Commercial radio was a mere six years old when Charles Coughlin -- the Catholic priest who's been credited with inventing hate radio -- made his first broadcast from Royal Oak, Michigan in 1926. Coughlin was the first personality to bring his own version of politics to the airwaves, and he railed against "banksters," "plutocrats," "atheistic Marxists," and especially "international financiers" (read: Jews). Within a decade, his show, "The Hour of Power," had picked up 16 million listeners as well as chummy fans like Ezra Pound, Henry Ford, Bing Crosby, Joseph Goebbels and Benito Mussolini. Coughlin's influence became enormous: He had an embattled relationship with Franklin Roosevelt (Coughlin called him "anti-God" on-air), he led the Christian Front (the 18 Freemanesque Brooklynites indicted as members of a national paramilitary organization) and was purported to have been funded by the Nazis.
As with most dark characters, there was a wily, seductive side to Coughlin. In "Radio Priest," Donald Warren's new biography of Coughlin, the wife of a British fascist reveals one of Coughlin's trade secrets. "He [used] a walking stick, in which he demonstrated that by staying back from the microphone and shouting and then moving close, for conveying an intimate voice, the dramatic effects desired could be attained." "Radio Priest" is full of similarly revealing details but, as with so much about this repulsively compelling historical figure, Warren lets it whiz past him unexplored and uninterpreted.
Although Coughlin is clearly a forerunner of media personalities like Pat Robertson and Rush Limbaugh, Warren makes no such connections -- an omission that makes you wonder why Warren chose to write this book now. And although Coughlin is fascinating, it's easy to feel bombarded by Warren's scattershot facts while his strangely formal, awkward prose style obscures his subject. The irony in a dull study of a dazzlingly outrageous, Nazi-sympathizing radio preacher is put into relief by arresting glimpses of Coughlin's radio rants. In one he delivered soon after Kristallnacht, he declared that "Jewish persecution only followed after Christians first were persecuted." Warren's 20 years of research (which accounts for the almost 50 pages of footnotes) are apparent in the quantity of truly fascinating material and in endless quotes from other sources -- including other Coughlin biographies, all of which end up sounding more interesting than this one.