"Our Unseen Friend": Early Radio and the Tuning In of Woody Guthrie's Performing Persona


  • Thomas Conner




Woody Guthrie, radio history, parasocial communication, identity, performance studies, mass communication


Like many early program hosts in the emerging mass communication medium of radio, Woody Guthrie — during the time he spent as a daily radio program host in Los Angeles, from 1937 through 1939 — learned to craft and hone extemporaneous techniques for successfully addressing a new and unseen audience. Without the benefit of later media effects studies and audience research, Guthrie discerned to whom he was speaking and in what kind of language that would best be accomplished. Guthrie determined that certain aspects of his aw-shucks personality were more successful than others, and this winnowing process developed the performing persona Guthrie utilized during the subsequent escalation of his cultural status. This critical-historical study describes the climate of radio production into which Guthrie and his co-hosts inserted themselves and examines the effect of the medium’s evolution not on the audience but on the performer. The evolving application of parasocial interaction theory is explored in the context of Guthrie’s process of determining his target demographics and especially of shaping the identity of his performing persona. The identity-forming process active in immediate interpersonal communication remains active within the asynchronous feedback channels between radio hosts and audiences. The cultural figure of Woody Guthrie celebrated nationally in the 1940s was largely an identity honed along the trial-and-error learning curve of his earlier radio tenure.

Author Biography

  • Thomas Conner
    Thomas Conner has been an arts journalist and editor for more than twenty years, most recently as the pop music critic at the Chicago Sun-Times. He is currently a Ph.D. student in Communication at the University of California-San Diego, studying the effects and cultural history of presence-projection technologies such as performer simulations (i.e., the Tupac “hologram”). He spent nearly a year as a researcher in the Woody Guthrie Archives (2000-2001) and remains on the advisory board of the annual Woody Guthrie Folk Festival.