Jazz Age Commercialism

Cliff Doerksen‘s book, American Babel: Rogue Radio Broadcasters of the Jazz Age (2005), is still here, although he is not, and I hope more of us can learn from it.

Doerksen writes about radio in the 1920s, before it was fully organized into oligopolistic national networks. Many other historians before him have been fascinated by that period, in part because it would seem to offer information about how radio could have developed differently and become a force of education, cultural uplift, and democratization. These hopes seemed to have been dashed by the triumph of commercial broadcasting in the 1930s.

As Doerksen writes, these disappointed historians see “commercialization” as

the consequence of a hostile takeover, engineered from above by corporate interests and consolidated in the face of opposition construed to have been more or less universal.” In this view, the triumph of commercialism was the “frustration” of the “will of the people (pp. 16-17).

Doerksen takes a different tack. What he finds in 1920s radio is a vital, popular commercialism that appeals to the cultural interests of its listeners rather than to the ideals of middle and upper class reformers.

Doerksen argues that “commercialism triumphed in the American airwaves because most Americans did not object to it.”

Independent broadcasters, who depended on advertising for revenue, pioneered in providing popular programming, such as jazz, that was vilified by middle and upper class observers as lower cultural forms. WHN, for example, broadcast “hot jazz” by black dance bands, led by greats such as Fletcher Henderson, rather than the “sweet jazz” performed by white bands. The WHN manager announced in 1925:

The policy of the station is not to educate the masses. Let someone else elevate them. What I want to do is entertain people and bring some frivolity into their homes (p. 51).

Doerksen argues that the commercialism of these independent stations is in part what drove them to cater to their listeners’ interests:

In pursuit of profits, these stations flooded the airwaves with popular culture fare that, under other circumstances, would likely have been far less prevalent or, in some cases, not heard at all (p. 127).

In other words, these “rogue broadcasters” disregarded “high-brow” cultural conventions and were responsive to audience demands for popular “low-brow” programs not in spite of their commercial orientation but actually because of it.

The lesson I take from Doerksen’s work is that “commercialism” is not an alien force, imposed on an innocent public by conspiring capitalists, but an element of human nature that can drive innovation, both technological and cultural.

The outcomes, like all outcomes, are both for the better and for the worse. To ignore the positive outcomes, such as the flowering of new popular cultural forms, simply because we believe that the incentive, commercialism, is crass, undermines our ability to understand our past more fully—as well as preventing us from  more accurately understanding the complex forces reshaping media industries today.

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