by Aj Silva, JOU 1005 student
Since the beginning of the 20th century, the United States has been the birthplace of many of mass media’s most popular and important innovations. The nation’s economy, infrastructure, and institutions have provided the settings in which mass media technologies have evolved and continue to evolve. Correspondingly, American culture has adapted to these technological shifts, with individuals, groups, and societal systems changing their media consumption patterns and behaviors over time.
In a personal interview, John Trausch, a 71-year-old lifelong resident of Roseland, Nebraska, detailed how rural American families living in the postwar decades created new media consumption behaviors and altered existing behaviors, enabling people to navigate the rapid changes that were taking place in most of the dominant mass media formats.
Trausch described how people in the 1960s and 1970s carefully selected the information they consumed via newspapers. Larger towns often published their own daily newspapers, meaning Trausch and his family would receive the Hastings Daily newspaper in nearby Roseland each morning. On weekends, more prominent newspapers would also offer home delivery, allowing the family to receive the Omaha World Herald as well.
The focus of the Hastings Daily was uniquely local stories, including a section called “The News in Brief,” with short articles about Hastings events and a police blotter that named individuals arrested for crimes. However, Trausch noted that the reporters for the Hastings Daily “had their favorites,” such as which towns they would cover in their columns, meaning that “mostly I’d look for local stuff…and you didn’t see much about Roseland.”
However, the Hastings and Omaha papers also offered editorials from columnists like Thomas Sowell, which was another type of content that Trausch stated he would generally seek out. In the 20th century, major newspapers gained a reputation for shaping what the public perceives as news in the United States (Understanding Media and Culture).
Trausch, on the other hand, described the local newspapers as providing information on local events only, while national news was shaped by television.
Television as a mass media format exploded in popularity in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s, and Trausch described how families adopted a communal approach to consuming television programs when most households only owned a single television set. For example, he noted, “During the daytime, I can’t remember watching TV a lot,” although his mother would regularly tune in to follow a soap opera.
In the evening, the family would get together to watch television, and in Trausch’s household, “Everybody got to pick something they wanted to watch. Everybody had a favorite show, and usually, it was on at different times. If it wasn’t, you took turns.” Section 9.2 in Understanding Media and Culture pointed out that in the 1950s and 1960s, “The three major networks developed prime-time shows that would appeal to a general family audience,” aligning with Trausch’s family viewing habits.
During the same period of time, movie theaters in the 1950s often catered to specific tastes in films so that a theater like The Strand would feature Disney films, while a film like Cleopatra, with more appeal for adults, would be shown at the Rivoli. That said, many of the films would cater to families by playing films like Swiss Family Robinson, which was created as family entertainment.
By the end of the 1960s, “Films at the time were testing the limits of permissible material” by depicting graphic violence and sexual situations in film (Understanding Media and Culture). Trausch identified the late 1960s and early 1970s as when his own tastes and film consumption behaviors changed, stating, “As I grew older, and I got into my early 20s was when they started coming out with the Clint Eastwood westerns…and I’d go and watch.”
Audio recordings on vinyl records were also becoming popularized in the 1960s, and listening to records was rarely a solitary event. In part, this was because households only had a single record player in many cases and also because at $5 per album, records could be an expensive purchase. The record player in Trausch’s childhood home was able to be put away when not in use and to listen to records, the family would have to open the cabinet and set up the equipment.
Trausch and his sisters preferred listening to rock n’ roll and pop music, while their father preferred to play classical on Sundays. However, Trausch observed that his parents never said, “‘You can’t listen to this, or you can’t listen to that,’ because Mom and Dad were generally there listening with us,” regardless of which type of music was being played on the record player.
In contrast to the communal listening environment of the record player, the radio provided a media experience that individuals would partake in by themselves if they preferred. On occasion, Trausch observed that he and his sisters sometimes wanted to listen to rock n’ roll while their parents were listening to other records or a radio program.
Transistor radios had become affordable and widespread in the early 1960s so that families could own multiple portable radios. This technology meant that, as Trausch said, “Every now and then, we would get our transistors out and listen to the local rock n’ roll stations.” The ability of youth to listen to music on the radio individually, coupled with the fact that “The radio industry…joining forces with the recording industry to survive…became somewhat of a promotional tool” for popular music, illustrates how youth culture in the United States was consuming media in new ways just as the radio medium was developing new offerings enabled by technological progress.
These developments are consistent with findings by the researchers Loos and Ivan (p. 21), who found that new mass media technologies tend to find the widest acceptance and usage among younger people when the technologies themselves are still “young.”
The emergence of the transistor radio did not wholly isolate individuals according to personal musical tastes, however. For rural Americans, this technology had its limitations. When Trausch worked on the family farm, he observed, “I didn’t listen to the radio because if I was outside, that was before you had cabs on tractors.
They did have radios that you could bounce on the fender of the tractor, but as my friend and I said, you hope that the guy across the field was listening to something because you could hear it better than he could because you had the noise for the tractor.” Additionally, people often tuned into the radio for specific programs rather than keeping it on as background noise.
Trausch’s father, for example, would listen to the radio specifically for information on the stock markets but then turn the radio off as soon as he obtained the information he wanted.
John Trausch has been able to experience many of the changes in American culture that have accompanied changes in mass media technologies. As his interview responses illustrate, the developments in mediums like film, radio, newspapers, and television prompted American families to change old media consumption habits or innovate completely new behaviors.
This constant adaptation in American media consumption patterns demonstrates the mutual influence that mass media technologies and culture have on one another.
Loos, Eugène, and Loredana Ivan. “Not Only People Are Getting Old, the New Media Are Too: Technology Generations and the Changes in New Media Use.” New Media & Society, SAGE Publications, June 2022, p. 1-26. Crossref, https://doi.org/10.1177/14614448221101783.
Trausch, John. Personal interview. 11 March 2023.
Understanding Media and Culture: An Introduction to Mass Communication. University of Minnesota, 2010. https://open.lib.umn.edu/mediaandculture/.