Donna Halper arrived on the campus of Northeastern University in the fall of 1964, determined to be a disc jockey at WNEU, the university’s closed-circuit radio station. “I was told, ‘We don’t put girls on the air,’” she says. “That was not the answer I had expected.” But Halper was used to being an outsider, having grown up as the only Jewish kid in her Roslindale neighborhood. She persisted, and finally got her own show in 1968.
Now, after more than 30 years of working in radio (her consulting business is on the Web at www.donnahalper.com) and teaching broadcasting at Emerson College, Halper has written a book. Invisible Stars: A Social History of Women in American Broadcasting (M.E. Sharpe, 331 pages, $39.95) pays tribute, she says, to the women who came before her in an industry that has never been particularly accepting of women.
If Invisible Stars has a central character, it is Eunice Randall, who grew up in Mattapoisett and who, in 1918, was hired by the American Radio and Research Company to do technical drawings for engineers. The company also operated a radio station known as 1XE (later a commercial station, WGI), in Medford. Soon Randall — later Eunice Randall Thompson — was doing everything from building radio equipment to volunteering as an announcer to climbing the station’s tower and repairing the antenna. She stayed active in ham radio into the 1960s.
In researching Invisible Stars, Halper learned that women were welcome in radio in the 1920s, when the amateur ethic prevailed and there wasn’t much money to be made. But as the decade drew to a close and the medium became more commercial, women were cast aside, or ghettoized on women’s shows.
Yet Halper argues that, in a sense, things are actually worse today. The women’s shows may have emphasized domestic bliss, she says, but they also served as “an electronic community” where topics such as feminism (before it was even a word), birth control, and greater involvement in public life could be discussed. “It wasn’t all recipes,” she says.
Since the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, though, most of the country’s 10,000 radio stations have fallen into the hands of just a few giant media conglomerates, resulting in the loss of scores of jobs. These days, Halper notes, smaller markets may not have a single locally based radio station; programming frequently pipes in by satellite from a distant headquarters. “Before, you were channeled into the women’s shows,” she says. “Today you’re just not hired. And that worries me.”
As Halper notes in Invisible Stars, there is one bright spot for women in radio: National Public Radio, whose most popular and respected news personalities are women such as Linda Wertheimer, Nina Totenberg, and Susan Stamberg. NPR even has its own female hack purveyor of conventional wisdom (my characterization, not Halper’s), Cokie Roberts, showing that women can equal men in mediocrity as well as excellence.
And though Halper laments the devolution of commercial radio into “shock and vulgarity,” she retains a nostalgic affection for the medium. “I was a very lonely kid, and radio was my companion,” she says. “Those DJs were my friends. And while other girls might have dreamed about marrying them, I dreamed about being one of them.”
Two cheers for the Supreme Court. On the face of it, last week’s decision in New York Times v. Tasini that publishers can’t resell freelancers’ work to electronic databases such as Lexis-Nexis without the authors’ permission seems like an affirmation of truth, justice, and the American way.
But not so fast. On the one hand, it’s a well-established principle that freelancers should be paid when their work is resold. On the other, removing freelance work from electronic databases damages the historical record, makes it difficult to do research, and, arguably, harms freelancers by making their work less available and thus making it more difficult for them to build a reputation.
The National Writers Union and the publishers should come to some sort of negotiated agreement that benefits everyone. In the meantime, though, here are two recommended pieces of reading.
The first is an essay in the current issue of the New Republic by legal-affairs editor Jeffrey Rosen, who argues that the Court majority misunderstood copyright law, and that republishing material on the Web, on CD-ROMs, and in databases shouldn’t even be considered a copyright violation. Under the guise of protecting authors, Rosen writes, copyright laws have been expanded mainly to benefit corporations such as Disney, whose cartoon characters would otherwise have entered the public domain.
The second was written by left-liberal pundit Eric Alterman for MSNBC.com (go to www.msnbc.com/news/592179.asp). Though Alterman predictably (and not without justification) rips “corporate moguls trying to squeeze a few pennies out of these writers,” he also suggests that the freelancers’ victory may cost more than it’s worth. The problem, he notes, is that the “minuscule” additional compensation freelancers may receive will be more than offset by the difficulties of conducting research in a world where freelance work is no longer available. Then, too, Alterman says, it will be more difficult for freelancers to build “brand recognition” for themselves if no one can find their work. Alterman writes that “this may turn out to be a case where what’s right is the enemy of what’s best.”
Dan Kennedy can be reached at email@example.com.
Issue Date: July 5-12, 2001