How a novel about Radio becomes a valuable resource for teaching and learning about Radio

Book Review: Radio Girls, by Sarah-Jane Stratford. New American Library, 2016.

It is rare in my 40-year career in Radio broadcasting, academic study and teaching of Radio broadcasting skills, to come across a work of fiction that in any way approaches an accurate or understanding portrayal of Radio. In Radio Girls, Sarah-Jane Stratford exhibits not only a fondness for Radio, but a deeply-researched approach to setting the story.

In 1926, Radio was facing one of its early existential threats in the United States. Competition had become so fierce that Radio station owners were looking to the White House to expand federal regulatory powers to stop operators from scurrilously changing their broadcast frequencies and effective power. They were looking for regulation, to set assigned frequencies and output powers, so their stations could be heard at set and reliable points on the dial (Hilliard, 1974).

In Canada, Radio broadcasting owners were cooperating, not for protection from each other, but to represent their common concerns in a cooperative way in government relations. In 1926, they formed the Canadian Association of Broadcasters. This was just two years before the government appointed a Royal Commission to study Radio, leading eventually to the Radio Act legislation of 1932 (Hallman, 1977).

In both Canada and the United States, Radio stations had been established to serve local markets. They were funded by advertising, and sometimes established by Radio manufacturers to create demand for their products – Berliner’s stations in the US and Rogers’ CFRB Toronto – among them.

In the UK, the early days of Radio stand in contrast. Radio was established as a public service, to serve a national audience, while reflecting regional needs. There was no commercial advertising on Radio in the UK. And there was no broadcasting of daily news allowed.

London, 1926, are our coordinates for meeting Maisie Musgrave, a young Canadian who has moved to the UK by way of New York. Despairing for her future, she answers a classified ad for a clerical position the the British Broadcasting Corporation – BBC Radio – and her world changes.

We enter Sarah-Jane Stratford’s novel Radio Girls as a reader following Maisie’s troubles and eventual adventures. But we immerse ourselves in the novel as a student of Radio. The historical references, and the real-life characters from the early BBC surround us, and connect to a near century of Radio broadcasting history, and media communications theory.

In the novel, Maisie is a foreign woman in London, escaping the life she had in the U-S with her disinterested actress mother, having never known her British father. She’s a single woman looking for work and income at a time when women are not expected to advance in an organization, and are expected to leave work when they marry a man. Gender, employment equity, representation in the workplace – all still issues in courses preparing students for work in mass media today – are full on, upfront in the novel.

So Stratford has set the table for the times in which the story unfolds. And now, the novel becomes much more than an entertaining read for someone who also loves Radio; it becomes a resource for anyone teaching or studying the history of broadcasting and modern communication.

As Maisie approaches her interview at the BBC, she is introduced to characters Stratford has named and designed around real figures in the history of BBC. John Reith, the director general, is one of the most studied and analyzed figures in British broadcast history. His portrayal in Radio Girls is consistent with what one might gather from reading texts and academic journals still in use in Media and Communication studies in the UK today.

In reality, Reith convinced a British commission in 1926 to keep BBC a publicly-funded non-commercial public service in keeping with what some historians refer to as Reithian values (Ward, 1989). Those values include some at complete odds with employment and privacy laws today: Indeed, upon meeting Maisie on her first day of work at BBC, Reith tells her there are two questions he likes to ask potential BBC employees: “Are you a Christian, and have you any character defects?”

He really did ask those questions, says Stratford in an interview recorded for my post-graduate Radio broadcasting students at Humber College in Toronto. “That’s what makes it a different time”, says Stratford, “…that you could get away with that.” Still, Reith was seen as a visionary and champion for BBC, she points out.

But the most significant and colourful character of all – next to Maisie – is the real star of the story, and indeed one of the most significant players in early Radio. Hilda Matheson is the first head of “Talks” at BBC; a woman in an influential role whose remit is to produce programming of an informational nature but nothing distasteful or controversial. Matheson is an early thinker about the big picture for Radio, and sees it as a social force and agent of change.

Matheson is brilliantly brought to life through Stratford’s research, and through occasional quotes from Matheson’s own writing. “Broadcasting”, Matheson’s prescient analysis of Radio’s social place and its future potential, published in 1933, is full of wisdom and advice that matches insights given by the brightest Radio broadcasting professors today. Her concern about whether announcers should be allowed to ad-lib, without a script pre-dates but connects with contemporary advice to announcers to sound interested in what they are saying, to say it concisely, and with meaning (Geller, 2007).

If Radio, with its power to bring live events into homes, presented an experience like never before (Scannell, 1996), Matheson recognized the possibilities and advanced the cause of Radio full-bore. In the novel, BBC director general Reith preferred “talks” that avoided controversy and would be informative without planting formative ideas. But Matheson sees “Talks” edging further toward genuine news, and in the fictional account of the introduction of a law to give women limited rights to voting, her advance knowledge of the bill through her parliamentary contacts lets Matheson have the BBC Talks department ready to go, live-to-air with a talk on the cause of getting women the right to vote. And here’s why Stratford has made Maisie a Canadian: as someone from a Commonwealth country, she explains, the character would have been eligible to vote in Britain.

In the story as in history, the BBC was at this time prevented from broadcasting “news” (Ward, 1989). That was seen as too much of a threat to the British newspaper industry. And there again is a theme for Media Studies even today. In Canada, the regulatory regime that gives listeners a choice of public or private-sector Radio is a reflection of the Aird Commission of the 1928 and its dominance by newspaper interests. In the United States, established wire services refused at one time to sell their product to broadcasters.

Matheson imagined a time when when Radio would be an essential source of news, as she wrote in Broadcasting in 1933 (p. 106) “Will broadcasting tend to become more and more the vehicle for actual news, in which its universality and the speed with which it can be diffused gives it an inherent advantage over print?”. By the 1940s, Radio was being recognized as an integral part of society for its instant and accessible broadcast of news (Lazarsfeld, 1940), (Cantril, 1947).

In the same year that Matheson’s book was published, the BBC had its brief first encounter with a female announcer in a role other than Talks or as an actor in drama. Listeners did not accept her (Lloyd, 2015) and she moved into performing in BBC Radio drama.

But if Stratford goes deep on the issues of women in the workplace, women and voting rights, and political infighting at the BBC, she also celebrates the sense of fun that pervades Radio broadcasting. Her portrayal of studio technicians and sound effects artists embraces the joy that comes from working with sound for Radio.

Maisie herself, who discovers work in Radio has her own epiphany of the joy of listening to Radio as a result:

“No wonder the wireless is becoming so popular. It’s capturing imaginations and holding them ransom” she realizes (p. 69). It is the relationship the individual listener has with Radio that makes listening so powerful (Douglas, 1999).

As if anticipating that students and their teachers might find Radio Girls so very useful, Stratford includes a Readers Guide of 11 Questions for Discussion at the end of the book, covering a range of issues including workplace equality, fear of new media and technology, political influence in media, and society’s need for rapid access to news.

Stratford may have set out to weave a good yarn about women in the early days of Radio and the development of a powerful and enduring means of communication. She has also given us much needed insight into the actual history of Radio; required reading, I think, for anyone engaged in the pursuits of teaching and learning about mass communication in society. It should be widely read by students, along with the highly-used Beyond Powerful Radio by Valerie Geller, How to Make Great Radio by David Lloyd and the writings of Douglas and Scannell.

c. Paul Cross, 2016

Cantril, H. (1947). The Invasion from Mars. In H. Newcomb, Readings in Social Psychology. New York, US: Henry Holt and Company.
Douglas, S. (1999). Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination. New York, US: Random House.
Geller, V. (2007). Beyond Powerful Radio. New York, US: Focal Press.
Hallman, E. (1977). Broadcasting in Canada. Toronto, Canada: General Publishing.
Hilliard, R. (1974). Radio Broadcasting: An Introduction to the Sound Medium. New York, US/Toronto, Canada: Hastings House/Saunders.
Lazarsfeld, P. (1940). Radio and the Printed Page: An Introduction to the Study of Radio and Its Role in the Communication of Ideas. New York, US: Duell, Sloan and Pearce.
Lloyd, D. (2015), How to Make Great Radio. London, UK: Biteback Publishing.
Matheson, Hilda (1933). Broadcasting. London, UK: Thornton Butterworth.
Scannell, P. (1996). Radio, Television and Modern Life. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.
Ward, K. (1989). Mass Communication and the Modern World. London, UK: Palgrave MacMillan.

About paulcrossradio1

I'm a professor/broadcaster/podcaster/activist/communicator/consultant and voice over artist based in Toronto, Canada. Track record of more than 30 years creating award-winning radio. Read my commentary and critique on radio, my causes and adventures; and see how my experience can work for your newsroom or organization.
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