"What These People Need Is Radio": New Technology, the Press, and Otherness in 1920s America

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“The people of these towns are out of touch with the rest of the world and their chief conversation is gossip....[W]hen winter comes life means being shut in by the cold and snow. After supper is over the next three hours are dreaded ones. There is nothing to do but read the well-thumbed books and magazines or play a little stale phonograph music. Mother has exhausted her wits thinking of some entertainment that would induce the neighbors to face the cold and spend a sociable evening around the fireplace.” In the 1920s it was not uncommon to see in the daily newspaper this sort of por- trait of rural America. Often the point was not to disparage rural life— although it certainly did that—but to praise and promote a new technol- ogy, one that promised to do away with such dreariness. The journalistic heralds of the new technology diagnosed the farm’s illness and prescribed the remedy: “What these people need is radio.”1 The periodical press of the 1920s attempted to promote the value of radio for all Americans in part by focusing on how it was adopted by farm- ers, the group that could potentially benefit most from the new technology. Isolated from the urban centers and cut off from such urban-based enter- tainment as theaters and music halls, farmers were depicted by the popular press as ideally positioned to profit from what radio did best: bridge large distances and provide an abundance of information and amusement. In focusing on radio’s potential to redeem rural America, press accounts exag- gerated the shortcomings of farm life, casting the farmer as an antimodern “other” and indirectly lending support to an increasingly urban and mod- ern way of life.

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  • Randall Patnode

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