Communities of the Air: Radio Century, Radio Culture

Communities of the Air: Radio Century, Radio Culture

by Susan Merrill Squier

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A pioneering analysis of radio as both a cultural and material production, Communities of the Air explores radio’s powerful role in shaping Anglo-American culture and society since the early twentieth century. Scholars and radio writers, producers, and critics look at the many ways radio generates multiple communities over the air—from elite to


A pioneering analysis of radio as both a cultural and material production, Communities of the Air explores radio’s powerful role in shaping Anglo-American culture and society since the early twentieth century. Scholars and radio writers, producers, and critics look at the many ways radio generates multiple communities over the air—from elite to popular, dominant to resistant, canonical to transgressive. The contributors approach radio not only in its own right, but also as a set of practices—both technological and social—illuminating broader issues such as race relations, gender politics, and the construction of regional and national identities.

Drawing on the perspectives of literary and cultural studies, science studies and feminist theory, radio history, and the new field of radio studies, these essays consider the development of radio as technology: how it was modeled on the telephone, early conflicts between for-profit and public uses of radio, and amateur radio (HAMS), local programming, and low-power radio. Some pieces discuss how radio gives voice to different cultural groups, focusing on the BBC and poetry programming in the West Indies, black radio, the history of alternative radio since the 1970s, and science and contemporary arts programming. Others look at radio’s influence on gender (and gender’s influence on radio) through examinations of Queen Elizabeth’s broadcasts, Gracie Allen’s comedy, and programming geared toward women. Together the contributors demonstrate how attention to the variety of ways radio is used and understood reveals the dynamic emergence and transformation of communities within the larger society.

s. Laurence A. Breiner, Bruce B. Campbell, Mary Desjardins, Lauren M. E. Goodlad, Nina Hunteman, Leah Lowe, Adrienne Munich, Kathleen Newman, Martin Spinelli, Susan Merrill Squier, Donald Ulin, Mark Williams, Steve Wurzler

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Communities of the Air covers historical periods, genres, performers, program types, and audiences not previously discussed in this still all too thin area of radio studies.“—Susan Jeanne Douglas, author of Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination

“Turn up the volume! At last, we’re tuned in to the right frequency for radio studies. We all listen to radio, we remember our lives through it—and now we have the tools to understand it too.“—Toby Miller, author of Technologies of Truth: Cultural Citizenship and Popular Media

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Communities of the air

Radio century, radio culture
By Susan Merill Squier

Duke University Press

ISBN: 0-8223-3095-4

Chapter One


Radio ... transforms the relation of everybody to everybody, regardless of programming. -Marshall McLuhan, Essential McLuhan

On December 31, 1999, USA Today ran a letters column in which readers commented on the most significant events of the past 1,000 years." One letter, from a reader in Port Angeles, Washington, suggests the perspective behind this collection of essays. The letter bears the headline What Radio Brought Us":

A big contribution for mankind during the millennium was the invention of the radio-or the realization that one could transmit and receive radio electromagnetic energy through the air or vacuum of space.

Think of the ramifications of the invention. It was followed by the invention of TV, radio navigation, satellite navigation, police radar and so on. It has led to instant communications around the world. And, yes, unfortunately tv and radio have degenerated into vast cultural wastelands.

When you think about how much we depend on this idea of transmitting information electromagnetically-whether it be voice, pictures or data, it is simply profound.

While its assertion that radio has degenerated into a "vast cultural wasteland" is certainly debatable, this celebration of radio'smillennial importance grasps a crucial fact: radio is far more than just a new technology. By putting people in touch with each other electromagnetically, radio creates a set of overlapping communities of the air, including not only radio listeners but also those who study and theorize radio as a technological, social, cultural, and historical phenomenon. The consumers of radio include (but are not limited to) the following: those who listen to talk radio; supporters of National Public Radio; listeners to various alternative radio programs, from teen alternative music to political advocacy to arts programming; those who listen to country music, gospel, or Christian radio; those who need to listen to the radio for information, from the farm report to the weather report; people who are forced in an emergency to listen to CONELRAD; and workers in the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) who rely on radio in cases of national emergency, whether manmade or environmental.

We find a similar set of overlapping communities among those who write about radio or study its impact on culture and society, and this study deliberately addresses them, as well. Among those communities I would include those working on the impact of radio on modern culture; those interested in radio as a technoscience, linked to later technoscientific developments, preeminently the Internet; those working on radio's effects on political practice, dating from World War II and the powerful role played by radio in the Allied and Axis war efforts; those studying the role of radio in distance education, as in Australia; those studying how radio worked to consolidate nationhood (in the British Empire, as well as in newly emerging nations in the Caribbean); those considering how radio works to shape a national, racial, or sexual identity; those exploring the power of radio to promote cultural and artistic involvement; those interested in the ways that radio as a modern technology anticipates postmodern technologies such as computers and the World Wide Web (whether in its solicitation of multiple audiences, or in the pastiche of its programming, or in its dispersal across a global field). People interested in radio from a scholarly perspective include those working in theater (think of the radio theaters of the air so crucial in the 1930s and 1940s); in music (where radio can act to advance the growth of a new musical medium, as in the huge growth of rap and hip-hop); in literature (think of the chapter-a-day" programs often aired by public radio stations); in cultural studies (where radio is understood as the leading edge of new cultural practices, as well as a vestige of what are now thought of as obsolete cultural positions and practices); in religious studies (examining the role of radio gospel and other religious radio programming); in women's studies (considering the development of gender segregation in radio programming, as well as in the staffing of radio stations); in history and media studies, where radio serves as the site of vivid historical documentation as well as the mark of a shifting mode of national communication. And I could go on.

Yet to make lists of "consumers" and scholars" of radio is misleading, not only because it omits the crucial category of radio producers" (from DJs to station owners and electricians to program hosts and producers) but because it obscures the valuable way radio mixes up those communities of the air. A more accurate representation of their overlapping relations would be to point out how DXers (those who tried to pick up distant radio signals), hams, and scholars who study how technologies affect social relations are all, for different reasons, interested in radio. Similarly, radio's music programming embodies these interwoven communities, offering a spectrum from fundamentalist Christian programs to the most self-consciously avant-garde, from residual/retro/niche to leading-edge cultural practices. Not surprising, then, that cultural studies scholars, so often fascinated by precisely that range of engagements, find radio programming a rich site of investigation. But that is only the most recent scholarly perspective to be drawn to radio.

Communities of the Air: Radio Century, Radio Culture began as several linked panels at the Modern Language Association Convention, sponsored by the Division of Literature and Science. The essays in this book reflect those origins, focusing on radio as cultural and material production, and incorporating the perspectives of literary and cultural studies, science studies, and feminist theory along with the more established field of radio history and the new field of radio studies. As I will map more extensively later, radio history has provided an internalist perspective on the development of radio as a technology, and of radio broadcasting. In contrast, radio studies has moved beyond an internalist perspective to a critical and interdisciplinary one.

From its inception in 1992, the Journal of Radio Studies addressed what one of its founders described as the full sweep of radio history that started in the 1870s and extends to the present," considering radio as a developing science and technology as well as a set of institutional practices. As the JRS continued to appear, the field of radio research shifted from a consideration of radio on its own technological and institutional terms to a new attention to the social context of radio, and then gradually to its symbolic, political, and theoretical implications. By 2000, the journal had established a research profile that moved beyond its primary dedication to scholarly investigations of the practices of managers, programmers, researchers, ancillary industries, regulation, self-regulation, mergers and acquisitions, advertisers, marketers and promoters." In addition to forewords by radio scholars and radio personalities, which were a regular feature of the journal, the JRS Cumulative Index listed essays on am radio's future, Internet radio, talk radio, community and public radio, country music radio and international radio (especially Canadian and Scandinavian radio), archival research, studies of radio programming, contemporary research on subjects ranging from the economic implications of radio ownership arrangements to textual analyses of Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion, radio history, and rhetorical studies of radio (both broadcast radio and radio dramas). Gradually the categories concerning interdisciplinary inquiries regarding radio's contemporary and historical subject matter" expanded, and the journal explicitly solicited an interchange between broadcasters and academics," regularly featuring a forum in which members of both groups were asked to comment on questions concerning the challenges facing radio and make prognostications for its future.

The important appearance in 1992 of the Radio-Sound" issue of Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media and Culture nudged the analysis of radio from social science research to textual and cultural analysis. Toby Miller mapped the new stretch of the field in his superb Editorial Introduction for Radio," arguing that radio studies had grafted to an interest in the everyday as a category of contestation and valorization" a new understanding that radio functions as transcoding device," that the language of radio is a language that decodes and encodes other sign systems as part of the aural pictures painted by its promiscuous social tourism.". The journal grouped essays in three categories: radio practice," sound practice," and "questions of film culture." The first two sections included articles on talkback radio, radio management, and various different forms of radio broadcasting (radical, feminist, public, and national radio), all under the rubric of an examination of the practices that characterized these different forms. The contributions to this issue examined radio as an assemblage of relations and practices, adhering to what one contributor called a methodology which seeks to apprehend cultural phenomena within a discursive framework that refuses to give priority to text over context, production over reception, and deconstruction over interpretation (or, of course, the reverse)." Their fresh perspectives on radio reflected an attention to social negotiations, technological interconnexions and distributive structures which lend support to the development and extension of the artefact" over the production of artefactual histories," and to the investigation of intermedia connections, such as radio's links to gramophone recording, and to the telephone, and especially to film.".

For example, Tom O'Regan explores the reliance of talkback radio on the universal acceptance of the telephone and the widespread dissemination of radio as background noise in everyday professional and private settings; the growth of Top 40 radio programs and the shift from 78 rpm records to the new 33 and 45 rpm records that made possible more plays over a shorter time," and thus a faster cycle of built-in obsolescence in popular music; and the synergistic" relationship between radio and sound cinema, which was embraced sooner than it might have been in order to recapture the audience initially lost to radio. Moving even farther afield from the exploration of intermedia connections, another essay in the "Radio-Sound" issue offered a deconstruction of a specific group of radio programs, The Listening Room programs on Paul Virilio, as part of a meta-commentary on the possibility of performing textual analysis on an aural medium. Rebecca Coyle conceptualized these radio programs as a convocation" of Virilio's interest in accident and the producer Virginia Masden's strategy of bringing together transient voices and material from interviews to produce something more like cinema and poetry than theatre."

Coyle's essay in Radio-Sound" exemplifies a focus on the theoretical implications of radio's treatment of sound that would be central to two crucial studies to emerge in the next half decade: Douglas Kahn and Gregory Whitehead's 1992 Wireless Imagination: Sound, Radio, and the Avant-Garde, and Adalaide Morris's 1997 collection Sound States: Innovative Poetics and Acoustical Technologies. In both of these collections, the emphasis was on the intermedia technologies, and the contributions applied radio practices to other acoustic media. Wireless Imagination focused specifically on a period beginning with the avant-garde era and ending in the 1960s. It included essays exploring the role of radio and phonograph sound in the works of surrealist and avant-garde artists, as well as publishing excerpts from original works by Villiers de l'Isle-Adam, Alberto Savinio, Arseni Avraamov, F. T. Marinetti and Pino Masnata, and Antonin Artaud. Kahn's introduction reads almost as a manifesto for radio studies, for it claims the sonic as a cultural realm nearly unexplored: While other historical fields may be busying themselves with things more detailed, the study of the relationship of sound and radio to the arts is open to a full range of investigations, including the most general." The collection that follows illuminates the relations between modernism, the avant-garde, and postmodernism through an exploration of the experience of acoustic media, enacted in the form of vibration, inscription, and transmission (14).

Morris's collection also begins with the notion that twentieth-century thinkers have generally drawn their conceptual models from the visual media, claiming in contrast the intention of giving the reader an earful." Working to connect radio, tape transmissions, various sound-related performances, and theories of hearing, Morris's collection (like Miller's before it) approaches radio not as subject matter but as a set of (almost completely untheorized) practices. Yet where Kahn and Whitehead stop with the aural experiments of William S. Burroughs and other beats in the early 1960s, Morris pushes the relationship between radio and computer technologies, implicitly arguing that the acoustical technologies that grew up with modernism also prepared the swerve toward the postmodern" (8).

Communities of the Air: Radio Century, Radio Culture also enacts a networked approach to radio, seeing it not only as a research area in its own right but as a set of practices that can illuminate questions in other fields, not only literary but also historical and sociocultural, from race relations and gender politics to the construction of regional and national identities. In addition to learning from writers, artists, and cultural studies scholars such as Morris, Kahn and Whitehead, and Miller who are exploring the avant-garde and performative aspects of radio, this volume is also greatly indebted to communications studies scholarship on radio, most notably that of Susan Douglas and Michele Hilmes. A prominent theme in such recent research is the double-valenced nature of the radio medium itself: its power to enforce the status quo (especially consumerism and stereotyping of race, gender, and ethnicity) and its capacity to provide a voice for resistance and critique. Most recently, Michele Hilmes's Hollywood and Broadcasting: From Radio to Cable (1990) and Radio Voices: American Broadcasting, 1922-1952 (1997) and Susan Douglas's Inventing American Broadcasting, 1899-1922 (1987) and Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination (1999) have amplified our understanding of the social embeddedness of radio, emphasizing in particular the cognitive shift radio helped to produce, from the visual to the aural. These valuable histories adopt distinctly different perspectives on the development and social effects of radio in the United States. Tracing the influence of the Hollywood studios on the development of radio broadcasting, Hilmes's Hollywood and Broadcasting explores the growth of the radio industry as a precarious balance of three interests: sponsor, network, and studio. Surveying thirty years of radio, Hilmes emphasizes the medium's role as a machine for the circulation of narratives that rehearse and justify the structures of order underlying national identity." She explores how radio reinforced the differences between us (of race, gender, and ethnicity) while consolidating what was held to be truly American" (xvii). Hilmes approaches radio as a place where social and cultural conflicts were worked out, and thus she finds in radio the traces of a continuing battle between the pluralist cultural consensus shaped by American commercial media and a range of diverse and conflicting popular alternatives.


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What People are saying about this

Communities of the Air covers historical periods, genres, performers, program types, and audiences not previously discussed in this still all too thin area of radio studies.
author of Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination
Alan D. Miller
Turn up the volume! At last, we're tuned in to the right frequency for radio studies. We all listen to radio, we remember our lives through it-and now we have the tools to understand it too.
author of Technologies of Truth: Cultural Citizenship and Popular Media

Meet the Author

Susan Merrill Squier is Brill Professor of Women’s Studies and English at Pennsylvania State University. She is author of Babies in Bottles: Twentieth-Century Visions of Reproductive Technology and coeditor of Playing Dolly: Technocultural Formations, Fantasies, and Fictions of Assisted Reproduction and Arms and the Woman: War, Gender, and Literary Representation.

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