Historicizing American Broadcasting: Why Radio and Television Should Matter to Historians
This panel asks how key issues in U.S. history look different if broadcasting is placed at the center of historical inquiry. While historians long have recognized the importance of radio and television to myriad developments across the twentieth century, media texts in this scholarship frequently function as adjuncts to or reflections of broader historical processes. The papers in this panel thus seek not only to reframe key moments in American history by making broadcasting history central, rather than peripheral, to their narratives, but they model how the importing of media studies methods—which include examinations of production histories, textual strategies, and reception practices—can be productive for the writing of cultural and political history.
Michele Hilmes’ paper excavates The Man Who Went to War, a radio broadcast scripted by Langston Hughes and commissioned by the BBC during World War II. Hilmes both demonstrates how this text offered a transnational construction of democracy that was anchored in assertions of racial equality, and situates the broadcast with a broader history of economic and cultural exchange. In addition, in centering her analysis on this broadcast, the access to which recently has been enabled through digital media, Hilmes uses The Man Who Went to War to model how historians can approach and utilize the “discovery” of long-lost texts in their practice. Aniko Bodroghkozy’s paper resituates the JFK assassination as a media event. Given that, for most Americans, the experience of the assassination was defined by television, Bodroghkozy argues that our understanding of how it mattered is inseparable from the images and narratives that circulated during Black Weekend, the four-day period between the assassination and the funeral. Interrogating both the textual practices and audience responses to this coverage, this paper illustrates how television history was at the center of this moment of national trauma. Finally, Heather Hendershot interrogates the role of William F. Buckley’s television series Firing Line in the development of American conservatism. The Firing Line, as Hendershot illustrates, provides a bridge to two competing interpretations of the expansion of the Right, as alternately the fruits of grassroots mobilization or the translation of conservative ideas into policy practices. By reimagining the history of the Right as television history, Hendershot’s analysis complicates and complements existing origin narratives of the expansion of American conservatism in the 1970s and 1980s.
By focusing on the intersections between broadcasting and the construction of democratic polities (Hilmes), the crisis of political assassination (Bodroghkozy), and the expansion of American conservatism (Hendershot), this panel demonstrates how radio and television history have been constitutive parts of American political development. In addition, by investigating a transnational one-off production (Hilmes), live coverage of a collective trauma (Bodroghkozy), and a recurring public affairs program (Hendershot), this panel underlines not only the diverse functions and formats of radio and television, but the attending strategies required to make sense of their role within American political and cultural life. Accordingly, this session should be of interest to U.S. political, social and cultural historians.