Electric Sounds: Technological Change and the Rise of Corporate Mass Media

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Electric Sounds brings to vivid life an era when innovations in the production, recording, and transmission of sound revolutionized a number of different media, especially the radio, the phonograph, and the cinema.

The 1920s and 1930s marked some of the most important developments in the history of the American mass media: the film industry's conversion to synchronous sound, the rise of radio networks and advertising-supported broadcasting, the establishment of a federal regulatory framework on which U.S. communications policy continues to be based, the development of several powerful media conglomerates, and the birth of a new acoustic commodity in which a single story, song, or other product was made available to consumers in multiple media forms and formats.

But what role would this new media play in society? Celebrants saw an opportunity for educational and cultural uplift; critics feared the degradation of the standards of public taste. Some believed acoustic media would fulfill the promise of participatory democracy by better informing the public, while others saw an opportunity for manipulation. The innovations of this period prompted not only a restructuring and consolidation of corporate mass media interests and a shift in the conventions and patterns of media consumption but also a renegotiation of the social functions assigned to mass media forms.

Steve J. Wurtzler's impeccably researched history adds a new dimension to the study of sound media, proving that the ultimate form technology takes is never predetermined. Rather, it is shaped by conflicting visions of technological possibility in economic, cultural, and political realms. Electric Sounds also illustrates the process through which technologies become media and the ways in which media are integrated into American life.

Columbia University Press

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Editorial Reviews


Extensively researched... Recommended.

The Journal of American History
Electric Sounds is well written and engaging, presenting a fine balance of detailed analysis and social and cultural overview.

— Jody Pennington

American Historical Review
An important contribution to the history of technology as well as media studies.

— Gerd Horten

Choice (paperback)

An amazing historical account... the depth of [Wurtzler's] research is stunning.

Well-argued and thought-provoking study

— Heidi Tworek

H-Net - Heidi Tworek

Well-argued and thought-provoking study

The Journal of American History - Jody Pennington

Electric Sounds is well written and engaging, presenting a fine balance of detailed analysis and social and cultural overview.

American Historical Review - Gerd Horten

An important contribution to the history of technology as well as media studies.


Extensively researched... Recommended.

Overall, Wurtzler's book is a very profitable read and will be most helpful for those who seek parallels to our media present in the past and want to understand the "mutually reinforcing" relationship between new media and extant matrices of economics, politics, and culture.

— Heidi Tworek

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780231136778
  • Publisher: Columbia University Press
  • Publication date: 12/31/2008
  • Series: Film and Culture Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 416
  • Product dimensions: 5.70 (w) x 8.60 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Steve J. Wurtzler has taught film and media studies at Bowdoin College, Georgetown University, Illinois State University, and the University of Iowa.

Columbia University Press

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Table of Contents


1. Technological Innovation and the Consolidation of Corporate Power2. Announcing Technological Change3. From Performing the Recorded to Dissimulating the Machine4. Making Sound Media Meaningful: Commerce, Culture, Politics5. Transcription versus Signification: Copeting Paradigms for Representing with Sound



Columbia University Press

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