This story was published in Radio Recall, the journal of the Metropolitan Washington Old-Time Radio Club, published six times per year.
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Red Channels: The Bible of Blacklisting by Jason Hill
(Bear Manor Media 2016) Softback, 286 pgs.
Reviewed by Ryan Ellett © 2016
(From Radio Recall, October 2016)
The McCarthy-era accusations of Communist sympathies and allegiances was a dark time in broadcasting history and a working knowledge of the events is extremely helpful in developing a broader understanding the post-war years of radio. Not having ever read one of the numerous volumes dedicated to this topic, it was with considerable interest that I cracked open Jason Hill's most recent volume, Red Channels.
Hill's book focuses strictly on "Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television," published in 1950 by American Business Consultants. Chapters one through ten focus on individuals, organizations, and documents that claimed, hinted, or vaguely insinuated that certain men, women, and groups were actively or at least passively supporting Communist movements in the United States. Some of these "instigators" include Ted Kirkpatrick, Ken Bierly, John Keenan, the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee, and the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee.
Chapters 11 through 38 focus on some of the 151 individuals named in the Red Channels publication who subsequently had their careers damaged if not ruined. Among those Hill profiles are lreene Wicker, William N. Robson, and Howard Duff. The final part examines John Henry Faulk's libel suit against Aware, Inc., an organization that "cleared" individuals accused of Communist leanings.
For readers interested in a brief, easy-to-read overview of the early-1950s Blacklist era, Red Channels fits the bill. The language is conversational and avoids the wordy and dense style favored by more academic-oriented authors. The volume lacks a strictly linear structure, allowing the reader to skip around and read in the order of one's own choosing. Its real strength is comments and insights gleaned by Hill from numerous interviews and correspondence with victims over the years.
With that being said, I do have some caveats for potential readers. First, Hill's writing style is very informal, using a lot of first-person comments and inserting personal opinions. This can be jarring if one is not used to reading these types of texts. Second, Red Channels profiles many professionals outside the world of radio, so many of the profiles may be of limited interest to those interested primarily in radio professionals. Finally, its segmented nature makes the book unsuitable as a single-volume reference for radio during the Blacklisting period. By necessity, the author leaves out a lot of social and political background that would be necessary for a thorough understanding of the Blacklist.
There is no doubt the work has value for its snapshots of so many, both responsible for and harmed by the Communist hysteria of the early 1950s. At $24.95 the price is certainly reasonable for a 286-page soft-cover book and Bear Manor's books seem durable and hold up over the years. For most old-time radio fans the volume may not be a must have, but for those with a real interest in the topic it surely offers some unique insights and perspectives. Because so many areas of popular entertainment were impacted by anti-Communist attacks, libraries would likely find many readers interested in borrowing the work.
Ryan Ellett is an OTR historian in Lawrence, KS. One of his recent books is "Encyclopedia of Black Radio in the United States, 1921-1955" (McFarland, 2012)