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Radio Reads: Books Capture The Essence Of The Dial

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Radio Reads: Books Capture The Essence Of The Dial

Radio Reads: Books Capture The Essence Of The Dial

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Madeleine Brand.


I'm Robert Siegel.

And it's time now for another installment of our Three Books series. Today, critic Troy Patterson has a few recommendations for all you radio lovers out there.

TROY PATTERSON (TV Critic, If you listen to radio, you know it's an intimate medium. The media theorist Marshall McLuhan once said: I live right inside the radio when I listen. As someone who spends his workdays at home alone, I know this all too well.

No offense to my cat, but the radio is an essential companion. If you've ever known this feeling, even for a moment, then these three books might be on your wavelength.

In "Big Beat Heat," his biography of the pioneering D.J. Alan Freed, author John A. Jackson combines an inside showbiz yarn with a study of integration on the Billboard charts. It was rumored that Freed single-handedly created 1950s culture, invented the term rock 'n' roll, and broke racial barriers as if he were the Branch Rickey of the turntable.

In fact, Freed, also a concert promoter and always a self-promoter, rumored all this himself. What Freed did was to introduce Chuck Berry and other future greats to a mass audience. Ruined in the payola scandal of 1960, he was dead of cirrhosis five years later. The story of his life is partly a hero's hep journey, partly a cautionary tale with a dance beat.

Surveying the airwaves of the 1930s and '40s, Gerald Nachman's "Raised on Radio" presents a lively history of the medium's golden age. Nachman pays tribute to the Lone Ranger like he's a mask-wearing member of the fan club. But elsewhere, in his role as the detached cultural critic, he captures the blase essence of Jack Benny, described as an anticomedian who used silences to compel attention.

Benny is one of the book's two big heroes, the other being Edward R. Murrow. He stands out as a newsman whose delivery seemed the antithesis of showiness on account of his short, slow, quiet, understated sentences.

There's nothing understated about London during the Blitz. In her novel "Human Voices," Penelope Fitzgerald uses the BBC's wartime programming as the inspiration for a darkly droll tale. Broadcasting while bombs fell on a blacked-out city, the Beeb delivered news, relayed defense instructions, and tended to the national soul.

The book's best scenes convey an atmosphere of hectic improvisation, as when an employee preemptively pulls the plug on a hysterical French general. The ensuing 10-minute stretch of silence is far preferable to the old soldier's demoralizing cry: German victory was inevitable.

"Human Voices" itself, in common with "Big Beat Heat" and "Raised on Radio," comes through live and direct, loud and clear. We live inside the radio when we listen, and radio springs to life when we read these three books. Tune into any of them for keen commentary, muscular storytelling, and the fine sound of a distinctive voice.

SIEGEL: That was critic Troy Patterson. His three books are "Big Beat Heat," by John A. Jackson; "Raised on Radio," by Gerald Nachman; and "Human Voices," by Penelope Fitzgerald.

For more Three Books recommendations, you can go to our Web site,

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