement and Television. The Museum of Broadcast Communications.  Retrieved October 10, 2010.

Kear, Lynn. Radio days and nights – impact of radio programs before

Television.  Whole Earth Review, Winter, 1992. Retrieved October 10, 2010

Lewis, Tom.(1992). A God Like Presence: The Impact of Radio on the 1920s

and 1930s. Reprinted from the OAH Magazine of History 6 (Spring 1992). ISSN

0882-228X Copyright (c) 1992, Organization of American Historians.  Retrieved

October 10, 2010

Mishkind, Barry. (1995, August 20).  Who’s on First? Pioneer Profiles. Retrieved

October 17, 2010.

National Assessment of Adult Literacy.  Literacy from 1870 to 1979: Excerpts

are taken from Chapter 1 of 120 Years of American Education: A Statistical

Portrait (Edited by Tom Snyder, National Center forEducation Statistics, 1993). 

Retrieved October 10, 2010.

 Postman, N. (1992). Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology. New

York: Vintage Books

Wikipedia Civil Rights Act of 1964 Retrieved October 10, 2010

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