Can a Radio Program Change the World?

It’s a question that has been asked about movies (see Phillip Martin, The NY Times, Film Section, “Shaking Up The World or Shaped by It?”, Feb 2, 1997), and most recently in this space (see Larry Hott's previous essay, Can Documentaries Change the World?”) in regard film documentaries. There’s no doubt that movies and film of all sort are powerful. But it’s hard to find one that actually changed events. Most add force to a tide already turning. Could the same conclusion be made about radio? In the age of mp3 players, flash recorders and iPods, radio today seems like a throwback to the Jurassic era of communication. Anyone born after the mid-20th century cannot possibly comprehend radio’s impact on music, on the ways that world cultures talk to one another, on our scramble of ideologies, on civil rights, on our way of dressing, dancing and processing. But the question posed here—can a radio program change the world?—presents a much greater challenge than merely trying to ascertain that medium’s influence.

 To this query, radio buffs will instinctively turn the pages of history to the year 1938 as the director Orson Welles flicked the switch to a microphone at the Mercury Theater to begin narrating a 60 minute CBS radio network program unlike any ever heard on that infant medium. In the minds of many among an estimated 6 million Americans tuned into the Halloween night broadcast, a war had begun. With no pictures, video or instant Google search to prove otherwise, an unknown number of Americans are reported to have poured onto rural roads and city streets and into small town social centers to escape the invasion from Mars described in “War of the Worlds”. But as traumatic and jaw-dropping an episode as this was, its impact in altering the world is arguably negligible. Radio was already on the ascent and there is nothing to suggest that war, peace, economics, race relations, class tensions or any other major social factor in the country was affected by the controversial broadcast, albeit that Adolph Hitler cited it as evidence of America’s decadence.

“Negligible impact” is not a term that applied to another series of broadcasts of that era, namely the radio programs of Father Charles Edward Coughlin, a rabid anti-communist and anti-Semite.

During the 1930s, he took to the airwaves of WJR in Detroit and the CBS radio network, delivering weekly speechs that reached more than forty million listeners. His early support for The New Deal, many believe, helped push it into law. And his later embrace of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy solidified anti-Jewish sentiment throughout the United States. On December 18, 1938, several thousand of Father Coughlin’s supporters took to the streets to protest a potential change in law allowing more Jews to settle in the US. Couglin’s influence on public opinion is believed to have resulted in leaving many desperate Jews stranded in Europe as fascism spread across the continent. The priest, radio announcer and politician exhorted crowds to “Send Jews back where they came from in leaky boats!” and warned “Wait until Hitler comes over here!” To Nazi Germany and its Chancellor, Father Coughlin was a hero. It is also a matter of debate as to the extent of Coughlin’s influence in delaying the U.S. entry into the European theatre, but his anti-interventionist stance certainly had a major impact on public opion, which in turn affected political decisions in Congress. Coughlin had a significant following in Washington up until the moment radio stations began dropping his programs toward the end of the 1930’s.

Radio’s impact on history might also be measured by the famous broadcasts from Europe by Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite in the months and years leading up to World War II and throughout the long campaign. Like many war correspondents of that period, Murrow and Cronkite not only reported but reported in ways meant to lift the spirits of their audience, and, thus, influencing how the nation itself responded to a war that did not always turn in the Allies favor. Despite the slants and conventions that seeped into their reporting, Murrow and Cronkite, and others members of the CBS news team (Eric Sevareid, Ed Bliss and Alex Kendrick, William Shirer) were seen as “serious” radio journalists. But equally powerful in affecting morale and the course of battles (not necessarily the war), were the propaganda broadcasts of Tokyo Rose (a composite of several women) in Asia and Lord Haw-Haw and Axis Sally in Europe. There is no hard proof that any of these broadcasters and their broadcasts changed the trajectory of war, but commentators, from Walter Lippmann to Noam Chomsky, have concluded that news and propaganda broadcast are instrumental both in “manufacturing consent” and in fomenting rebellion. Radio Free Europe, for example, is cited as a critical player in inciting the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, which inarguably was a world altering event inspite of its failure.

For many decades after World War Two and the early Cold War radio continued to be pivotal in shaping not only what we think, but also how we think, especially in developing countries not yet dominated by television.

One of the clearest examples of this was the influence of “hate radio” in Rwanda. The events from April to July 1994 in that east African nation helped shaped world history in clear and tragic ways. Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) was the principal instrument in mobilizing right-wing Hutu civilians to carry out the genocide of that nation’s Tutsi minority and moderate Hutu citizens. The mass killings took place as the United States, France, Belgium and the rest of the world watched. The genocide had a profound effect on creating more expedient international tribunals and heightened world awareness about genocide a decade later in Darfur, though the world also did little to prevent that tragedy.


There’s no question that radio’s greatest impact has been in the establishment of cultural trends. As the Big Band era receded into the background, white rock and rollers emerged in the 1950s with a brand of music lifted from the playbook (often literally) of black R&B artists from an earlier decade. This emerging youth culture was viewed as iconoclastic against the background of post-war conservatism that favored buttoned-down suits, J. Edgar Hoover, Ozzie and Harriet, and in an atmosphere of fervent anti-communism. “Race music” began to permeate the radio airwaves performed by white entertainers like Elvis Presley. It would not be long before America’s Cold War cultural paradigm shifted from early rock ‘n roll to the sounds of the Beatles and later Motown, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. But these trends were part of a larger shift in American society. And though radio pushed the music along, radio executives were merely following counter-cultural changes in society. They did not create them.


 As in the instances of Nazi Germany, Rwanda and later Serbia, radio played a major role in manufacturing consent and marching nations—and in some cases–the world, to war. But radio has also been a force for good. While millions of Americans watched the 1963 March on Washington on black and white television, millions more people around the world heard it on radio. This is significant. The broadcast on public radio of the 1963 march swayed tens of thousands in the U.S.

But it was heard by tens of millions the world over via the BBC, the Voice of America and other powerful radio entities. The calls for freedom and for an end to racial segregation in the United States were also picked up by people living behind the “Iron Curtain”, as it was called. To many ears hearing about the realities of violent racism and institutionalized repression in the American South (and parts of the North) sounded like a major contradiction. The United States government after all celebrated freedom via Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty and the VOA. Intervision, the Soviet Network and the Soviet News Agency, Tass, dedicated as much coverage to the March on Washington as they devoted to the Soviet manned space flights. This proved to be embarrassing to Washington, which was beaming programming into the homes of Eastern Europeans bemoaning the lack of freedom in the Soviet sphere of influence. The late Gerald Gill, a former professor of Civil Rights history at Tufts University, said international pressure was significant.

“One can’t divorce the nature of the Kennedy Administration’s foreign policy from the nature of its support for civil rights and its begrudging support for civil rights in the context of international events of that particular time.” The Civil Rights Act was signed in 1964, following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and after many months of civil rights demonstrations and violence against activists, which were reported around the world via radio.


Radio has come a long way from the fireside chats of the 1930s that helped Roosevelt seal his New Deal and changed the course of American history from Depression to recovery. Today radio is a lot less powerful. It competes against a myriad of media, and no single one has the full attention of the public either in the US or abroad. Radio is also more diffused; it is not only FM and AM, analog and digital, but also satellite and internet, “public” radio and commercial right-wing talk. One would be hard pressed to know how any single radio program today—NPR’s Morning Edition or Clear Channel’s Michael Savage Show—has altered the course of history or world events, but it’s not for a lack of trying. Rush Limbaugh, the bombastic right-winger, who many believe has become the voice of the modern-day Republican Party, sought desperately to parlay his mass audience into a force that affected the outcome of the 2008 historic U.S. national election campaign. First he called on millions of his listeners to support Senator Hillary Clinton during the primary campaign in the hope of pitting her against Republican Senator John McCain. He failed. Most recently Limbaugh has been militating on-air against the policies of President Barrack Obama and against the President himself. But polls results show that while he supposedly commands an audience of upwards of 20 million listeners, he has received little traction in achieving his goals. Instead, the Republican Party has gone from being just out of power to being wildly unpopular. But even Rush Limbaugh can not be credited with that historical shift, which took place over the past ten years. That bit of history is seen as the public’s reaction to the policies of President George W. Bush. Right wing radio, in this regard, simply added force to a tide, for Republicans, that had already turned for the worse.

Author: Phillip Martin

Share This Post On

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Sign up for our daily newsletter!

You don't want to be left out, do you?

Sign up!

You have Successfully Subscribed!