Listening, Educational Radio, and the Creation of the Modern Self in the Twentieth Century

Brian C. GregoryGregory Brian
Teachers College, Columbia University

The link between early film education and the foundations of the media literacy movement in the early twentieth century have been well documented by scholars. As this presentation will elucidate, there was also a concurrent movement to teach listening to students in American schools. This research builds off recent work from the interdisciplinary field of Sound Studies and the idea that listening and vision were both part and parcel to the creation of the modern self. It will demonstrate how a group of progressive educators in America sought to use the radio, an aural technology, to teach students to become more critical listeners, which would prepare them for the changing American democracy and help resurrect a bygone aural culture in America.

As radio historians, including Erik Barnouw, Robert McChesney, and Susan Smulyan have shown, educators at local radio stations in the U.S. were critical of the influence of the commercial radio networks on the minds and ears of America’s young. Local broadcasters, such as Harold McCarty, the head of the Wisconsin School of the Air in Madison, attempted to incorporate instructional methods into programming that would allow young people to learn about and analyze programming on commercial radio. In the 1930s, stations at the local level sent textbooks to schools and encouraged teachers to get young people to actively participate during broadcasts. By the 1940s, students in classrooms were producing their own radio broadcasts in order to learn from and critique commercial fare. This presentation will conclude with a discussion of studies in the mid-twentieth century that examined the effectiveness of listening instruction on educational radio programs as well as whether this research can be used to broaden our theoretical understanding of media literacy and its potential applications in schools.

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