Three Hills

Blame It on the Radio

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Recently, I read in my local paper that a man who had spoken at a large anti-COVID 19 vaccine rally held in a nearby town had died from the disease he had proclaimed to be a hoax. The man had been a conspiracy theorist of the highest order. Millions followed his radio, television, and internet broadcasts of elaborate lies: NASA is running a child slave colony on Mars; the Holocaust was exaggerated and atrocities were made up; Democrats are running an underground child sex-trafficking ring; the 2020 presidential election was stolen. Defiant to the end, the denier posted a picture of himself lying in a hospital bed, his face obscured by an oxygen mask, declaring “I will not take the vaccination.”

No doubt some reacted to news of the denier’s demise with a frisson of schadenfreude; others blamed the internet as an enabler of lies and destroyer of lives. I however reflected on the dramatic revolution in communication that three Americans—Lee de Forest, Edwin Howard Armstrong, and David Sarnoff began more than a century ago. They were responsible for the radio, that quaint ancestor of computers and our digital age. I came to know the men intimately—their public triumphs and personal failures—when I wrote Empire of the Air.  And I came to appreciate their creations that live on today in all the information and misinformation that binds our minds with the speed of light.

Across America tens of millions of listeners tuned their radios to those who validated their fears, anger, and hatred. 

They were idealists whose vision of the future considered only the virtues of their creations. De Forest invented the radio tube, the grandfather of the transistor and the microchip, believing that the radio would bring culture to ordinary people through broadcasts of speeches and music, particularly opera which was his passion. Armstrong put de Forest’s tube to work in circuits we use every time we touch a television or the computer and went on to invent FM and bring crystal clarity to sound. Sarnoff created the National Broadcasting Company, NBC, to bring concerts, lectures, and “events of national importance” into America’s living rooms. They brought us the first modern mass medium, one that knew no geographic boundary, and excited the imaginations and minds as well as the ears of listeners.

In the 1930s—the years of depression and the consequent strain on America’s social fabric—the visions of these men met with a harsher reality. Across America, tens of millions of listeners tuned their radios to those who validated their fears, anger, and hatred. Quack medical doctors, demagogue politicians, and malign preachers employed the new medium to reach those pushed to the margins of society. Broadcasting from Kansas, Dr. John Romulus Brinkley championed goat gland operations, which he performed for “weak men,” and sold his specially concocted medicines at one dollar (about twenty dollars today) a bottle. From Louisiana, governor Huey Long raged against “lyin’ newspapers,”  and the wealth of “Morgan and Rockefeller and Mellon and Baruch.” From Michigan, Father Charles Coughlin attacked usury, “modern Shylocks,” and Franklin Roosevelt, while he praised isolationists who wanted to keep the nation out of war, sympathized with Fascists and Nazis, and justified Kristallnacht as righteous retribution for the Jewish persecution of Christians in the first century.

But radio and its electronic descendants, including instant messaging and video, gave them a new and powerful medium for their messages.

Of course, history and literature remind us there was no shortage of fraudsters before de Forest, Armstrong and Sarnoff gave them a new and powerful way to present their scams. But radio and its electronic descendants, including instant messaging and video, gave them a new and powerful medium for their messages. Alas, what hasn’t changed are the corrupt, the unscrupulous, and the liars. When announcing the COVID-19 denier’s death, his friend declared “the whole thing is very suspicious.” Shortly thereafter conspiratorial websites pronounced it “murder” and  “execution.” Yes, our modern medium intensifies the reception of the message and sometimes to the point of violence. But the radio is not to be blamed, we are.

*Featured photo: On Air sign in a radio studio. Credit: Fringer Cat.

Empire of the Air
Cover image of Empire of the Air.
Read more about this book.

Tom Lewis is Professor Emeritus of English at Skidmore College. His most recent book is Washington. In addition to his numerous books, he has written and produced award-winning documentary films for Florentine Films and public television. He lives in Maine.

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