Radio studies is an inherently feminist endeavor. Radio was long considered too commercial, too personal, too crowded with pop music, too frivolous, too … feminine to be taken very seriously either in academia or in the culture at large. My own introductions to radio studies and feminist radio studies were one and the same. Even before returning to graduate school, I happened upon Michele Hilmes's landmark 1997 study Radio Voices through the serendipity of an Amazon search. As others have noted before me, Hilmes masterfully mixes industrial and cultural history, with a heavy emphasis on gender. In her fifth chapter, “The Disembodied Woman,” she argues that gender is a “central conflict” and formative influence in the evolution of American radio.1 Feminist radio scholars are still answering her call to tease out the complex relationships between the women who have historically composed the majority of radio's listeners and the medium's broadcasters—a historically (but not exclusively) masculine group of producers, writers, advertisers, and radio station owners.
Radio studies incorporates cultural studies, gender studies, and the aesthetic tool kit it shares with film and literary studies. Indeed, feminists’ emphasis on the importance of female-centric popular media helped make broadcasting an acceptable academic focus.2 An intrinsically intertextual approach for an intertextual medium, scholarship on radio overlaps many other branches of media inquiry, especially television. However, it is important to understand radio as its own medium. Radio preceded television by some three decades, and many of its industrial and aesthetic characteristics shaped its younger broadcast sibling's development. Radio continued to exist beyond its so-called Golden Age (generally agreed to span from the 1930s to the early 1950s), when the last American network radio dramas made the leap to television in the early 1960s. Radio remains a vibrant, international site of public debate, cultural exchange, and communication. Thus, scholars must continually reconsider what it means to discuss radio's audience and its temporality. As the definition of radio expands to include satellite and web-based broadcasts, as well as podcasting, gendered program boundaries blur and a wider range of feminist and queer representations find far-flung audiences.3
Early broadcasters courted prestige by distancing themselves from their supposedly lower-class “mass” female audiences—theoretically securely contained in the daytime hours—and emphasizing their prestigious, masculine-identified prime-time programming. This attitude dominated early radio histories focusing on the industry's development and well-known radio auteurs like Norman Corwin or Orson Welles.4 Early feminist histories of American radio focused, naturally enough, on its evolution as a commercial medium. Susan Smulyan's Selling Radio (1994) traces broadcasters’ efforts to construct and sell advertisers a coherent female audience of daytime listeners.5 The study of female-oriented radio genres began with that most reviled of institutions, the soap opera. Muriel G. Cantor and Suzanne Pingree in 1983 and Robert C. Allen in 1985 were the first to seriously investigate radio soap opera production and poetics.6 Ellen Seiter, Jennifer Hyland Wang, Sarah Murray, and others have continued this work, highlighting women's creative roles, American broadcasters’ contentious relationships with female listeners, efforts to confine women's programming to daytime hours, and ways soap operas shaped and challenged conventional gender norms.7 British scholars like Lyn Thomas continue this analysis into the present with their work on long-running BBC soaps like The Archers (1950–present).8
Expanding beyond the stereotypically feminine preserve of daytime, researchers have analyzed the transgressive potential of prime-time female comediennes like Gracie Allen.9 Allison McCracken, Jennifer Fleeger, and Matthew Murray explore the ways radio questioned, destabilized, and/or reasserted both female and male gender and sexual identities in 1930s and 1940s comedy and suspense programming.10 Kathryn Fuller-Seeley's recent history of Jack Benny's popular comedy series (1932–55) resurrects the memory of Mary Livingstone, Benny's chief stooge, and highlights the moments of sympathy between Mary, Rochester (Benny's African American butler), and female listeners.11 My own work focuses on representations of working women in post–World War II crime and adventure series.12 Eleanor Patterson highlights gender's continuing salience in collectors’ circulation of residual radio texts.13 Jason Loviglio notes the importance of female announcers’ voices to NPR's cultural work.14
More work remains to be done on American radio's troubled racial history. María Elena Cepeda and Dolores Inés Casillas's The Routledge Companion to Latina/o Media (2017) collects numerous perspectives on gendered representations and Latina audiences on modern-day US Spanish-language radio.15 In Broadcasting Freedom (1999) Barbara Savage emphasizes African American women's role in World War II–era efforts to improve racial representation.16 Kathy M. Newman highlights advertisers’ halfhearted outreach to African American audiences as white listeners decamped to television in the 1950s, noting that many commercials were designed to reach affluent white housewives possibly listening along with their Black domestics.17
As a domestic appliance, radio was a fundamentally feminine medium, but women are often missing from archival records. Feminist radio studies seeks to recover the lost stories of women working behind the scenes. In 1987 Susan Douglas's Inventing American Broadcasting, 1899–1922 began the difficult task of writing women back into American radio history, noting women like Nora Stanton Blatch, who helped her husband, Lee de Forest, develop and promote early radio technology.18 Donna Halper's Invisible Stars (2001) reviews the broad range of women whose stories have been obscured in broadcast history.19 Cynthia Meyers's work on radio advertising foregrounds the roles of women like Anne Hummert in the advertising industry, especially soap opera production, beginning in the 1930s and continuing to television.20 Amanda Keeler recently examined Judith Waller's 1940s work on NBC's educational and public service offerings.21
While American broadcast media tend to take center stage, radio is an international medium. Kate Lacey's Feminine Frequencies (1997) analyzes how women's radio programming in Weimar and Nazi Germany promoted feminine domesticity, foregrounding early female broadcasters like Carola Hersel.22 Christine Ehrick shows how gendered soundscapes interacted with 1930s to 1950s women's rights movements in Argentina and Uruguay.23 Other recent international scholarship scrutinizes female pirate radio operators in Ireland, representations of lesbian culture and feminist radio collectives on British radio, feminist radio production in Turkey, and representations of Muslim women on Australia's national broadcaster.24
Responding to the paucity of archival documents, especially from non-network sources, feminist researchers are active in groups like the Radio Preservation Task Force. A project of the Library of Congress National Recording Preservation Plan, the RPTF seeks to identify, preserve, and encourage the use of endangered radio collections. The RPTF's Gender and Sexuality Caucus is currently working to connect researchers and teachers with hidden archival gems. The Radio Scholarly Interest Group within the Society for Cinema and Media Studies is another important meeting place for US-based radio academics, and groups like the UK-based Radio Studies Network hold annual conferences. Feminist radio work appears consistently in journals like the Historical Journal of Film, Radio, and Television, the Journal of Radio and Audio Media, and the internationally focused Radio Journal, though it is not their central focus.
Despite these advances, feminist radio studies still has a niche status in American universities. Radio researchers are distributed throughout media and cultural studies disciplines, and radio is too often regarded as an afterthought in historical and media scholarship, rather than an integral part of the industrial and ideological media ecosystem.25 Interesting interventions might include analyses of the way radio adaptations and promotions domesticated and feminized masculine-coded high-culture texts. Scholars focusing on prime-time radio genres and aesthetics still fall into the same gendered taste hierarchies as early broadcasters and media studies scholarship, prioritizing male auteurs and canonical texts like Welles's War of the Worlds (1938) over more popular, mass-audience texts. This focus ignores gender's central role in shaping such hierarchies, which are being replicated on new formats like podcasting.26 It further misses valuable opportunities to analyze the ways women and men might have interacted with the range of radio messages and ignores the larger feminized domestic environment in which listeners encountered such programs.