Turning Up the Volume

Turning Up the Volume

When it comes to radio, Communication's Keith wrote the book(s)

By Sean Smith
Chronicle Editor

No, laughs Senior Lect. Michael Keith (Communication), his interest in radio does not stem from a childhood spent listening to the likes of "The Lone Ranger," "Little Orphan Annie," Fred Allen or Jack Benny on a cathedral-shaped family radio.


Senior Lect. Michael Keith (Communication) finds radio a continual source of interest for his research. "Without a doubt, radio has had a significant role in this country, as both a catalyst and a mirror of change." (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)
Keith came of age in the 1950s, when television slowly but steadily replaced radio as America's most popular entertainment and news medium. But radio became a vocation for Keith, first as a broadcaster in Boston and several other cities, and for nearly three decades as a scholar and prodigious writer of broadcast textbooks and books pertaining to the role of electronic media in society.

"When I first entered academia, I wrote textbooks because I felt the materials were out of date," he said. "Then I became more curious as to why there were no books examining the role of radio as an agent of change in our society.

"Radio is taken for granted, because it's been eclipsed by other media. But it is still the most ubiquitous electronic mass medium we have, and yet there is scant scholarship on its influence. Without a doubt, radio has had a significant role in this country, as both a catalyst and a mirror of change."

Keith's study of radio's influence has produced books such as Talking Radio: An Oral History of American Radio in the Television Age and The Broadcast Century, which he co-authored with Robert Hilliard. But his forte is exploring the less known or overlooked chapters and personalities in radio history. Keith has chronicled the role of radio in promoting and preserving Native-American culture (Signals in the Air: Native Broadcasting in America), for example, and its use by different ideological groups (Voices in the Purple Haze: Underground Radio and the Sixties and Waves of Rancor: Tuning the Radical Right).

This year has seen the publication of Queer Airwaves: Gays and Lesbians in American Broadcasting, which Keith authored with Southern Illinois University Associate Professor Phylis Johnson, and the just released Sounds in the Dark: All Night Radio in American Life, which includes a foreword by Larry King.

"When you start looking at radio's influence, you have to ask, 'Whose was the mainstream view? Whose views were excluded?'" he said. "The experiences of people on the periphery in radio broadcasting help to tell a more complete story of American life. In some instances, the impact is more on their specific group or community, but in other cases the way they use radio touches the mainstream."

For Queer Airwaves, Keith and Johnson used dozens of interviews and oral histories to recount homosexuals' experiences in the broadcast industry and, in particular, the development of media outlets to serve the needs and concerns of the gay and lesbian community. Radio has played a prominent role in providing programs with appeal to gays, the authors found, in hundreds of markets in the United States and abroad.

"There is, of course, a potential for controversy in writing a book that focuses on gays," said Keith. "I am interested less in the ideological or lifestyle issues surrounding gays, however, than in their relationship with the broadcast industry.

"The fact is, millions of people identify themselves as gay, and radio and TV have become increasingly interested in marketing to them. But whereas the mainstream media tend to treat homosexuality in a more comic fashion, such as with TV shows like 'Will and Grace' or 'Queer as Folk,' non-commercial, community radio has for years offered more serious and well-rounded programming, from discussion to music."

Sounds in the Dark examines what Keith describes as contemporary radio's most eclectic, unpredictable and creative programming slot, midnight to 6 a.m. With an overwhelmingly adult audience listening in during those hours, Keith says, radio stations are less shy about airing controversial, even provocative material, or playing more specialized or obscure forms of music.

"It's often very crazy, creative and irreverent stuff," said Keith, "and it's a shame it's limited to such a late hour and relatively narrow broadcast band. The industry has really shot itself in the foot, because the rest of the broadcast day is usually predictable, confined and unexciting by contrast."

Keith's book traces the history of late-night radio, including its inception in the 1920s and popularity among wartime graveyard shift workers as well as members of the counterculture. He also looks at specialized late-night programming, such as shows devoted to UFOs and the paranormal, as well as the increasing popularity of "truckers radio." The approximately 3 million professional truckers nationwide, he notes, are only too happy to pass a long night's drive by using their cellphones to join an on-the-air forum and talk about taxes, loneliness and myriad other subjects.

"It's a culture unto itself, served completely by radio," said Keith.

Contrary to the popular image of late-night radio as a haven for isolated, eccentric or troubled listeners, Keith says changing demographics point to a far more diverse audience than one might think.

"We are living in a 24-7 society, so the all-night population is expanding," he explained. "You have third-shift workers and you have two-income households, where one spouse or partner may be working past midnight. So it's not just people on the outer edges who tune in, it's also highly educated, professional people.

"Whoever they may be, they're generally looking for one thing from late-night radio: companionship. People seem more lonely then, because it's dark and so much of the world is asleep."

Unfortunately, Keith says, the 1996 federal ruling that relaxed regulation of media ownership has resulted in corporations buying up greater numbers of radio stations and using syndicated or satellite broadcasts to fill the late-night slots. Keith expresses concern that the more innovative programming which has long marked late-night radio may be in some danger.

"When you beam in a syndicated show, even if it's of impeccably professional quality, you have to ask whether by doing so you're cutting out some of the flavor and character that previously existed in live, local late-night broadcasting."

 

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