Medical and public health professionals have always used the latest media to promote health and prevent disease, from black-and-white silent films in the 1910s to video games today. The NAEB collection available through Unlocking the Airwaves, provides a glimpse into what medicine and health programming sounded like on radio from the late 1950s through the 1970s.
As you listen through these recordings, you’ll be struck by how thoroughly they reflect the concerns, attitudes, and blind spots of the postwar generation. Much of the medical knowledge here is undoubtedly outdated, providing a sense of the advancements in health sciences in the intervening decades. However, even more interesting are the insights this collection offer into postwar Americans’ ideas—very different from today’s—about who is an “expert,” what endangers health, and how society should respond, ideas that only make sense in the context of the Cold War, the sexual revolution, and the counterculture of the 1960s.
For example, H Is for Joy (1960-1), about heroin addiction, is clearly a product of the early 1960s, when the 1950s’ moral panic around “juvenile delinquency” was morphing into fears of the “generation gap” and the “counterculture” that would dominate American culture for the rest of the decade. Compared to the 1961 sensationalist film Seduction of the Innocent, in which a pretty, white high-schooler devolves from all-American girl to junkie prostitute in about two weeks, H Is for Joy is less lurid and more “scientific” but no less alarmist about the threat of moral decay and social decline. Produced by the Moody Bible Institute, the series explicitly asserts that Christianity is the only way to kick addiction, but even the secular programs in the NAEB collection treat smoking, drinking, and drugs first and foremost as moral problems that could be prevented through better individual choices (such as here at 08:25: ““Many drug abusers simply need to establish a more positive point of view”), rather than, say, as sociological phenomena that might be addressed collectively.
Sex is another popular topic in these programs, and they reflect the postwar frankness of studies like the Kinsey Report. One highlight of the collection is an entertaining college lecture on contraceptionfrom around 1970 that, despite the occasional casual gender stereotyping typical of this era, is surprisingly progressive in its endorsement of premarital sex and advocacy for women’s sexual freedom (as long as they were not too promiscuous). The V.D. Epidemic (1967) was more hostile to promiscuity (not to mention homosexuality), and openly tried to frighten listeners with dire predictions of sterility, insanity, and death as the wages of “behaving badly,” but even that program presented syphilis patients sympathetically and without overt judgment (e.g. this episode, from 6:14-9:41) while advocating for better sex education.
Expert voices are particularly interesting in these recordings: physicians and scientists routinely hold forth as unquestioned authorities. The thirty episodes of* Doctor Tell Me* (the title is revealing) are typical here: the doctor knows best, and the listener’s duty is to learn and obey. Except for this report on health-care reform from the early 1970s, which tentatively pushes back against a medical profession known for vehemently protecting its autonomy and economic interests, one listens mostly in vain for the critiques of the medical establishment that, even then, were circulating among patients’ rights groups, feminists, and civil rights and disability advocates. The speakers are usually male and almost always white, with a universalizing approach to health and medicine that largely ignored gender, racial, or class differences and inequalities in health. They also silenced anything outside the dominant paradigm; alternative and holistic medical traditions might as well not exist, and challenges to medicalization were ignored. For example, although the 1960s saw the validation of sign language and the beginnings of modern Deaf Culture, such viewpoints are completely absent in “Hearing Loss in Children” from 1968. The episode (from the series Your Doctor Speaks, another telling title) never mentions signing and implicitly regards any child who can’t learn to speak as a lost cause.
Experts talking down to audiences didn’t always make for good radio, of course, and the collection reveals a range of strategies for attracting and entertaining listeners. Some programs tried wacky humor that they hoped would resonate with teenagers, some used deeply moving first-person accounts of tragedy, others used tried-and-true techniques of golden-age radio to dramatize the lives of heroic figures in medical history or the supposed dreariness of life under communism. One high point of the collection is a surprisingly good psychedelic pop song that discouraged drug use by appealing to the idealism of the hippie generation (National Drug Prevention Spots, at 2:21). If you listen to only one clip from these programs, make it that one.
These programs also reveal a different political climate than ours, one marked by an implicit confidence that scientific expertise will be respected, religion will yield to fact and reason when necessary, and social progress can be achieved through persuasion and good arguments. In short, the health and medical programs distributed by the NAEB reflect a stout faith—now harder to find—in what sociologists call the “bourgeois public sphere.” A good example of this is “Who Owns Fertility?,” a talk by Alan Guttmacher, founder of Planned Parenthood. Certainly Guttmacher knew that opponents of contraception were a significant force in American life, yet he freely spoke from a “mainstream” position, without the defensiveness or sense of embattledness that we would almost certainly hear today. Whether one agrees with his social program is irrelevant, and we should not romanticize postwar political discourse—it was always exclusionary and politically problematic, even if we long for a similar respect for science in our politics today. As historical artifacts, however, these programs offer something really special: the sound, perhaps for the last time, of the rhetorical style of the 20th-century liberal consensus.
Taken as a whole, these programs offer a glimpse into what postwar mainstream health professionals (and producers and funders of educational radio) believed threatened Americans’ health and how they saw those threats playing out in people’s moral choices, the medical system, and political life. Measuring their views against the state of health and medicine today, with its greater range of perspectives and knowledges but also its greater politicization of science, reveals as much about our society as theirs.