Impact of Radio & Television on the Humanities

Instructor: David White
Few things have changed the humanities quite like the introduction of radio and television into our social world. Through this lesson, you will explore how radio and television have influenced and changed the ways that people interpret and reflect the world around them.

Interpreting Life

Think about all the things that have helped you to shape an understanding of the world around you. For example, where did you learn about people of other races and nationalities? How about the political system or religious composition of your country? You probably learned some of this from families, in school, or from talking to other people, but there's a very good chance that much of what you know about the world came from radio and television.

In an academic context, the study, interpretation, and documentation of society and culture are referred to as the humanities. Rather than being a single field, the humanities is a broad category that includes arts and creative expression, history, language, religious studies, and many other fields. Very often, these fields overlap or intersect in different ways, but they have all been profoundly affected by the introduction of radio and television into the social sphere.

Towards the end of the 19th century, the telegraph and eventually the telephone dramatically expanded communication across great distances, but their use was also limited and tended to be reserved for important or time sensitive information. Given that, much of the information that people received during this time came in the form of personal letters, newspapers, and books. Whether accurate or inaccurate, these formats shaped the ways that individuals interpreted and understood the world around them.

The telegraph allowed information to be transmitted over long distances, but it was slow and required messages to be tapped out by hand.

The Birth of Radio

Attempting to create a wireless alternative to the telegraph and telephone, Canadian inventor Reginald Fessenden was the first person to transmit his own voice across radio waves in the early years of the 20th century, though it was only heard by his assistant. Unlike other types of communication technologies at the time, which were designed for two-way communication, Fessenden's transmission is referred to as a broadcast because it is a one-way communication that is intended for a large audience.

Reginald Fessenden, c. 1910.

Fessenden's subsequent broadcasts, starting in 1906, were heard by a larger audience of ships off of the MA coast and included singing, playing the violin, and reading from the bible. A few years later, in 1910, radio broadcasts began reaching larger audiences when a broadcast of concert music was transmitted from San Jose, CA to the Santa Clara Valley.

Try to place yourself into the shoes of someone living in 1910. It's possible that you had heard of concert music, but you certainly couldn't afford to spend your wages on phonograph records so you had to trust what other people told you about this type of music. Indeed, it's hard to imagine that there was ever a time when people didn't know what seemingly ordinary things sounded like, but this was the case prior to radio.

Radio as Cultural Engagement

Until the 20th century, many people around the world lived in what can be referred to as a mostly closed social system. This means that they were relatively isolated and rarely engaged with the larger world around them. As a result, information was shared between members of the community who had no way of knowing whether or not what they were hearing was true. This all changed with the introduction of radio.

Throughout the first have of the 20th century, radio became a primary source of news, information, and entertainment. For the first time, people experienced the music and culture of people unlike them, heard new stories and radio dramas, and bonded with their nation over news reports during times of war. In the broadest sense, radio tore down the barriers and opened up vast new worlds that challenged and educated.

The Arrival of Television

Throughout the first half of the century, radio and film offered individuals a glimpse into worlds and cultures that existed far outside of their own, but by the 1950s their success was disrupted by the introduction of television.

Television brought visual communication into American

Radio was able to provide audio descriptions of things like art, or transmit music, but television added the very important visual element. Now, viewers didn't just get descriptions of things, they got to see first-hand performances of dance, drama, and comedy. Moreover, television provided visual tours of other countries. Ordinary Americans, for example, had seen pictures and heard descriptions of places like Europe, but television allowed them to travel the streets of Rome and Paris from the comfort of their living rooms.

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