Sunday, August 6, 2017
Radio Girls by Sarah-Jane Stratford
Like the early days of aviation, the beginnings of radio are a bit vague with much happening in different places at approximately the same time. That said, the University of Wisconsin physics department claims the first broadcasting of voice (song actually) to a different location 100 years ago this year. That was the beginning of what we today call Wisconsin Public Radio, although regular broadcasting was sketchy at best for several years. Early this summer I found out about the nonfiction title WISCONSIN ON THE AIR which gives a retrospective look at radio in our state and also found a fiction title RADIO GIRLS which focuses on the early days of the BBC in London. Written by Sarah-Jane Stratford, RADIO GIRLS draws on both historical figures in late 1920's BBC and purely fictional characters. American-raised (Canadian born) Maisie Musgrave (fictional character) finds work as a secretary at the BBC and is soon fascinated by all aspects of this fledgling technological endeavor. Readers will probably be amazed, as I was, that early radio could NOT broadcast current news, a limitation lobbied for by the newspaper industry to protect their own monopoly, but soon the radio growth in popularity was due in part to the wide ranging people and topics that were part of the TALKS programming. This division of the BBC was led by a woman, Hilda Matheson. Stratford's portrayal of the real Matheson is just what you would expect for a norm-defying nineteen twenties woman. She out-manages all the men and seems to never tire of the challenges she faces. When Matheson becomes Maisie's boss, Hilda sees great potential in the mousy, poor girl. Within months, Maisie blossoms into not only a fledgling radio programmer, but also a bit of a spy.
I really enjoyed the technological, political and social threads of this book. We need to be reminded that other decades saw great shifts in thought and way of life. Stratford borrowed a bit of German history (Goebel's desire take over the radio stations and to bar all women from jobs) and fictionalizes it into a German led plot to infiltrate the BBC, and while this gives the book a mystery for Maisie and Hilda, I felt disappointed when I read the author's notes on what was true and what was fiction. To me, what was really happening in Great Britain at the time, including women getting the vote, was drama enough. I have to confess that I read this book as we were camping at a Canadian Provincial Park. which made finding any time to read quite low on my priority list. Uusually if I am drawn into a book, I will be able to finish it in 1-2 days no matter what, buy this book took an entire week, and I can't blame it all on vacation mode.
Since I finished RADIO GIRLS, I started the nonfiction book WISCONSIN ON THE AIR; 100 years of Public Broadcasting in the State That Invented It by Jack Mitchell. Although I have not finished the book, I already see many parallels with the early days of the BBC. In fact, one of the real BBC people in the novel has already been mentioned in the nonfiction title, as has the TALKS programming. The early rifts between broadcasting and newspapers is also evident, plus Wisconsin had an educational mission similar to the one of the BBC. I started reading WISCONSIN ON THE AIR yesterday while on our 10 hour+ drive back from Canada, and I felt I was reading faster, being more drawn into this book than the fiction one, even though this title borders on being highly academic. And while reading, I found myself switching off XM radio as soon as I could get a Wisconsin Public Radio signal!! Time for a bit of Saturday morning games, classical music, and a broadcast of the entertaining Dr. Zorba Paster. Final lesson -- other technologies have vastly changed our societies and cultures, and those new technologies were heralded as methods of great advancement, while, at the same time, feared as the downfall of intelligence and thought.