National Radio Day happened last Sunday and it reminded me of a book I read, Radio Girls by Sarah-Jane Stratford. I picked it up because the story was set during the rise of the BBC in the 1920s-30s. I didn't read too many fictional stories about journalism growing up, and I was intrigued.
While the protagonist of this story, Maisie Musgrave, and many events happening to her are fictional, a lot of elements were based on real life. The most notable examples are John Reith, who was the conservative director-general of the BBC, and Hilda Matheson, the first director of Talks programming, a lesbian and a spy for MI5.
Honestly, I wasn't the biggest fan. The plot felt more like I was trying to get through to it rather than being immersed in it. I also felt like Maisie was written to be a completely wide-eyed, working class girl who was too impressed by powerful men. I've interacted with people who are intimidated by others whom they perceive are from a higher class. I believe people like Maisie at the beginning of this book exist. The way Maisie was written, however, made her seem a bit over-the-top:
Maisie concentrated hard, fingers barnstorming over the keys, steadily reducing the mountain of replies requested, but couldn't help looking up when Reith's door opened. She got a little thrill on seeing him, breathing in the power he emanated. He walked out with yet another man in a black bowler hat saying that Reith must dine with him at his club next week.
...Clubs were where important men gathered to talk about important business. Maisie couldn't imagine how wonderful it would be to find out, just once. To be part of the life of a man who lived this way.
..."You look a bit melancholy, Miss Musgrave," Reith observed, sending her spirits soaring. She loved when he singled her out...
Eventually, though, Maisie became more empowered and independent due to her work in the Talks department and helping Hilda Matheson. My favorite passages that featured Maisie were her thoughts about radio journalism, like here:
She wanted to write about men's fears of women voting, compare it to America. She wanted more stories they could tell, to go chasing stories herself. She wanted to interview women on the street. She wanted to tell Eckersley to work harder on developing a traveling microphone. She wanted to be able to print Dam Millicent's Talk in a magazine. She wanted to vote. Now.
Yes, Maisie, yes.
But despite the ups and downs of the writing and the plot, I kept reading because of its themes:
Technology advancing the way people inform themselves and communicate ideas
Journalism and how it covers political tumult
Advancement of women's rights and other groups
Rise of nationalism
It was hard not to think about what's going on today. Radio provided information to people across all socioeconomic backgrounds, even those who couldn't read or had little schooling. Today, the Internet provides a wealth of information in less than a second. The role of journalism and how it affects public discourse and politics was heavily emphasized in the book (I mean, it's the BBC), and over the past few years the media continues to affect social, political and economic issues, despite how many people dislike the mainstream media. And with women and other minority groups fighting to break into various industries, I can empathize with Maisie's enthusiasm for women simply securing basic rights.
And then there was the fascism and nationalism in this book. I didn't know there were small, but still fascist, groups in the UK. I was reminded how no one paid Hitler paid any mind until he rose to power. I thought about Trump's Administration when I read this, and I'm also thinking of Charlottesville. For the first time in my life, I genuinely felt scared. Southern California is a bubble; there are conservative pockets here and there, but when I go out I don't feel like I'm going to be attacked or verbally hated on for my beliefs and for things I cannot control. But what Radio Girls shows, and Charlottesville reminded me, is that seemingly fringe groups can gain power quickly.
Journalism is one of the institutions in this country that informs us of what's going on. It's up to the people to use the information and stand for what is right and what is wrong. It's up to them to not close their eyes at the ugliness, whether they don't feel its effects, they're scared of retaliation or it's "not their problem."
I didn't love the book, but it has importance. Not only does it feature a bamf, powerful queer woman in a leadership position, but it also shows just how easy it can be to be passive when there are people who are just horrid. Just like Maisie learned, it's up to us to make sure others are made aware. And it's up to us to take action however we can.
But seriously, if you have a chance, read up on Hilda Matheson:
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