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Radio Days on America's Home Front

Gerd Horten on how 'soaps' helped win the war after Pearl Harbor.

When the United States finally joined the Allies in their war against the Axis powers in the winter of 1941, the American media immediately directed its efforts towards the creation of a 'wartime culture': one permeated by propaganda and subordinated to the primary goal of uniting the country and winning the war. Both Hollywood and the broadcasting industry became compliant and eager participants in the struggle, and in general succeeded both in gaining support for the sacrifices required and in explaining some of the intricacies of the world conflict in simple, everyday language.

Radio was the primary medium in the United States during the Second World War. In the early 1940s, 90 per cent of American families owned at least one radio set and listened to an average three to four hours of broadcasting a day. The most popular prime-time shows attracted approximately 30 million listeners (out of a total population of about 150 million); they were surpassed only by Franklin D. Roosevelt's 'fireside chats', most of which drew up to half of the population to their radios. Even minor network shows had several million listeners. To avoid cancellation, soap operas had to garner at least 4 million listeners daily.

Radio emerged as the central wartime propaganda vehicle partly because it provided a daily and continuous link with large segments of the populace. The other reason was that it had a regular and predictable schedule, which allowed for long-term planning. As a result, this predictability of radio programming enabled American propagandists to distribute their messages evenly, creating a constant flow of propaganda frequently integrated within, or sandwiched between, the country's favourite entertainment programme.

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