Review of Tona Hangen's Redeeming the Dial: Radio, Religion, and Popular Culture in America

Culture Watch

Mr. Heineman, Professor of History at Ohio University-Lancaster, is the author of four books, including A Catholic New Deal: Religion and Reform in Depression Pittsburgh (Penn State Press) and Put Your Bodies Upon the Wheels: Student Revolt in the 1960s (Ivan R. Dee). He runs the Heineman Blog on HNN.

In Redeeming the Dial: Radio, Religion, and Popular Culture in America, Tona Hangen has written an informed, engaging work of history. Hangen's writing style is evocative and her command of archival materials and the secondary literature worthy of praise. It is pure delight to come across a scholar who supports contentions with data, understands context, and writes with clarity and grace. Even more remarkable, she is able to make sense of the frequently convoluted scholarly literature on mass communication and audience reception and reconfiguration of broadcast messages. To make Frederic Jameson comprehensible to an ordinary college-educated reader is no small accomplishment.

Hangen sets out to study the origins and evolution of religious radio broadcasting from the 1920s through the 1950s. She is particularly interested in the audiences for such programming, the content of broadcasts, and the behind-the-scenes commercial and political pressures that shaped religious broadcasting. Hangen concludes that the apolitical religious broadcasting of an earlier era planted the seeds for what sociologists and political scientists have called the "New Christian Right."


In the 20th century few members of the cosmopolitan elite, let alone the Mainline Protestant leadership, anticipated that fundamentalist and evangelical religious enthusiasm would survive the Scopes Monkey Trial and the seemingly inexorable secularization of the public square. The assumption, as Hangen puts it, was "that with the growth of modern society and the separation of churches from the structures of political power, society in general would become more secular, religion would fade away, or it would become completely privatized." The rise, persistence, and growing reach of morally conservative evangelical and fundamentalist religious broadcasting flummoxed learned commentators. It also put the fear of God (or at least fear of fiscal insolvency) into Mainline Protestant leaders who disliked competition from theologically suspect clerics.

Given that there were only so many broadcast frequencies available, competition for airtime was going to be keen. The Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America, with a largely comfortable constituency of Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and the like, expected free airtime in the wake of the Radio Act of 1927. Having a New York office enabled the Federal Council to lobby NBC headquarters and subsequently demonstrate that proximity to power is power. And so it came to be that the Federal Council and the NBC radio network in 1928 worked out a series of guidelines for religious broadcasting.

Each of the three major "great religious faiths," as NBC and the Federal Council decreed-Catholic, Protestant, and Jew-would receive free airtime, eschew politics, and not bash each other's faiths. As it became quickly evident, the guidelines often meant that Baptists and Pentecostals would have more socially liberal Presbyterians representing the legitimate Protestant voice in America.

The game that commenced for the next few decades pitted Federal Council representatives who usually opposed selling airtime to "hucksters," and fundamentalists and Pentecostals who wanted to purchase airtime. "By 1948," Hangen writes, there were over 1,600 "fundamentalist programs" broadcast weekly, with two-thirds of their airtime having been purchased. Presbyterians and Methodists only bought a third of their airtime and "70 percent of Roman Catholic airtime was free." Given the workings of free-market competition, it is not surprising that even though radio executives may have supped at the table of Mainline respectability, they preferred Pentecostals who picked up their own tab.


One of the most important lessons religious broadcasters of all stripes learned in the 1930s was not to emulate the example of Royal Oak, Michigan, "radio priest" Father Charles Coughlin. Initially, Coughlin had embraced the Papal encyclicals of Leo XIII and Pius XI on social justice and saw the New Deal as means by which to implement the moral and economic reconstruction of Depression-ravaged America. Coughlin, however, turned against Franklin Roosevelt, became stridently anti-Semitic, and nearly discredited all clerical broadcasters. As Hangen perceptively and eloquently put it, "Marshall Fishwick has called Father Coughlin 'the rock on which the radio church was built.' It may be more accurate to think of Coughlin as the rock on which the optimistically launched radio church was very nearly shipwrecked."

I cannot recall many authors of doctoral dissertations who have appreciated the importance of style in getting their points across. Hangen is one of the few academics that understand how to set an evocative scene--whether the action takes place on the mean streets of 1920s Chicago or an isolated farmhouse in 1950s Montana. Take, for instance, the backdrop Hangen presents for the Moody Church tabernacle and prizefighter-turned-preacher Paul Rader in 1920:

Tucking his flute case under his arm, Dutch immigrant Andrew Wyzenbeek crossed the street where busy LaSalle Avenue met North Avenue in downtown Chicago. Joining a stream of people, including daytrippers who came by train from as far away as Hammond, Indiana, he heard the band warming up inside the wooden Moody Church tabernacle. And there on the doorstep, pumping visitors' hands and swabbing the back of his thick neck with his white handkerchief, stood Paul Rader.


If Paul Rader, as Hangen concludes so poignantly, died in near poverty an idealist and influential mentor to the end, the fates had something else in store for Aimee Semple McPherson. With McPherson, Hangen tells a more familiar story quite well. The Los Angeles evangelist stood out among her peers for being a woman, a dramatist without peer, and a cleric who attracted national publicity--not all of it good. McPherson rallied impoverished Okie and Arkie migrants to her side, broadcast action serials such as "The Adventures of Jim Trask-Lone Evangelist," and survived a sex scandal. Appropriately, the photograph Hangen includes of McPherson shows the evangelist's head lit up with a halo so eye searing that its likes would not be seen again until Bill Clinton's 1993 presidential inauguration.

McPherson had a knack for responding to critics. In 1927, for instance, after U.S. Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover criticized her for "wandering" beyond her own assigned radio wavelength, McPherson fired back with a telegram: "Please order your minions of Satan to leave my station alone." Franklin Roosevelt could not have put it better. Inevitably, McPherson attracted the attention of journalist scofflaw H. L. Mencken in 1928, truly a sign that she had arrived:

She was attracted to Los Angeles it appears, by the climate. The Bible Belt was sending a steady stream of its rheumatic mortgage-sharks in that direction, and she simply followed. The rest, as everybody knows, was a swift and roaring success. The town had more morons in it than the whole State of Mississippi, and thousands of them have nothing to do save gape at the movie dignitaries and go to revivals.

Hangen includes fascinating discussions of Charles Fuller and Billy Graham, as well as relates the efforts of evangelists to broaden their appeal after World War II. She includes useful specific data as well, noting, for example, that a 1938 survey of the Kansas radio audience showed that 80 to 90 percent of people living in small towns owned a radio as did 68 percent of farm families (11-12). Beyond documenting the broadcasting reach and demographic composition of the audience for religious radio, Hangen puts a face on the statistics. Thus we learn that Dolly Parton's grandfather was a Pentecostal minister and that she made the transition from gospel to country music. (The parallel black trajectory, of course, was from gospel to blues and rock and roll.)

One of the most gratifying aspects of Redeeming the Dial is that Hangen has read widely in the classic and current secondary literature. Her portrait of McPherson is well informed by close readings of Dan Morgan's Rising in the West and Lisa McGirr's Suburban Warriors. Moreover, she uses Thomas Reeves's too-often-overlooked book on the woes of Mainline Protestantism, Empty Church, to great effect. Drawing upon Reeves, Hangen explains the significance behind the FCC's 1960 policy to eliminate "incentives" for stations to give free airtime to religious broadcasters. Doctrinal liberals, who appeared unwilling or unable to pay for their airtime, largely abandoned the stage to more conservative religious radio (and television) preachers. (152-153)

With its attention to detail, solid evidence, and compelling writing, Redeeming the Dial is required reading for anyone interested in American religion, radio broadcasting, and the roots of contemporary moral politics. If there were one thing I would have wished for it would have been for a longer book that might have included Billy Graham's and Martin Luther King, Jr.'s crusade against immoral rock and roll music broadcasts, as well as a discussion of how Southern Baptist and Pentecostal ministers in the 1950s and early 1960s dealt with the emerging civil rights revolution. Given the necessity for a sharp focus, pursuing those topics might be best left to another book. I am hoping Hangen considers that a possible subject worthy of her considerable skills.

Copyright (c) 2002 by ConservativeNet, all rights reserved.

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More Comments:

Ken Heineman - 5/22/2003

Try the Harvard directory--visiting faculty.

Jim Hilliker - 5/5/2003

Is ther an email address for Tona Hangen? Would like to know as soon as possible.,

Jim Hilliker
Monterey, CA

Ken Heineman - 4/21/2003

Regarding the McPherson-Hoover incident, I am merely reciting what Dr. Hangen wrote. Your query should be directed to her or her fine book.

Jim Hilliker - 4/6/2003

Does Heineman have proof of what year the incident bewtween McPherson and Hoover took place in 1927?? Sources? I've seen dates for this supposed incident of 1924 and 1925, also. So far, no articles found in L.A. newspapers of the 1920s about this and KFSG was never taken off the air.

Jim Hilliker
Los Angeles radio historian