Hello Everybody!

30 01 2009

Hello Everybody! The Dawn of American Radio
By Anthony J. Rudel
Harcourt
October 2008, 320 pages, $26.00

By Derek Beres

With the very opening line—“Milford, Kansas. Population 200—not counting animals.”—you know you’re in for quite a story. Indeed, radio personality Anthony Rudel recounts a pivotal time in American culture and media, one that seems so quaint and almost ironic, given the instantaneous nature of communications today. It’s like the old man sitting on the porch steps talking about, “Remember the day when we all sat around the Victrola and listened to the Babe call out his shots …”

Nostalgic, certainly, but as goes the cyclical nature of human life and societies, so Rudel’s in-depth history of the period in American history between 1922-1941 is timely. Extremely timely, in fact. While today we have bailouts, yesteryear there was the Depression, and the parallels—economic recession, journalistic integrity and fear-mongering, governmental uncertainty, big business disguised as religious fundamentalism, a world of advertisements dictating who we are and what we need to buy—conjure images we only need to peek outside our window to witness. Before we get there, we have another starting point: goat balls.

Well, goat tissue to be exact, but Rudel begins (and nearly ends) his journey with John Romulus Brinkley, a self-appointed doctor (read: quack) who treated thousands upon thousands of men with a “deflated tire” by inserting goat tissue into their genitals. The man turned his career as an ex-Vaudville salesman into a multi-million dollar business.

He was one of radio’s early pioneers, using his charismatic and emotional voice to sell Midwestern women elixirs they didn’t know they needed to cure problems they didn’t know they had, and turned the sleepy town of Milford into a pharmaceutical wonderland … for a time. Like all good things that aren’t real (and even those that are), they must end. And so it did for Brinkley, on 26 May 1942, dying while reading his Bible. His former fortune a mere sliver of what it was, with his attempts at sidestepping American regulation by building a radio tower in Mexico eventually failing him.

This is not a story about Brinkley, though his rags-to-riches tale about a career and bank account made in radio is not unique. Rudel recalls some pretty amazing tales, like the atheist-turned-evangelical Aimee Semple McPherson, who turned a million dollar church into a national business before supposedly running away with another woman’s husband while claiming to be kidnapped in the desert. Yes, radio had a big part to play in her life, just as it did for the Scopes monkey trial, in which Tennesseans upheld (and probably still uphold) that any teaching that denies creationism is punishable by law.

Read the full review on PopMatters.

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