Transmitting the Past: Historical and Cultural Perspectives on Broadcasting

Transmitting the Past: Historical and Cultural Perspectives on Broadcasting

by J. Emmett Winn (Editor)


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Transmitting the Past: Historical and Cultural Perspectives on Broadcasting by J. Emmett Winn

Original essays exploring important developments in radio and television broadcasting.

The essays included in this collection represent some of the best cultural and historical research on broadcasting in the U. S. today. Each one concentrates on a particular event in broadcast history—beginning with Marconi’s introduction of wireless technology in 1899.

Michael Brown examines newspaper reporting in America of Marconi's belief in Martians, stories that effectively rendered Marconi inconsequential to the further development of radio. The widespread installation of radios in automobiles in the 1950s, Matthew Killmeier argues, paralleled the development of television and ubiquitous middle-class suburbia in America. Heather Hundley analyzes depictions of male and female promiscuity as presented in the sitcom Cheers at a time concurrent with media coverage of the AIDS crisis. Fritz Messere examines the Federal Radio Act of 1927 and the clash of competing ideas about what role radio should play in American life. Chad Dell recounts the high-brow programming strategy NBC adopted in 1945 to distinguish itself from other networks. And George Plasketes studies the critical reactions to Cop Rock, an ill-fated combination of police drama and musical, as an example of society's resistance to genre-mixing or departures from formulaic programming.

The result is a collection that represents some of the most recent and innovative scholarship, cultural and historical, on the intersections of broadcasting and American cultural, political, and economic life.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780817351755
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Publication date: 03/20/2005
Edition description: 1
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

J. Emmett Winn is Associate Professor of Communication and Journalism at Auburn University. Susan L. Brinson is Professor of Communication and Journalism at Auburn University and author of The Red Scare, Politics, and the Federal Communications Commission.

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Historical and Cultural Perspectives on Broadcasting


Copyright © 2005 The University of Alabama Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8173-5175-5

Chapter One

Radio Mars The Transformation of Marconi's Popular Image, 1919-1922 Michael Brown

The transformation of radio from wireless telegraphy to broadcasting dramatically changed the way the technology was perceived and used. After World War I a significant number of amateur radio operators emerged from the armed services, and the United States lifted its ban on the use of amateur radio equipment. The U.S. Navy released the radio patents it controlled through World War I, and American research began with a renewed sense of competition and vigor. What followed was a popular revolution as Americans started listening to the work of these amateurs, who were using the latest technology to broadcast a variety of messages. Between 1919 and 1922 the role of radio was transformed from a means of communicating at sea to a way of reaching millions of American homes. By 1922 there were thousands of licensed amateur broadcasters and nearly a quarter of a million Americans with receivers. Waldemar Kaempffert summarized the transformation: "No one dreamed of broadcasting's possibilities.... It was regarded as a serious limitation that radiocommunication was not secret.... What was once a drawback is now a technical virtue. Broadcasting, a new way of reaching thousands and even millions at the same time, is the outcome."

Guglielmo Marconi was the public figure most closely associated with the use of radio prior to 1919. Current scholarly accounts of Marconi describe him as an innovator and entrepreneur rather than a premier scientist. His most significant contribution to the development of wireless communication was his ability to apply theoretical principles of radio to develop a practical instrument. For popular audiences Marconi was the most visible and successful scientist associated with wireless technology. His early successful demonstrations of the technology created the impression that Marconi was the inventor of wireless communication. By 1919 Marconi's future as a central character in the popular world of American radio was uncertain, since broadcasting was a use of wireless technology that was unfamiliar and unrelated to his work.

The year 1919 was significant for Marconi. Many patents Marconi controlled prior to World War I became available to other researchers. More important, he sold the American Marconi Company as a result of pressure within the United States to prohibit foreign ownership of American corporations, including radio. American Marconi was purchased by General Electric, reorganized into the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), and instantly became a significant force in radio. These changes effectively removed Marconi from the main economic, scientific, and institutional development of radio in the United States and had a profound effect on how radio would be developed and controlled; yet there was virtually no press coverage of the changes. The scientist who had come to personify the technology during the early years of radio was no longer a relevant player, and popular audiences were not told. Scholars have extensively studied the change of power that occurred when RCA emerged. Studies have focused on the scientists, government agencies, economic conditions, and institutions that influenced the rise of broadcasting between 1919 and 1922; however, no studies have examined how Marconi's popular image changed. This essay demonstrates how popular culture, in the absence of an official voice marking the end of Marconi's reign as an icon for radio, reshaped his popular image within the emerging institution of broadcasting.

In order to more completely understand the transformation that occurred when Marconi relinquished control of American radio, we need to examine how his popular image changed to reflect this new order. Most scholars now accept that stories told in the popular press are an important part of our culture because they contribute to our sense of identity, unity, and collective belonging. In radio's formative years, the press helped shape public perceptions of radio and define patterns of ideas and beliefs. Some of the best research concerning radio history has relied on the popular press in order to understand how radio was integrated into American culture. An important part of Marconi's success was his popular appeal. He skillfully used the popular press to create and maintain an image of power and control within radio culture. The New York Times signaled a change in Marconi's popular image when on January 20, 1919, the front page declared, "Radio to Stars, Marconi's Hope: Gets Strange Signals Now." The accompanying article reprinted a portion of a London interview with Marconi in which he speculated about the future possibilities of radio. The article marked the beginning of Marconi's involvement in a popular discussion about intelligent life on Mars. From 1919 to 1922 the popular press reported that Marconi was receiving messages from Mars. The New York Times and Scientific American, both known for their serious treatment of science, were among the many magazines and newspapers that provided coverage and commentary. The years from 1919 to 1922 were the critical years during which American broadcasting developed. An examination of press reports about Marconi's mysterious messages from Mars reveals how his popular image transformed during this period.

The idea that discussions about radio messages from Mars might have scholarly value and provide insight into the transformation of wireless telegraphy into radio broadcasting seems a little odd at best. Susan Douglas briefly mentions the coverage of Martian radio signals as an example of the sensational enthusiasm expressed for the future of radio. She also notes that communicating with Mars would not have been taken seriously by some sectors of American society, particularly the emerging modern scientific community. However, there is evidence that a significant number of Americans believed that contact with Mars was quite possible, and the issue was frequently discussed in the popular press. In addition, when the popular press writes about contemporary science, the distinction between fact and fiction is not always clear. In spite of what might be identified today as a frivolous topic, the press discussions about Marconi and Mars from 1919 to 1922 gave popular audiences a new image of Marconi.

Examining seemingly unrelated elements of a culture, such as Marconi and messages from Mars, as a way to identify and articulate a common thread of significance is not new to historical research. Cultural historian Jacques Barzun said, "From any part of it [culture] the searching eye will discover connections with another part seemingly remote." The "new historicism" that emerged from literary criticism in the late 1980s has proven to be a successful approach for examining historical texts in order to identify their connections. New historicism assumes that historical texts are radically intertextual, meaning that all texts have strong and definite connections to primary forces that shape our culture. By understanding the context in which texts are created-in this case, popular discussions about Marconi and Mars-their significance begins to make sense. This approach to historical research suggests that the discussions of radio messages from Mars are relevant and revealing as far as our understanding of the transformation of American radio from wireless telegraphy to broadcasting.

New historicism assumes that a significant part of the context involves power struggles. Therefore, all texts are political. Evidence can be found within every text concerning power struggles that are central to the culture of the times. The assumptions that come with new historicism suggest that Marconi's image in popular discussions about radio messages from Mars was firmly anchored in the power struggles occurring within radio in the 1920s. In this particular case, the struggle was between forces working to prevent Marconi from serving a significant role in American radio and Marconi's attempts to maintain his scientific credibility. In this interpretive context, the discussions of radio signals from Mars provide a unique opportunity to examine Marconi's place in American radio at a time when America's collective consciousness about radio was being redefined by broadcasting. This essay examines the popular discussions of Marconi's radio messages from Mars and interprets how the discussions redefined Marconi's popular image.


Marconi's popular image was created and shaped by the press. Modern radio technology was quite mysterious and difficult for naive audiences to understand, so the press used scientist-heroes to personify, simplify, and humanize the technology. Marconi's demonstrations of wireless technology provided excellent opportunities for the popular press to report the development of wireless telegraphy and to associate a scientist with the technology. In 1897 the New York World identified Marconi as a "boy wizard." The New York Times suggested his apparatus would "astonish the world" and reported that Marconi's work caused a "great stir" among scientists. His invention was judged "the most important matter now before the civilized world." And in the March 1897 edition of McClure's magazine, Marconi expressed a belief in an unlimited future for wireless telegraphy. His wireless experiments had successfully solved insurmountable technical obstacles, and he enjoyed using the press as part of his public demonstrations of the power of wireless communication. Radio historian Hugh Aitken claims that Marconi took particular pleasure in conquering the distance limitations that other scientists placed on wireless communication. One of his earliest experiments relayed yacht race results to a newspaper in Dublin from a boat a few miles off the coast of Ireland. Not only did he successfully relay immediate results, he did so over a distance judged impossible by most scientists. Marconi transmitted the first successful wireless signal across the English Channel in 1899. The message was sent from Paris by Cleveland Moffett of McClure's magazine to S. S. McClure in London and "astounded the world." When Marconi successfully sent the first transatlantic signal, the New York Times announced "the most wonderful scientific development of recent times." By the turn of the century, Marconi had demonstrated his mastery of wireless telegraphy, and the claims made that he was the inventor of radio received substantial support in the popular press.

Scientific American defined an inventor as the person who "develops the idea ... to the complete, practicable apparatus, capable of taking its place among the serviceable appliances of our modern life," and concluded that Marconi met this criteria and should receive "his full meed of credit." In 1903 a resolution was put before the United States Congress to thank Marconi for the benefits brought by wireless telegraphy. By 1909 Marconi was operating the world's most successful and lucrative network of ship-to-shore wireless stations and transmitting "marconigrams" across the globe. In 1909 his scientific status was affirmed when he received the Nobel Prize in physics. By the close of World War I, he was at the peak of his success as an inventor, scientist, businessman, and statesman. For popular audiences he represented radio's success. In 1919 Marconi purchased a yacht retired from World War I by the British, named it the Elettra, and turned it into a floating laboratory in order to continue his work. During his experiments on the Elettra he received strange signals of an undetermined origin. The press reported that these signals were thought by some to have come from Mars.


The idea of communicating with Mars has a long history in the American popular press. In the mid-1890s, when Marconi was conducting his first wireless experiments, one of America's most notorious astronomical legends was unfolding. In 1895 Percival Lowell, director of the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, announced that intelligent engineers were digging canals on Mars. In an article in Atlantic Monthly he wrote: "[t]hat Mars is inhabited is not the last, but the first word on the subject ... man is but a detail in the evolution of the universe.... He learns that though he will probably never find his double anywhere, he is destined to discover any number of cousins scattered through space."

Lowell was one of America's leading astronomers and the scientist most credited for the popular belief that canals existed on Mars. He was called "the highest living authority on the subject of Mars" and a "recognized Martian leader." Lowell believed Mars was an old, dying planet whose inhabitants were desperately distributing the planet's meager water supplies through an elaborate system of canals. Lowell's theories generated a great deal of scientific controversy and popular interest. Some scientists were unimpressed. One letter in Science described Lowell's work as "pseudoscience foisted upon a trusting public." Others supported Lowell's theories. Waldemar Kaempffert, a journalist who specialized in reporting science, was so certain there were Martians he wrote that the idea of life on Mars was a "moot astronomical question."

The discussions of intelligent life on Mars led to speculation that communication was possible, and a number of suggestions were made for contacting Mars. Several letters and editorials published in Scientific American discussed the various options available. Lowell believed he could communicate human intelligence by constructing huge, mathematically precise geometric forms in the Sinai Desert. Professor R. W. Wood of Johns Hopkins University suggested placing a large black strip of cloth on the alkali plains of Texas. The strip could be rolled and unrolled at regular intervals to create signals. In a series of letters in Scientific American, Professor William Pickering of Harvard University and others argued about the feasibility of using mirrors to flash signals.

As early as 1901 wireless telegraphy was suggested as a means of communicating with Mars. Nikola Tesla, an eccentric scientist experimenting with wireless transmissions, announced that wireless signals from martians, or "inhabitants of whatever planet," were detected during his experiments. He wrote: "I can vividly recall the incident, and see my apparatus as though it were actually before me. My first observations positively terrified me, as there was present in them something mysterious, not to say supernatural, and I was alone in my laboratory at night." Most scientists were not convinced. Astronomer Sir Robert Ball of Cambridge University concluded: "That beautiful invention with which the name of Marconi is associated has accomplished feats which transcend anything that could have been dreamed a few years ago. But significant advances would need to be made for the wireless to reach Mars."

In 1907 Camille Flammarion of the Paris Observatory reported that Marconi's Cape Clear Station was receiving a signal every night between midnight and 1 a.m. that "consists of three points (...) which represent Marconi's S," the same signal Marconi sent in the first transatlantic wireless transmission. Flammarion concluded that because "Signor Marconi has not expressed any personal idea on the subject, it is probable he attaches no great importance to it."

Professor David Todd, director of the Amherst Observatory, strongly believed that wireless technology could be used to contact Mars. He expressed hope that "a perfected ethereal telegraphy may, well within reason, permit intelligible speech from planet to planet, across the cosmic void. Quien sabe?" Todd believed he could exchange signals with Mars by telegraphing from a hot-air balloon high in the atmosphere. Todd tried his balloon experiment in 1912 but failed to establish contact. There was a great deal of popular interest in communicating with Mars, and radio was considered a viable technology for establishing contact. Although Marconi was mentioned in the discussions of Mars, he was not a significant figure. In 1916 Scientific American claimed that attempts to contact Mars had produced a "generation of unresolved discussion" where every so often "a self confessed 'scientist' from Podunk proposes to telegraph our neighbors in the ruddy planet."

By the start of World War I, most modern scientists accepted the claims of the British Astronomical Society, the world's most influential group of astronomers, that the canals were simply illusions and dismissed the martian canals as a combination of poor visibility and Lowell's imagination. While Lowell's theory of canal-digging Martians was largely rejected by the mainstream scientific community, his ideas still circulated in the popular press and fiction. Lowell passed away in November 1916, and discussions of communicating with Mars diminished as World War I became the focus of the world's attention.


The public's interest in communicating with Mars was renewed when the unfamiliar signals received by Marconi were reported in the popular press. The front-page article published in the New York Times reprinted part of an interview with Marconi that had been previously published in the London Daily Chronicle. The New York Times reprinted only the portion of the interview where Marconi discussed communication with the stars. Marconi was asked if he thought the "waves of the ether were eternal." Marconi replied: "Messages that I sent off ten years ago have not yet reached some of the nearest stars.... That is what makes me hope for a very big thing in the future.... Communication with intelligences on other stars." Marconi believed it was "silly" to assume life did not exist on other planets, and he believed any language barrier could be overcome. In the article Marconi mentioned he had received strong signals from someplace "outside the earth." However, the planet Mars was never mentioned in the interview.


Excerpted from TRANSMITTING THE PAST Copyright © 2005 by The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

Susan L. Brinson From Marconi to Cop Rock: An Introduction to Broadcasting History

Michael Brown Radio Mars: The Transformation of Marconi’s Popular Image, 1919-1922

Fritz Messere The Davis Amendment and the Federal Radio Act of 1927: Evaluating External Pressures in Policy Making

Chad Dell Wrestling with Corporate Identity: Defining Television Programming Strategy at NBC, 1945-1950

Douglas Ferguson The Importance of Colorization of Motion Pictures and Syndicated Television Programs to Broadcasting, 1985-1990

Samuel J. Brumbeloe and J. Emmett Winn WAPI: Entertainment and Sports Broadcasting at an Educational Radio Station in the 1920s

Michele Hilmes Femmes Boff Program Toppers: Women Break into Prime Time, 1943-1948

Matthew A. Killmeier  Space and the Speed of Sound: Mobile Media, 1950s Broadcasting, and Suburbia

George Plasketes Cop Rock Reconsidered: Formula, Fragments, Failure, and Foreshadowing in Genre Evolution

Heather Hundley Sex, Society, and Double Standards in Cheers

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