Mass Media and Cultural Homogenization: Evidence from the Golden Age of Radio in the United States, 1920-1940

Gianluca Russo, PhD Candidate, Economics Department, Boston University

Do mass media increase nation building or do they spur regional differentiation? Did cultural transformations occur through assimilation? I leverage the expansion of radio broadcasting during the Golden Age of Radio to identify the impact of mass media on cultural homogenization. To do so, I compile a new dataset linking the universe of transmitting stations to the full count census. Broadcasting data provides specifications and location for all the active radio towers between 1925 and 1940. I impute broadcast coverage with a model suitable to AM frequencies. This procedure allows me to reconstruct the list of potential radio stations available to each American household, at a given point in time. In my main analysis I construct two treatments: the total number of stations available and the number of stations part of national networks. I measure cultural trends with naming patterns for every newborn cohort in my study period. I rely on the 1930 and 1940 waves of the full count census to geolocate the newborns, extract their first names and socio-economic characteristics of their households. My hypothesis is that radio expansion had a positive impact on cultural homogenization through assimilation to more mainstream naming patterns. I examine this hypothesis exploiting exogenous variation in radio coverage induced by the interaction of environmental determinants of signal quality with towers technological improvements across time. I further investigate whether the level of assimilation was national or regional, according to the type of radio programs available in the receiving locations. I thoroughly exploit the power of the full count data by investigating important heterogeneities, such as the effect on migrant families and on communities of different religious identity.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 4. Ideas, Language, and Media