A Tale of Two Catalogues: The Celestial Jukebox and Campus Radio Library Brian Fauteux / University of Alberta
The Celestial Jukebox.
There’s a persistent idea that every song you could ever want to listen to is only a few clicks away. News stories about streaming music services, and the tech companies behind them, regularly advance claims about revolutionary attributes, including their extensive and comprehensive catalogues.
In June 2006, Wired proclaimed that the celestial jukebox, “the ability to access all content ever created, from anywhere, at any time,” was becoming a reality, “at least as far as music goes.” The article followed the launch of Spotify in Europe but was years shy of its entry into North America. The concept of the Long Tail also entered the digital-musical vernacular around this time. According to Chris Anderson in 2004, you “can find everything out there on the Long Tail.” Niche selections, liberated from the limits of shelf space in bricks and mortar stores and from hit-driven economics would find an audience online.
Limits to the infinite online catalogue are apparent to me whenever I wish to listen to certain albums by bands from in and around Toronto during the late-90s and early 2000s. This is a time during which music organized much of my social life: I played in bands and spent time at shows. I have a decent CD collection from this particular time and place, but it’s one absent from the major music streaming services. I can listen to these albums on a CD player, if I can find one, but with streaming music as our dominant mode of listening, it’s imperative to ask questions about catalogues and their variety.
CiTR DJ Nardwuar at the station’s music library.
An alternative example I’d like to discuss is that of the campus radio music library. It’s a library that often includes material objects like vinyl records and CDs but also digital files. When I spoke with the Station Manager of CHMA in Sackville, New Brunswick (a town with a population of around 5,000) while doing research for my book on campus radio, he told me that the libraries were full with 13,000 vinyl albums and well over 25,000 CDs. They were undergoing a digitization project with CDs moving onto harddrives (a process he said expects to take “another 700 years”).
Campus stations fall under the community radio sector in Canada and are licensed to program music that complements commercial or public stations. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) first licensed campus radio in 1975, and the sector grew considerably in the decades that followed (although there are many rich station histories that predate licensing). Despite centralized regulation, campus stations are shaped by the localities they serve, and a station’s history is often reflective of its surrounding region. The campus radio music library encourages us to reflect on taken-for-granted assumptions about the abundance of the streaming music catalogue.
Albums that receive a lot of airplay on Canadian campus stations are included on the !earshot charts. The charts skew heavily toward Canadian artists but this isn’t exclusive (Fiona Apple and Thundercat are currently charting). Weekly Top 50 albums are aggregated nationally across 50 reporting stations, and there are charts generated by individual stations. One can also view monthly charts that account for the top 200 albums nationally.
The !earshot logo.
For the years between 2019 and 2014, our research team searched the top 100 albums on the monthly !earshot charts on Spotify to get a sense of what gaps might exist between campus radio programming and Spotify’s catalogue. Are the sector’s most frequently programmed albums available on one of the most commonly used music streaming services? Albums that are played by multiple stations rise to the top and are the ones likely to turn up on Spotify. That said, a notable number are missing (or are potentially too difficult to locate through the search function).
From all the monthly top 100 charts in 2019, a total of 19 albums are not available on Spotify. This number increases significantly as one works backwards. In 2018, 28 albums are not available; in 2017, 38 albums; in 2016, 58 albums; in 2015, 65 albums; and in 2014, 77 albums. The older the charts, the more albums are unavailable on Spotify.
By looking at an individual station’s charts, we get a better sense of what albums resonate within a given city or town. CJSW’s charts (a station in Calgary, Alberta) include only the top 30 albums per month. In 2019, 33 out of the year’s top 30 charts are not available on Spotify. On a local level, there is a greater disparity between the !earshot and Spotify catalogues.
The top two campus radio albums across the sector in December 2019 are available on Spotify but have low play counts. Common Holly’s When I say to you Black Lightning, the number one album that month, currently has play counts ranging from 10,000 to 84,000 per song. The number two album, Woolworm’s Awe (one of my favorites of 2019, for the record), has play counts ranging from around 5,000 to 10,000 per song. CJSW’s top album that month, the self-released Mes Amis by BLVD Noir, has less than 1,000 plays for each song.
Woolworm’s Awe (2019).
Many of the albums on the !earshot top 100 that are not available on Spotify are self-released. In 2019, 32% were self-released; in 2018, 54%; in 2017, 61%; in 2016, 53%; in 2015, 57%; and in 2014, 45%. And the albums with label representation are, for the most part, released on independent Canadian labels with small rosters.
Campus stations are evidently vital outlets for local and diverse music. The campus radio music library can be thought of as a “DIY popular music institution,” one with cultural, social, and affective functions (Baker and Huber 2013). Campus radio music libraries are rooted in place, they are decentralized, and they can be fairly comprehensive with respect to a diversity of artists. Still, collections are informal and incomplete, and no one station takes the same approach to music programming and storage.
Because campus stations maintain intimate connections with local music cultures in ways that are not driven by an exclusively profit-centric motive (licenses limit advertising revenue and funds often come from listeners and a fee levy), their sense of what matters in terms of collecting and showcasing is quite varied and diverse. These collections can tell us much about the musical histories of localities across the country.
In the campus music library, we might evade the gated-in listening that corporate streaming music algorithms facilitate, or what Kate Lacey (2013) calls “listening in.” People maintain these libraries, and voices bring forth songs to listeners. This is a different listening experience than letting the algorithm do its work. If a major virtue of streaming music service is that it can easily bring a vast selection of songs to a listener across space and time, we would be wise to critically interrogate the depth of its catalogue and listen carefully for the sounds and songs that do not easily reach our ears.
Notes: “The Cultural Capital Project: Digital Stewardship and Sustainable Monetization for Canadian Independent Musicians” is a SSHRC-funded research project led by Brian Fauteux, Brianne Selman, and Andrew deWaard, with research assistance from Dan Colussi, Anna Dundas-Richter, Maria Khaner, and William Northlich.
Baker, S., & Huber, A. (2013). Notes towards a typology of the DIY institution: Identifying do-it-yourself places of popular music preservation. European Journal of Cultural Studies, 16.5, 513-530.
Lacey, K. (2013). Listening in the digital age. In J. Loviglio & M. Hilmes (Eds.), Radio’s new wave: Global sound in the digital era (pp. 9-23). New York, NY: Routledge.
What Happens When Chinese and Western Podcasters Meet? Siobhán McHugh /University of Wollongong
Siobhán McHugh delivers a keynote on podcasting to the Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union, Chengdu, China, October 2017.
The success of podcasting, in the English-speaking world at least, is closely linked to its emphasis on the personal. Podcasts have hosts, not the more formal “presenters,” and these hosts, who often speak directly into our ears via our headphones, are like new friends. So how would podcasting work in a culture where “people’s sense of themselves as individuals atrophied…” That quote is from the Chinese satirical novelist, Yan Lianke, profiled recently in The New Yorker. [ ((Jiayang Fan, 2018. Yan Lianke’s Forbidden Satires of China. The New Yorker, 15 October 2018.
))] Lianke, mentioned as a potential Nobel Prize winner, attributes the “dark, fierce realism” of contemporary China to decades of living under a highly controlling Communist government.
With the post-Mao reforms of the last four decades and recent globalization and economic growth, many Chinese are reclaiming personal space, a development that Chinese media scholars Wanning Sun and Wei Lei call the “privatisation of the self.” Sun and Lei describe in fascinating detail how the market-driven transformation and social stratification of China have had a direct impact on perceptions of intimacy. [ ((Wanning Sun and Wei Lei. In Search of Intimacy in China: The Emergence of Advice Media for the Privatized Self, Communication, Culture and Critique, Volume 10, Issue 1, 1 March 2017, Pages 20–38, https://doi.org/10.1111/cccr.12150)))]
In a society where the very notion of individualism was anathema for so long, how would the promise of digital intimacy, the implicit foundation of so much of our engagement with podcasts in the West, be received?
That’s the question I asked myself in October 2017 as I prepared to give a keynote on Tuning Into the Podcast Revolution, in Chengdu, China, at the General Assembly of the Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union (ABU), whose members broadcast to over half the world, some four billion people.
Would audio storytelling’s ability to build empathy and connection, prized by Western radio makers and podcasters over decades, resonate in a nation where, Lianke asserts, Communism had “made it impossible to express true feelings in conscious life…”
The short answer is yes, absolutely. The interest was palpable and I was subsequently invited by the ABU to run an intensive podcast training workshop for participants from China, Vietnam and Malaysia.
In the run up, I held a masterclass in Sydney for delegates from China Radio International (CRI), the English language arm of the state broadcaster. Many see CRI as part of a global Chinese push to conduct soft diplomacy. But the persuasive power of podcasting appears to have largely slipped under the radar. In the class, I hesitated before playing a clip from Serial Season One, thinking it might be too old hat—it had had c.300 million listeners by then and been the subject of countless articles. “What do you know about Serial?” I asked, before bringing up the slide. A broadcaster reflected. “It’s something you have for breakfast?” He was not making a joke. That’s when I realized what cultural difference truly means.
It’s not as if podcasting does not exist in China. Far from it, but it is different from Western storytelling and long-form conversation formats. China’s commercial podcast market is worth over 7 billion US dollars a year, based largely on subscribers who pay to access self-improvement and educational content, hoping to gain an edge in a highly competitive society. Lei has documented another popular set of audio products, distributed via listening apps and online platforms, which cater to two main streams: “knowledge products,” including audio books, poetry shows, business and finance; and “healing” content, which offer advice on personal and relationship issues, love and intimacy. Offerings tend to be short (under ten minutes) and simple: constructed of voice and music, without fancy production. [ ((Wei Lei. Radio and Social Transformation in China. Routledge, forthcoming.))] The numbers are staggering: Ximalaya FM, China’s biggest platform for shared audio content, reports 400 million downloads of its app. It has recently invested in an American podcasting distribution startup, Himalaya Media, which can monetize content by having listeners “tip” small amounts.
In my residential workshop, I wanted to see how participants responded to the Western podcast canon and how they might adapt it to cultural taste. Every morning I deconstructed the theory and practice of Anglophone podcasting, playing examples, analysing formats, structure and content, and expounding the grammar and logic of podcasting as a distinct media format, capable of producing “enhanced intimacy” compared to radio. All had brought, at my request, an interview in English on the theme of “absence.” Now we began to shape these into crafted stories, considering the choreography of sound, how layering and placement and even—especially—silence can alter impact and engagement.
ABU/UOW Power of Podcasting workshop, Nov 2018. Participants point to their story on the theme of absence. Niu Honglin, third right, Luo Laiming on right, Siobhán McHugh, centre.
The three Chinese participants from CRI had impeccable English, tertiary qualifications in arts, science and business, and over three decades’ experience between them as radio broadcasters. On Day One, I sent them out around the campus to gather sounds for a one-minute “audio postcard” from the university. The exercise showed how powerfully sound itself could evoke a place—they captured strange-sounding birds, the buzz of students in a café, the peace of a lake and its resident ducks. One, Zhi Ruo (not her real name, which she preferred not to use), scripted it as a moving note to her young daughter. The exercise convinced her, as she said later, that podcasting could function on a micro-level that allowed for content that radio could not:
Radio would not have the tolerance for you to do such family-bound things, you know, you’re pretending you’re speaking to just one person … your relative or your beloved one. So you’re taking advantage of a public platform to express your personal feeling. That is not okay … So, yeah, podcast, it gives me more “enhanced intimacy” to do that.
Luo Laiming, aged 32, who co-hosts a current affairs discussion program on CRI, also took to this style of audio crafting with alacrity. His sixty-second “postcard” (listen HERE) was a polished blend of philosophical reflection and personal commentary, including the line, “The University of Wollongong has the most beautiful campus I’ve ever seen.” This simple statement carried more meaning than we first realized, as Laiming explained:
This is the first time I tried in my writing to use “I” instead of “one could expect.” I said “I have seen.” It’s always been my style on the show, when I go live on a talk show or in the movie review, that I write to hide behind the narrative, behind the language.
Laiming was not convinced it was a purely cultural factor; he said he knew a lot of people in China who were “not afraid of showing their true colours,” but that he had been raised as an only child with a father who was not easy to communicate with and so, “I kind of shut myself down.” But his early years of editing other broadcasters had taught him that authenticity was crucial to make people stay listening. “You could tell whether the hosts were being spontaneous or not, if the emotions they’re expressing are authentic or not … you could tell from their voices.” The informality of podcasting was now giving him the chance to try out a subjective tone.
But when Laiming re-voiced the audio postcard in Chinese, he found it quite different (listen HERE). “I’ve always paid attention to rhythms in English—more than the words. I’ve found this hard to represent in the Chinese language. Second thing is some of the translation. E.g. ‘on the planet that we share with many other species’: the English sounds a little modest; in the Chinese language I said it as ‘we are the owners of this planet.’ And there’s another part where I had to say the opposite of what I said in English: ‘we can’t get rid of all the material comfort mankind has so ingeniously invented’ becomes ‘we can’t go back to the traditional slash and burn.'” If Laiming does get to make a new podcast, he’d like to make one about Chinese fantasy and mythology—a topic that would surely yield rich pickings.
Laiming’s one-minute audio postcard script.
The vivacious Niu Honglin, the third Chinese broadcaster, aged 29, already hosts two podcasts available on Western platforms: Takeaway Chinese teaches aspects of the Chinese language and Illuminating Chinese Classics looks at Chinese literature, going back centuries.
Artwork for the podcast Illuminating Chinese Classics, from China Radio International.
In early production sessions, Honglin tended to include everything she had—ambient sounds, voice, music—just because she had it. “Like you’re a six-year-old, you’ve got a collection and you need to show all of them to your parents!” The effect was overpowering, undermining her very strong raw interview, with a man describing coming out as gay to his family, whose reactions were not all accepting. I advocated narration that does not bludgeon the listener into thinking a certain way, but invites them to reflect. We cut an overly-explicatory sentence, an intervention she appreciated. “It’s really much better, it’s [left] with the music, with the feeling, you’re wondering what will happen next. It’s just revealing.”
We finished our showreel, an eight-minute trailer for the forthcoming ABU/UOW podcast series called Stories From the Heart (listen HERE), two minutes before our workshop ended at 5pm on the Friday—as professional broadcasters, all respected the tyranny of a deadline.
It was left to Zhi Ruo to sum up how podcasting might differ from radio after all.
Doing a podcast, it’s not like a task that you go live every day on radio. Okay, I have to work now. Ding, Ding, Ding. The time is here. But for podcasting, whenever you have great ideas, you pop up your eyes and have shiny eyes, great ideas. There’s a light bulb, lighting up on the top of your head so you feel the passion to tell the story and strengthen that bond and make listeners want to come back and find you.
Will podcasting become a tool of self-expression in China? Passion is one key factor and politics is another. Perhaps, as with so much else, the market will decide.
Workshop participants on the last day in studio. Niu Honglin second left, Luo Laiming in white shirt, Olya Booyar, Head of Radio, ABU, centre, beside Siobhán McHugh. Participants came from China Radio International, Voice of Vietnam, VTV, Vietnam and Institut Penyiaran dan Penerangan Tun Abdul Razak (IPPTAR), Malaysia.
1. Siobhán McHugh delivers a keynote on podcasting to the Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union, Chengdu, China, October 2017 (author’s personal collection)
2. ABU/UOW Power of Podcasting workshop, Nov 2018. Participants point to their story on the theme of absence. Niu Honglin, third right, Luo Laiming on right, Siobhán McHugh, centre (author’s personal collection)
3. Laiming’s one-minute audio postcard script. (author’s personal collection)
4. Artwork for the podcast Illuminating Chinese Classics, from China Radio International (iTunes)
5. Workshop participants on the last day in studio. Niu Honglin second left, Luo Laiming in white shirt, Olya Booyar, Head of Radio, ABU, centre, beside Siobhán McHugh. Participants came from China Radio International, Voice of Vietnam, VTV, Vietnam and Institut Penyiaran dan Penerangan Tun Abdul Razak (IPPTAR), Malaysia. (author’s personal collection)
Saving New Sounds: Podcasts and Preservation Jeremy Wade Morris / University of Wisconsin-Madison
Golden Age of Podcasts for Everyone!
We are, as commentators have noted, in the midst of a “GoldenAge of Podcasts”; a moment where the choice for quality digital audio abounds, and where new voices and listeners connect daily through earbuds, car stereos, home speakers or office computers. Depending on how you define it, podcasting is either just over 10 years old, more than 20 years old, or merely the latest soundwave in radio’s much longer history. [ ((Bottomley, Andrew J. (2016) “Internet Radio: A History of a Medium in Transition.” [Dissertation] Order No. 10154207. The University of Wisconsin – Madison. ProQuest Dissertations.))] However you date it, in the decade since 2004 when the term “podcasting” was inadvertently coined the format has exploded: there are now over 300,000 podcasts and 8 million episodes in over 100 languages, with new ones launching every day. [ ((Hammersley, Ben. (2004, February 12). “Audible Revolution.” The Guardian. Section T1. Accessed July 13, 2007 http://www.theguardian.com/media/2004/feb/12/broadcasting.digitalmedia.))]
Given how ubiquitous and available podcasts are, you might assume they would not face the same preservation risks as, say, old radio tape reels, transcription discs or celluloid film stock. Podcasts are largely free and their near-instant availability on multiple devices makes them seem as if they are in endless supply. They take up relatively few megabytes, which makes it easy to store a lot of them, and they are often available through multiple channels and aggregators (iTunes, Stitcher, SoundCloud, etc.).
Author screenshot of the premium paywall for the WTF with Marc Maron podcast.
But podcasts are surprisingly vulnerable; podcast feeds end abruptly, cease to be maintained, or become housed in proprietary databases, like iTunes, which are difficult to search with any rigor. Many podcasts get put behind paywalls as they get popular, or as back catalogues become a potential source of revenue. Then there’s the precarity of the very platforms that help make up podcasting’s diffuse and sometimes DIY infrastructure: I recently heard from an independent podcaster who had been hosting their show via the file management app/website Dropbox, but once that company made significant changes to its “public folder” feature, the podcaster was left scrambling to find another solution for where to host their files (and had to return to older shows to update the URLs and locations of new files).
It’s not just under-resourced independent podcasters whose files are at risk though. Well-known Internet entrepreneur and former MTV VJ Adam Curry shares a similar story. In 2014, he sent out a tweet asking his 40,000+ followers a relatively straightforward question: “Looking for a full archive of Daily Source Code mp3s.” The podcast he was trying to track down, the Daily Source Code, was an early (2004), and relatively popular podcast, that helped shaped the emerging format. It was an odd request, in some ways, since Curry was the creator, host and producer of the Daily Source Code (which ran from 2004-2013 and over 860 episodes). It’s not entirely clear what happened to Curry’s original copies of the shows; but it’s clear he doesn’t have them: “For a number of [stupid and careless] reasons, I am not in possession of most of these.” [ ((Curry, Adam (2014, January). “The Daily Source Code Archive Project: Bringing The DSC Back”. [blog] Accessed October 22, 2016 http://blog.curry.com/2014/01/15/theDailySourceCodeArchiveProject.html))] If the very people producing these new artifacts of audio culture aren’t necessarily saving their work, who is?
Author screenshot of a tweet by Adam Curry looking for archives of his own show.
Of course, we can’t fault Curry for not saving the shows. If you’ve ever produced a podcast, you know that just getting the audio up and running, day after day, week after week, is accomplishment enough. There are countless hosts, producers and engineers without the foresight, budgets or means to label, store and archive their audio. Also, because of the mundane nature of a lot of podcasts, many podcasters probably do not realize the audio they are making is shaping the early stages of this emerging format, and doing so in a way that media historians, scholars and hobbyists might later want to analyze, research, teach and reference.
Unfortunately, we know this from precedent. Much of radio’s history has been lost to vagaries of time and only now are we starting to make sense of what we’re missing. The Radio Preservation Taskforce, for example, is working hard to try and preserve what remains of radio’s past, but claims that close to 75% of historical radio recordings in the U.S. have already been lost, destroyed, or are otherwise inaudible. The numbers are similar, if not worse, for silent films.
Podcasts might be newer than pre-1975 radio, and more digital and accessible than silent films, but this alone doesn’t ensure their continued existence. We are deep enough into our experiences with technologies like the world wide web, spinning disc hard drives, and error 404s to know that digital objects bring new challenges for saving, locating and retrieving data over time. [ ((Brügger, Neils (ed.). 2010. Web History. New York: Peter Lang))] Thankfully, sites like The Internet Archive are addressing some of these challenges, and providing new tools for thinking through, and doing, digital histories. The Internet Archive also has a growing audio database, part of which is devoted to podcasts. There are also a number of libraries that are beginning to bolster their digital audio collections and to take podcasts seriously as a format that deserves attention and long-term stewardship.
For the last few years, I’ve been coordinating a revolving team of students, technicians and faculty (primarily Dr. Eric Hoyt), in order to build a site to preserve podcasts and make them more researchable for audio scholars and enthusiasts. You can try out the beta version of PodcastRE (short for Podcast Research) to search for keywords and metadata associated with the 240,000+ audio files and over 1300 podcast feeds. There are also several thousand interactive transcripts (thanks to the good folks at AudioSearch). It’s far from comprehensive, but it’s growing daily and it will, when it’s complete, make podcasts and other born-digital audio as easy to use and research as textual resources you’d find in a library. It’ll also create a repository for these often vulnerable and ephemeral media texts.
Author screenshot of http://podcastre.org, the beta version of the database we are building to help preserve podcasts and make them more useable for researchers.
Ultimately, we hope the database will allow media and sound researchers to ask questions about podcasts and podcasting: how do podcasts differ, sonically and aesthetically, from radio? What new voices and perspectives do podcasts make audible and which ones do they silence? In what ways are the traditional conventions of the broadcasting industry shaping this new outlet? How are producers and consumers reimagining the broadcasting in light of podcasts? But we’re also hoping researchers from a broad array of disciplines and fields will be able to use podcasts and audio as resources to address a wide range of humanistic and scientific questions.
Whether we’re in some new golden age of audio, or whether we’re just hearing the vibrations of radio reformatted, we can at least hopefully agree that podcasting is a vibrant and growing space for new kinds of listening publics. [ ((Berry, Richard. 2016. “Podcasting: Considering the evolution of the medium and its association with the word ‘radio’.” Radio Journal: International Studies in Broadcast & Audio Media 14 (1):7-22. doi: 10.1386/rjao.14.1.7_1.; Hilmes, Michele. 2013. “The New Materiality of Radio: Sound on Screens.” In Radio’s New Wave: Global Sound in the Digital Era, edited by Jason Loviglio and Michele Hilmes, 43-61. New York: Routledge.; Lacey, Kate. 2013. Listening Publics : The Politics And Experience Of Listening In The Media Age. Cambridge, UK; Malden, MA: Polity Press.))] If so, you’d think we’d have a more comprehensive strategy for saving these new sounds than optimistically assuming podcast producers are keeping proper backup copies of their shows, or that platforms like Dropbox, iTunes or SoundCloud will continue to provide the same kinds of services for the foreseeable future.
By virtue of the fact they are taking part in a format’s infancy, today’s podcasters are making history by default. What today’s podcasters are producing will have value in the future, if not for its content, but for it tells us about radio and audio’s longer history, about who has the right to communicate and by what means. [ ((Sterne, Jonathan, Jeremy Wade Morris, Michael Baker, and Ariana Moscote Freire. 2008. “The Politics of Podcasting.” Fibreculture (13). Available at http://thirteen.fibreculturejournal.org/fcj-087-the-politics-of-podcasting/))] If we’re not making efforts to preserve podcasts now, we’ll likely find ourselves in the same sonic conundrum many radio historians now find themselves in: writing, researching and thinking about a past they can’t fully hear.
Luckily for Curry, shortly after his tweet for help, he discovered that a “super friend of the show” had a copy of the entire Daily Source Code archive and was uploading it and making to available to fans through Bit Torrent Sync. As with much of what we have left of radio’s golden age, fans and enthusiasts were helping rebuild the missing archive. As a result, one of podcasting’s first big shows wasn’t lost to time. The same can’t be said for many other feeds that have already disappeared and the many more that might if we don’t make preserving podcasts a priority.
1. Golden Age of Podcasts for Everyone!
2. Author screenshot of the premium paywall for the WTF with Marc Maron podcast.(author’s screen grab)
3. Author screenshot of a contingent platform, from a Dropbox press release. (author’s screen grab)
4. Author screenshot of a tweet by Adam Curry looking for archives of his own show. (author’s screen grab)
5. Author screenshot of http://podcastre.org, the beta version of the database we are building to help preserve podcasts and make them more useable for researchers. (author’s screen grab)
Please feel free to comment.
Voices from Below: Storytelling Podcasts and the Politics of Everyday Life Andrew J. Bottomley / SUNY Oneonta
The goal of storytelling is to make the audience live the storyteller’s experience. “The storyteller takes what he tells from experience – his own or that reported by others,” writes Walter Benjamin, “And he in turn makes it the experience of those who are listening to his tale.” [ (( Walter Benjamin, “The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov,” in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), 84.))] As an oral tradition, the act of storytelling situates the narrator in a relationship with a larger audience. Storytelling is a form of giving. Certainly, you can teach with a story or persuade with a story, but true storytelling should not make any demands of the audience other than simply to listen. The aim is to invite listeners to interact with the story and interpret it’s meaning individually.
Over the past decade, a growing number of introspective first-person podcast series have focused on affect and lived experience, exploring the lives of ordinary people in emotional depth and detail. The term “audio storytelling” has sprung up to describe these narrative- and character-driven podcasts. [ (( The industry, popular press, and fans call these programs a variety of names, including also “storytelling podcasts” and “narrative nonfiction podcasts.” I personally prefer to refer to them as radio feature-documentaries. However, I have settled on the “audio storytelling” name for this article, as it is currently the most widely recognized term.))] The audio storytelling category is broad and rather ambiguous, encompassing live storytelling podcasts (think: The Moth, Mortified), memoir-style personal documentaries (think: Millennial, How to be a Girl), essay-like historical narratives (think: The Memory Palace, You Must Remember This), and non-narrated stories (think: Everything is Stories, This is Actually Happening). Whatever the format, the essence of audio storytelling is based around the voices of ordinary people and their personal experiences, memories, and commentaries.
Logo for the podcast Love + Radio.
I am focusing here on the non-narrated mode, and specifically on the podcast Love + Radio. In contemporary podcast production, the term “non-narrated” refers specifically to a documentary audio piece where there is no narration from a host or reporter. The piece consists entirely of an interview with someone – and typically that someone is an “ordinary person,” meaning anyone who is not a celebrity, politician, media professional, social elite, or newsworthy figure. Usually they are recorded in the field, not in a studio. The interviewer is sometimes heard in the piece, though her interjections are kept to a minimum. In many cases, the piece is edited so the interviewer is excised entirely, resulting in the “story” being presented as a monologue where the subject’s voice is the only one heard. [ (( I am using the term “non-narrated” because it is widely used in radio/podcast production circles. However, I must point out that “non-narrated” is actually a misnomer, since the interviewee is both the subject of the discourse and the speaking subject – that is, the interviewee is the narrator.))] To quote Radio Diaries producer Joe Richman, the objective of these non-narrated programs is to tell “the extraordinary stories of ordinary life.” [ (( Joe Richman, “Manifesto,” Transom.org (2014, April 15), http://transom.org/2014/joe-richman/. Notably, too, Richman is a veteran public radio producer, and thus it must be acknowledged that this non-narrated mode of audio storytelling is hardly new to podcasting. It has a history that dates back to the 1940s and some of the earliest radio documentaries made in the U.S. The non-narrated mode has also lived a long life on NPR since the 1970s, even if it is mostly confined to short radio pieces inserted into news magazine like All Things Considered and Morning Edition. If you’re a regular public radio listener, you might be familiar with the non-narrated mode via the work of Dave Isay and StoryCorps, The Kitchen Sisters (Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva) and Lost & Found Sound or Fugitive Waves, and Richman and his Teenage Diaries and Radio Diaries series.))]
Love + Radio was one of the first podcast-only series to adopt the non-narrated approach, beginning back in 2005. Spearheaded by Nick van der Kolk, the Radiotopia distributed podcast features stories contributed by a rotating team of producers and freelancers. Even though they occasionally deviate from the non-narrated mode with straight one-to-one interviews, its subjects are always ordinary people. And these subjects are given a platform to speak mostly uninterrupted for lengthy periods of time: episodes run anywhere from 20-minutes up to an hour. The affordances of podcasting – unrestricted length, low production and distribution costs, absence of FCC regulation – allow producers to tell long, often intricate stories that range from the mundane to the sensational, placing special emphasis on individual experience and affect. Love + Radio, in particular, tends to feature subcultural or marginalized subjects who are either entirely overlooked by most popular media or, if they are represented, who are framed as deviants, social pariahs, or one-dimensional stereotypes: sex workers, pimps, cult members, con artists, drifters, prisoners, pedophiles, stroke survivors, drug dealers and drug addicts. These are highly sensitive and controversial issues that, no matter how delicately they might be discussed on broadcast radio, would have a hard time getting past station program directors or FCC regulations.
Podcasts like Love + Radio give these individuals a platform on which to voice perspectives that are transgressive and frequently challenge the ideological status quo. The long running time and lack of host narration in a non-narrated podcast immerses listeners in the subject’s personal narrative, inviting the audience to focus on the motivations behind people’s actions. These questions of why are typically left out of standard journalistic reports, which mainly focus on the what, the consequences. In the least, audiences are encouraged to reflect on the narrator’s story and draw their own conclusions.
Artwork for Love + Radio “Jack and Ellen” episode
An example. The 2013 episode “Jack and Ellen” is the story of a young woman, Ellen, who escapes her dead-end job as a Subway “sandwich artist” to become what she calls “a professional blackmailer.” Specifically, she pretends to be a 15-year-old boy on Craigslist in order to lure in pedophiles and blackmail them – a practice known as pedobaiting. Through her alter ego “Jack,” she estimates she has extorted 100 people for a total of $30,000-$40,000. To begin, the subject matter of the episode is sexual solicitation and pedophilia: topics that are certainly covered in the traditional news media, albeit typically in a narrowly defined and conservative manner. In contrast, Love + Radio spends a full 31-minutes on Ellen’s story, discussing the topics with much more candor than broadcast journalism ever could, leaving the more explicit and unsavory details intact rather than tiptoeing around them. Indeed, while pedophilia is nearly universally abhorred, Ellen’s catfishing and blackmail are also morally objectionable (and illegal) activities. Her story, therefore, is full of moral ambiguity: the actions of the pedophiles are detestable and criminal, yet Ellen’s exploitation of them is too. Since the Love + Radio producers refrain from narrating Ellen’s story or attaching a fixed moral lesson to it, listeners are openly invited to draw their own conclusions about the ethical dilemmas presented in the story.
The longform structure of a podcast like this reveals emotional textures and intricacies that a short 4-minute story on, say, All Things Considered simply cannot capture. Over the course of the podcast, Ellen develops from a rather one-dimensional, unmerciful character into a dynamic young woman who is conflicted by being a blackmailer but manages to find ways to rationalize her actions anyway. Among other things, we eventually learn that Ellen is a lesbian, which she admits puts her in a morally complicated position. Listen to this clip, in which Ellen justifies her blackmail.
One area where audio storytelling has a significant advantage over other forms of digital storytelling is through aurality: sound gives us access to what was said as well as how it was said. Audio captures communicative aspects of the speaker’s voice such as tone, stress, volume, speed, pitch, accent, dialect, and other subtle speech dynamics and rhythms, which carry a whole subtext of meaning. Indeed, in the beginning of her story, Ellen is very matter-of-fact about her catfishing and, hearing her voice, she sounds unfeeling and remorseless – which initially makes her difficult to empathize with, even if the pedophiles she’s blackmailing are also disdainful characters. As the conversation progresses, however, Ellen’s tone becomes lighter and her pace gets less terse, which makes her sound more open and expressive – if not likable, she at least becomes a more rounded figure. She’s still a criminal, but we begin to understand how she came to be where she is – and that complexity is communicated as much through the sound of her voice as it is through the content of her words.
A similar example of the power of sound in non-narrated audio storytelling comes from the episode “Eternity Through Skirts and Waistcoats,” which features another gay woman, Norah Vincent, who disguised herself as a man – this time as what she calls “an immersive journalist” reporting on gender relations. In this clip from the episode, we hear her audibly transition into her male alter ego, Ned, which has a very different impact when heard rather than read on a transcript.
A few takeaways. To start, radio and podcasting are particularly well suited to the everyday, experiential type of personal narratives that I quoted Walter Benjamin describing in my introduction. “The everyday” is a foundational concept in media and cultural studies, of course, and the basis for the field’s investigations into popular culture and lived experiences, especially the experiences of disenfranchised or marginalized social groups. Raymond Williams’ idea of “structure of feeling” is appropriate here: it describes the shared values of a particular group or society in a specific historical moment, defined through the actual affective social character of a period. [ (( Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature (New York: Oxford University, 1977), 132.))] The long duration of storytelling podcasts and their commitment to people’s individual experiences and emotions, rather than traditional politics or “hard news” topics, captures this felt social character of a period. Moreover, podcasts like Love + Radio are highlighting points of view that are too often unheard or under-recognized in other mass media. This attention to the lived experiences of people outside the cultural mainstream helps expand the range of discourse circulating in the mediated public sphere.
Now, a lot of audio stories – particularly public media programs like This American Life and its many clones – claim to cover “everyday lives.” Jason Loviglio has rightly critiqued This American Life for in actuality representing a rather narrow range of people and perspectives that resemble the demographics and tastes of the show’s predominantly white, upper-middle-class, educated audience. What’s more, the emphasis on individual experiences favors “slice-of-life” vignettes that privilege personal struggles over societal problems. These character-driven stories, says Loviglio, obscure the larger issues of politics, policy, and other deeply-rooted institutional and historical factors, promoting the neoliberal moral that “the impetus for social change resides in the character of specific people, not in the intolerable social conditions that many people confront.” [ (( Jason Loviglio, “Public Radio, This American Life, and the Neoliberal Turn,” in A Moment of Danger: Critical Studies in the History of U.S. Communication Since World War II, eds. Janice Peck and Inger L. Stole (Milwaukee: Marquette University, 2011), 294.))]
This line of critique could certainly be applied to Love + Radio. The episode “The Silver Dollar,” for instance, features an African-American musician, Daryl Davis, whose approach to overcoming white racism is to personally befriend Ku Klux Klan members. In this clip, Davis claims former KKK Imperial Wizards and Grand Dragons amongst his close personal friends.
In fact, the episode ends right there. Since there is no host narration providing a critique, listeners could be forgiven for interpreting the lesson of Davis’ life story as being that racism is an individual rather than a systemic problem, and that the best way to effect positive social change is through personal action rather than any political initiative or collaborative effort. This is a decidedly neoliberal message.
It is conventional for modern audio storytelling to offer some sort of narrative “surprise” or “twist” – the result being to highlight stories that are more extraordinary than ordinary. [ (( This storytelling strategy of using “surprise” to create narrative pleasure is widely circulated in speeches and essays from popular radio/podcast personalities, most notably Ira Glass and his fellow producers at the hugely popular This American Life. See, for instance, This American Life’s description of “it has to be surprising” on its “About Us” webpage.))] As much as I admire the program, too often the voices in Love + Radio end up resembling a rogues’ gallery of misfits and eccentrics: pimps, sex workers, mafioso, bank robbers, pedophiles, crime scene cleanup specialists, surrealist artists. Plenty of Love + Radio episodes focus on less ostentatious subjects; nevertheless, the series (and numerous other podcast series like it) has a kitschy fascination with the weird, the outlandish, and the sensational that pulls attention away from the truly ordinary or everyday.
Co-hosts Nigel Poor (left) and Earlonne Woods (center) interview inmate Rahsaan Thomas at San Quentin State Prison for the podcast Ear Hustle
The industry lore that a “good story” needs narrative surprise leads many podcast producers to seek out a too-narrow group of subjects and narratives. As a result, the promise of audio storytelling to capture the full range of everyday life across all classes and cultures is going at least partly unfulfilled. As opposed to the more common This American Life-esque anthology approach of switching themes and subjects from episode-to-episode, I personally would like to see more topically focused podcasts that examine an issue or social group consistently across a series – such as a series gathering the lived experiences and disenfranchised voices of DACA immigrants, or migrants workers, or the inner-city poor. Such series could better explore the systemic nature of racism and other social problems, highlighting commonalities rather than isolated or exceptional cases. Ear Hustle is one such podcast, a new series which centers on the first-person accounts of prison life, as told entirely by inmates within a single institution, California’s San Quentin State Prison. It will hopefully become a model for others.
The inwardness of neoliberal subjectivity is a legitimate risk of first-person audio storytelling, due to its stress on individual experience over socio-historical context or critical-cultural analysis. Nick Couldry argues, however, that voice is actually the best way to challenge neoliberal political power. For Couldry, this ability to subjectively give an account of oneself and one’s experiences in the world is a basic feature of human life. It is, in fact, the one power that even the most marginalized and oppressed populations still possess. [ (( Nick Couldry, Why Voice Matters: Culture and Politics After Neoliberalism (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2010), 1-13.))] The issue is not simply having “more voices” in public, but also valuing those voices: that someone’s life can become a story – a narrative that is heard by others and, in the process, is recognized as having value – is one crucial way of showing them that their experiences, and thereby their life, count. This is what audio storytelling is doing, especially non-narrated stories that make individual personal narratives the focal point. Podcasts like Love + Radio are creating spaces for marginalized (or at least stigmatized) people to speak on their own terms and tell us about themselves, and for us to listen to those self-narratives and give them meaning and purpose.
Audio storytelling is observing culture “from the bottom up,” generating the evidence of ordinary people “on the ground” that can be used to support a more expansive and fully open politics that can challenge neoliberalism. Storytelling podcasts like Love + Radio are helping a more diverse range of people to be made audible, recognizing and raising their voices. That doesn’t mean these shows aren’t without their weaknesses. There tends to be an over-emphasis on sentimental and sensational narratives. The anthology format means that individual stories wind up isolated and alone, disconnected from a larger political message or movement. Nonetheless, podcasting has revitalized and strengthened radio storytelling as a tool for participatory democracy. And, in listening to the complexities of other people’s life stories, we may learn something about the complexities of society and of our own lives, too.
The Transformative Power of PodcastsBonni Stachowiak / Vanguard University
Bonni Stachowiak producing her podcast Teaching Higher Ed
In 1999, Hae Min Lee, a well-loved high school student, went missing. Weeks after that, Adnan Syed, her ex-boyfriend, was arrested for her murder. Almost 20 years later, Adnan still asserts his innocence. We were able to hear every detail of the trial, through the eyes of Sarah Koenig, a journalist and podcast producer.
The podcast Serial
“For the last year, I’ve spent every working day, trying to figure out where a high school kid was for an hour after school one day in 1999. Or, if you want to get technical about it (and apparently, I do), where a high school kid was for 21 minutes after school one day in 1999. This search sometimes feels undignified on my part…” – Sarah Koenig
For those who listen to podcasts, it has become our most preferred source of audio. 13-34 year-olds spend more time listening to podcasts than they do AM/FM radio content. Podcasts are with us at home and in the car. More and more people are discovering podcasts, with a growth trajectory of 21-24% each year. [ (( Edison Research. (2017b, April 18). The Podcast Consumer 2017.))]
Podcast listeners were captivated by another alleged murder in 2017, when first being introduced to John B. McLemore in his hometown of Woodstock, Alabama, through the S-Town podcast. We quickly captivated by John and his vivid descriptions of what he called “shit town,” the place he resided. By May, the S-Town podcast had been downloaded more than 40 million times. [ (( Quah, N. (2017, May 4). S-Town Has Exceeded 40 Million Downloads, Which Is Truly a Ton of Downloads. Retrieved September 23, 2017.))]
Brian Reed, creator and host of S-Town
Brian Reed is the journalist who responded to McLemore’s requests to visit S-Town and to research the death of a resident of Woodstock. In the opening of Chapter 1, Reed’s descriptions of the art of clock restoration foreshadow some of the challenges that arise when we try to discern another person’s brokenness.
When clocks are repaired, they are often left with what are known as witness marks. These blemishes hint at the ways in which the clock has been damaged in the past. Since old clocks lack instruction manuals, clock restorers are left with the frustrating process of trying to discern what’s wrong and how to fix the problem.
“I’m told fixing an old clock can be maddening. You’re constantly wondering if you’ve just spent hours going down a path that will likely take you nowhere, and all you’ve got are these vague witness marks, which might not even mean what you think they mean.” – John Reed
Despite podcasting’s growth, AM/FM radio still rules supreme for overall audio choices. Americans spend 54% of their listening time on AM/FM radio. Edison Research calls this “Share of Ear” in their analysis. When disaggregating the data to focus specifically on those who already listen to podcasts, we spend 30% of our time consuming them. [ (( Edison Research. (2017a, March 9). The Infinite Dial 2017. Retrieved September 23, 2017.))]
Without wanting to spoil the experience of listening to Serial or S-Town with “fresh ears,” it is safe to say that both Adnan’s and John’s lives have been transformed through podcasting. My life is different, as well, though not quite in as dramatic of ways as theirs.
My teaching has also been transformed through podcasting. I launched the Teaching in Higher Ed podcast in June of 2014. Episodes have been airing weekly ever since. Each episode is downloaded by thousands of us in higher education who are seeking to improve our teaching. While it takes an incredible amount of work, not to mention the willingness to fail and be vulnerable, I am grateful for how my pedagogy is different, today, because of the podcast.
I used to think of plagiarism and other forms of cheating as a personal affront. James Lang, Stephanie Vie, and Phil Newton changed my perspective on issues of academic integrity.
Yolanda Flores Niemann helped me envision what it would be like to be Presumed Incompetent in the classroom and in my scholarship. Clint Smith stressed the danger of silence and “the difference between a sort of silence of complicity and a silence of listening.” Stephen Brookfield revealed how often people like me can want to come across as “good white people” and how unaware can be of the dangers of that perspective.
The top higher education podcasts in Apple Podcasts
Discoverability is an issue for finding relevant podcast content. On the morning of September 23, 2017, the top higher education podcasts included recordings of college lectures, language tutorials, discipline-specific continuing education, advice for student success, and the Teaching in Higher Ed podcast (which bounces around the fickle, iTunes charts hour-by-hour).
“Audio is one of the most intimate forms of media because you are constantly building your own images of the story in your mind and you’re creating your own production.” – Emma Rodero
Podcasts travel with listeners wherever we go. Artists and business people are increasingly discovering the power of the medium. It is exciting to consider what is on the podcasting horizon. I look forward to all that I will learn from hosting my own podcast, as well as consuming up to ten hours of podcast favorites each week.
Media and the Movement: Activist Community Radio in the American SouthJoshua Clark Davis / University of Baltimore Seth Kotch / University of North Carolina Chapel Hill
Obataiye Akinwole, WAFR Radio, 1973
When WAFR-FM, a three-thousand watt radio station, went on the air on the morning of September 15, 1971, few residents of Durham, North Carolina expected much from the upstart broadcaster, if they were even aware of its existence. The founders of the station, according to a local newspaper, hoped to “involve community leaders, professional people, ministers, and housewives in discussion of issues of interest to blacks.” ((“Noncommercial Station Set to Train Black Broadcasters,” Durham Morning-Herald, September 14, 1971.)) As Ralph Williams, a community activist and station cofounder explained, “we don’t feel that advertising should be the major work of a radio station.” Otherwise the station’s founders gave few hints as to their broadcasting intentions.
Logo of WRFG, Atlanta Non-Commercial Community Broadcaster, 1981
Indeed, it was only with their first musical selection, that WAFR’s staffers revealed how unconventional, and even radical, their programming would be. After a voice quickly announced the start of broadcasting, WAFR played the first two albums of the New York spoken-word group, the Last Poets, uncensored and in their entirety, including songs like “When the Revolution Comes” and “White Man’s Got a God Complex.” Although the Last Poets’ eponymous 1970 debut album had emerged as a surprise hit and sold over 300,000 copies, FCC guidelines had prevented other radio stations from playing the bulk of the group’s work, which featured no shortage of profanities. The Last Poets stridently and unapologetically embraced Black Power and enjoyed personal ties with leading black nationalists, including Amiri Baraka and the Black Panthers. As Donald Baker, one of the original staffers of WAFR, remembered, playing the group on the station’s inaugural broadcast “was radical—and probably the best reflection of the intent of the radio station.”
WAFR Children’s Workshop, 1973
That day in September 1971, WAFR became the first ever black-controlled, non-commercial community broadcaster in the United States. Not only that, but WAFR appears to have been the first ever black nationalist broadcaster in the country, with an all-black staff that celebrated Black Power over the airwaves with recordings of Malcolm X, black history programs hosted by a local professor, and even an independently produced, African American alternative to Sesame Street, the Children’s Radio Workshop. WAFR even made pan-Africanism a part of its call letters, which stood for “Wave Africa.” The station fused the tradition of radical community programming pioneered by Pacifica with the relatively new format of African American noncommercial radio, which had its origins in the founding of WHOV at the historically black Hampton University in 1964. Although WAFR would close after five years due to financial and personnel difficulties, at its height it reached roughly 75,000 listeners in the North Carolina Piedmont area with a blend of black radical politics, community programming, jazz, and soul music.
WSVP Dialogue Cover, 1978
Until recently, the sparse scholarship done on community radio in the United States has passed over the American South. In response, Media and the Movement is documenting the rich history of southern community radio with an extensive series of oral histories and digitization efforts funded by two grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, its Collaborative Research Grant and a Digital Projects for the Public Grant. In addition to WAFR, we are focusing on two other radical community radio stations founded by Southern civil rights and antiwar activists—WRFG in Atlanta and WVSP in tiny Warrenton, North Carolina—as part of a larger project on activist media throughout the region in the 1960s and ‘70s.
Radio Staff of WSVP, 1977
As we conducted our oral history research, we encountered caches of audio recordings in attics and garages. These reels, many of which were donated from other stations and overdubbed by station engineers, are decades old and profoundly endangered, damaged by mold and less-than-ideal storage conditions. Using George Blood, LP, we have cleaned and digitized 160 reels containing recordings of call-in shows, musical performances, opinion pieces, reporting, community events, and more, not to mention WAFR’s Children’s Radio Workshop, one episode of which features an eerily prescient skit about Chicken Little, reimagined as an African American boy who is struck by a police officer. Other recordings include live speeches by nationally prominent activists traveling through the South, including Bobby Seale and California socialist Congressman Ron Dellums, and an out-of-print, fifty-episode “people’s history” of Atlanta audio documentary series produced by WRFG. We are currently at work creating tape logs of all this audio, which is being stored in the UNC Libraries. We have also begun a planning for a permanent, physical donation so the reels will be preserved in perpetuity.
And we have begun work on this project that will address a core problem in oral history and no doubt in media studies, too: no one is listening. Oral historians were among the first to adopt digital tools for academic production, and since those early days have benefited substantially from the widespread digitization of oral histories in large-scale collections. Yet few people listen to oral histories and oral historians are at least partly to blame. In their eagerness to digitize their output, they failed to consider that the digitization of text transcripts would provide a persuasive disincentive to listening; it’s just easier to read. Thus the onus has fallen on archivists and their allies to create digital environments that encourage listening. When my colleague and I came across a trove of historic radio recordings, we set out to do so.
This year we started work in the University of North Carolina Digital Innovation Lab to begin development of Playback Station, a browser-based, open-source, open-access media curation platform designed to present historic and contemporary media material and interpretation thereof to a wide public. Its development is based on two key principles:
1. When dealing with aural sources, listening is essential.
2. Users desire a flexible, familiar interface that will bring researchers what they need and browsers serendipitous encounters.
Playback Station, within the Digital Innovation Lab at UNC Chapel Hill
Its design rests on the organizing concept of the album—a collection of tracks gathered under a heading. Each sound recording is given a title (“Oral History with Jane Doe” or “Children’s Radio Workshop”) and is segmented into a number of tracks, each of which is labeled with its own title and descriptive tags. Users will be able to search and browse for albums and tracks and create playlists using functionality from SoundCloud as they move through the collection. A user might elect to listen to part of a lecture on Black Power delivered on the Duke University campus in the 1970s, then to a live in-studio performance by a North Carolina blues musician, then an oral history with the deejay who was on air that day. The text of these recordings will scroll as the user listens, and that text will be interactive: clicking on a word or phrase in a text will prompt the audio to play from that point. In this way, listeners can scan audio with the same efficiency with which they scan text. Each oral history and radio segment will be paired with descriptive and interpretive content which will maintain context and inform users as they listen.
Playback Station will use text records, then, as nudges to listen rather than as substitutes for it. And we hope it will empower members of our community to become listener-deejays, curating their own aural experiences and calling back to the spontaneity and vitality of the live radio of the 1970s. When it is complete, we hope Playback Station will not only immerse listeners in the richness of these radio programs, but also demonstrate the unique blend of music, community-created content, opinion pieces, and organizing that made them remarkable.
PS. Media and the Movement is collecting materials from three radio stations, but only one of those stations–WRFG in Atlanta–is still broadcasting today. However, WRFG is currently in danger of going off the air if it can’t repay $40,000 in back rent for its tower. If you’d like to support one of the most important independent community broadcasters in the country, please consider making a tax-deductible donation at http://www.wrfg.org, where you can also listen to the WRFG’s rich and varied musical and political programming online.
Word Warrior Richard Durham: Crusading Radio ScriptwriterSonja Williams / Howard University
The versatile Richard Durham, radio writer of the 1940s
Inventiveness, versatility, and social consciousness defined the talents of Richard Durham – an African American writer whose lyrical and politically outspoken radio dramas of the 1940s earned him posthumous induction into the National Radio Hall of Fame in 2007. ((National Radio Hall of Fame: Richard Durham, accessed May 1, 2015, http://www.radiohof.org/richard_durham.htm )) In addition, Durham distinguished himself as an award-winning journalist and poet who authored a pioneering black drama series on television, co-wrote boxing champion Muhammad Ali’s 1975 autobiography and served as a speechwriter/strategist for Chicago’s first African American mayor, Harold Washington. ((“Bird of the Iron Feather,” accessed May 5, 2015, http://www.wbez.org/blogs/lee-bey/2013-02/bird-iron-feather-look-back-tvs-first-black-soap-opera-produced-chicago-105475; Muhammad Ali with Richard Durham. The Greatest: My Own Story, Random House, 1975; Renault Robinson interview with author, March 12, 2010.))
Born in rural Mississippi in September 1917, Richard Durham’s family migrated – like thousands of other Southern blacks – to Chicago, Illinois in 1923. As a teenager, Durham fell in love with poetry and several local and national periodicals published his poems. ((Richard Durham, Richard Durham Papers, Chicago Public Library, Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection, box 6, folder 12. (hereinafter Durham Papers) )) Durham also was drawn to the rather ethereal mass medium of radio, eventually becoming one of its more creative writers. This was a significant feat, given how few black Americans worked in this essentially “lily-white” industry during the 1930s and 1940s. In fact, a study conducted in 1947 by the civil rights organization known as the National Negro Congress (NNC), determined that Durham might have been the only Negro then working full-time as radio scriptwriter. ((“The Negro’s Status in Radio,” 1947, Papers of the National Negro Congress, part 1: Records and Correspondence, reel 34, series 2, NNC Records of the Executive Secretaries, 1943–1947, Harsh Research Collection, box 69, folder 0216, 1–2.))
Richard Durham (far right) enjoys a night out in 1942 at Chicago’s Club DeLisa with (from left to right): Phyllis Peltz, his brother Earl and his wife Clarice, along with David Peltz (Phyllis’s husband and Richard’s IWP co-worker).
Durham had honed his scriptwriting skills while working for the federally funded Illinois Writers’ Project (IWP). Beginning in 1939, Durham documented life in Depression-era Chicago with other IWP writers. He soon gravitated toward the IWP’s radio division where writers created scripts for weekly dramas broadcast on local Chicago stations. ((Jerre Mangione, Dream and the Deal: The Federal Writers Project, Little, Brown, 1972, 128.)) For WGN’s Great Artists series – dramas about artists featured in the Art Institute of Chicago – Durham’s February 1941 script cleverly revealed why Spanish painter Francisco Goya created his famous anti-war scenes during the early 1800s. ((Richard Durham, “Goya: The Disasters of War,” Great Artists, February 11, 1941, Durham Papers, box 5, folder 3.)) Durham’s script quickly establishes a sense of urgency. A character named Armid frantically bangs on Goya’s door while the sounds of marching military troops intensify in the background. Suddenly, a gun is fired. A body falls. And briefly, readers are left in limbo. Who is Armid? How is he connected to Goya, and is he now dead?
Soldiers from French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte’s army, an invading force in Spain, soon arrive at Goya’s door searching for escaped prisoner Armid. Durham’s Goya calmly states that there are only a few pictures and paint in his studio. However, a soldier sees what he believes is a puddle of blood on Goya’s studio floor. Durham then pitches a curve ball, throwing in a detail that will take his script readers – and his soldier characters – by surprise. Goya tells Napoleon’s men that what they think is blood is actually poisonous red “paint.” Tasting a drop of this “paint” could kill a man, Goya declares. Goya’s deception scares the soldiers. But their captain demands that Goya draw something with the so-called red paint. Goya obliges, depicting Napoleon’s soldiers as monsters. Enraged, the captain forces Goya to put the paintbrush in his mouth, believing it will kill him. Once the soldiers leave, Goya tells an injured but alive Armid that he will fight oppression through his art – vividly rendering the horrors of war on his canvases. In subsequent Great Artists programs, Durham dramatized the lives of freedom-loving artists like Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Paul Gauguin. ((Federal Writers’ Project, “Works Progress Administration, Special Studies and Projects, Regional and National Files,” Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, boxes A862-A867, folders—Radio Scripts, Illinois.))
After leaving the IWP in 1942, Durham became a freelance scriptwriter for popular national radio shows like The Lone Ranger and Ma Perkins. And, Durham served as a star investigative reporter for the black-owned, advocacy-oriented Chicago Defender newspaper. Through his reporting and scriptwriting, Durham sought “to find the kernel of Negro life and plant it in the sunshine of some artistic form which will reveal its inner beauty, its depth, its realistic emotions, its humanness.” ((Hugh Cordier, “A History and Analysis of Destination Freedom,” 1949, Durham Papers, box 6, folder 4, 24.))
During the mid-1940s, Durham wrote for Democracy USA, a Chicago Defender-sponsored radio series about black Americans whose lives typified the principles of democracy and freedom. ((Richard Durham interview with J. Fred MacDonald, 1975.)) Durham also wrote and produced an all-black radio soap opera, likely the first of its kind, called Here Comes Tomorrow. It tackled issues that African Americans grappled with in a post-World War II, yet still racially segregated America. ((Richard Durham, Here Comes Tomorrow, September 1947, scripts, Clarice Durham personal files.))
Publicity flyer, circa the late 1940s, advertising a weekly social that supported Richard Durham’s Destination Freedom series and other Chicago-based shows and entertainers.
But Durham’s crowning achievement during this period was his award-winning Destination Freedom radio series. Starting in June 1948, Durham dramatized the accomplishments of notable contemporary and historical black leaders, including entertainer Lena Horne, diplomat Ralph Bunche and abolitionist Sojourner Truth. Destination Freedom’s half-hour long, weekly dramas aired on Chicago’s NBC affiliate, WMAQ – boldly advocating for freedom, justice and equality for Negroes and all oppressed people.
For example, in Durham’s script about Denmark Vesey, leader of an 1822 slave revolt in South Carolina, Vesey states, “I read the Declaration of Independence . . . it said, ‘All men are created equal.’” But given the reality of racial inequality, Vesey defiantly notes, “Until all men are free, the revolution goes on!” ((J. Fred MacDonald, Richard Durham’s Destination Freedom, Praeger, 1989, 70, 62.)) For a medium that often ignored or negatively stereotyped African Americans, Durham’s radio characters were strong, dignified, if not downright militant people.
To fuel his writing, Richard Durham sifted through mounds of documents in the Negro history collection housed in Chicago’s Hall Branch Library. Durham then skillfully crafted his dramas, alternating between relatively straightforward narratives with more whimsical takes. In the “Rime of the Ancient Dodger,” for instance, Durham paid homage to Jackie Robinson. Robinson integrated baseball’s all-white major leagues when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers team in 1947. Durham’s friend and fellow writer Louis “Studs” Terkel played Sammy the Whammy, the show’s narrator. Durham used rhyme, humor and fantasy to let Sammy witness and comment on the discrimination levied against Robinson as soon as he stepped up to the batter’s plate:
There wuz umpires, umpires everywhere,
an’ the pitcher hadn’t thrown a ball.
But when this Robinson ups to the plate
Some ghostly umpire calls. . .
“S-t-r-i-k-e a t-[w]-o-o”. . .
Here wuz an’ umpire callin’ two strikes on a man
before he gets to bat,
an’ the bleachers wuz quiet like that.” ((Ibid, 234.))
Studs Terkel raved about Durham’s “talent for capturing the idiom, not just the African American, [but] the American idiom. He was just gifted.” ((Louis “Studs” Terkel, interview with author, May 30, 2001.)) When Durham’s Destination Freedom series ended its run in August 1950, he continued writing and influencing people through Chicago’s labor union movement, and through his editing of the Nation of Islam’s weekly national newspaper. Until his death in 1984, Durham remained a crusading writer and activist – a word warrior extraordinaire.
1. Richard Durham, Courtesy of Clarice Durham.
2. Club DeLisa, Courtesy of Clarice Durham.
3. Destination Freedom, Courtesy of the Richard Durham Papers, Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection, Chicago Public Library.
Can We Invent a Field Called “Radio Preservation Studies”?Carolyn Birdsall / University of Amsterdam
Recorded radio program, SWR archive, Baden-Baden
In 2005, Michele Hilmes titled a review: “Is There a Field Called Sound Culture Studies? And Does It Matter?” In this essay, Hilmes described a new research agenda that no longer limited its understanding of sound to particular media or as one of the components within media representations. In Hilmes’ words, this scholarship in sound studies of the early 2000s had worked to: “redefine it less as the study of sound itself, or as practices of aurality within a particular industry or field, than of the cultural contexts out of which sound media emerged and which they in turn work to create: sound culture.” ((Michele Hilmes, “Is There a Field Called Sound Culture Studies? And Does It Matter?” American Quarterly 57.1 (2005): 249-259, here 249.))
Ten years after these observations were first made, a surge of activity in sound studies is in evidence: from readers, handbooks, journals and professional organizations to a host of festivals, exhibitions, blogs and educational programs. Radio scholars like Hilmes, too, have become increasingly interested in sound studies approaches to broadcast history, even though radio has remained in the margins of much of this research ((For a recent collection, in which radio is included in the project of sound history, see Alejandra Bronfman and Andrew Grant Wood, eds. Media, Sound and Culture in Latin America and the Caribbean. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012.)) . Where Hilmes’ review reflected on a noticeable trend in scholarship, this Flow post will discuss the possibility of imagining a field that does not yet exist: Radio Preservation Studies.
Which precedents can be identified? By now, there is a distinct and thriving field that has come to be known as Film Preservation Studies. While defined by its ongoing investment in developing preservation techniques, the field is informed by exchange between film archival history, policy, theory and praxis. An early impulse for the field was the establishment of the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF) in 1938, as a joint effort between institutional partners from the US, UK, France and Germany. These founding institutions promoted a range of different approaches to film archiving, with varied emphasis on access and preservation. ((Malte Hagener, “Inventing a Past, Imagining a Future: The Discovery and Institutionalisation of Film History in the 1930’s.” Cinéma&Cie: International Film Studies Journal 6.16/17 (2011): 29-39.))
Film Preservation Studies is significant in that we can observe a sustained reflection on preservation methods, institutions and infrastructures. The field is also attentive to ways in which films are re-constituted in formal practices of restoration, archiving, exhibition and distribution as well in the public’s engagement with forms of digital access, museum presentation, creative re-use, re-mixing and DIY archiving. ((For key texts in this broader field, see the work on film archival theory and preservation approaches (e.g. Paolo Cherchi Usai, Giovanna Fossati, Julia Noordegraaf), re-mix and re-use practices (e.g. Jamie Baron, Erica Balsom, Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin), and historical institutional analysis (e.g. Penelope Houston, Haidee Wasson, Paula Amad, Rolf Aurich, Eric Hoyt).))
Celluloid Remix for the creative re-use of film heritage
In radio studies, the archive has tended to be a source rather than a primary object of study. Until now, the theme of sound archiving and preservation has only been marginally thematised in relation to European broadcast systems. ((See, for instance, Andy Linehan, ed. Aural History: Essays on Recorded Sound. London: British Library, 2001; Hans-Ulrich Wagner, “Sounds like the Fifties: Zur Klangarchäologie der Stimme im westdeutschen Rundfunk der Nachkriegszeit,” in Harro Segeberg and Frank Schätzlein, eds., Sound: Zur Technologie und Ästhetik des Akustischen in den Medien. Marburg: Schüren, 2005. 266-284; Erik Granly Jensen, “Access and History: The Digitisation of the Danish Broadcasting Archives and Its Cultural Heritage.” International Journal of Media & Cultural Politics 8.2-3 (2012): 305-16. For the US context, see Alexander Russo, “Defensive Transcriptions: Radio Networks, Sound-On-Disc Recording and the Meaning of Live Broadcasting.” The Velvet Light Trap 54 (Fall 2004): 7-17.)) On the whole, however, the role of the archive and sound archiving practice has not been the subject of investigation in any major radio history, whether in past institutional histories (for example, the multi-volume studies by Erik Barnouw and Asa Briggs) or more recent social and cultural histories. ((For instance, the studies published by Paddy Scannell/David Cardiff (1991), Susan Douglas (1999), Michele Hilmes/Shawn VanCour (2007).)) When the history of sound recording in radio has been acknowledged, it is either not connected to the archive or only discussed in relation to specific program formats.
One interesting exception is the portal Archive Pioneers: Saviours of Sound at the BBC, which explicitly thematizes the history of sound recording and archiving practices from the mid-1930s onwards. ((For further reflections on the pioneering preservation work of Slocombe, see also Sean Street, The Memory of Sound: Preserving the Sonic Past. New York: Routledge, 2015.)) This site includes spoken interviews with BBC technicians, program makers and archivists such as Marie Slocombe and Ludwig Koch. Such public history initiatives are a welcome development, since the portal provides online access to recorded sound, images and texts that address some of the ways in which recorded sound was historically perceived and used in British broadcasting. The site also draws the public’s attention to the status of particular archival records in the collection (e.g. bird recordings vs. famous speeches), and to historical developments in recording technology and production practice. And, importantly, it serves as a reminder that radio preservation projects should not only ‘follow the sound’, but reveal how sound in broadcasting was constituted in relation to other, print-based records, such as internal correspondence, memos, scripts, program guides or photos. ((On this point, see Josephine Dolan, “The Voice that cannot be Heard: Radio/Broadcasting and the ‘Archive.’” The Radio Journal 1.1 (2003): 63-72.))
Telex room, Cologne radio station, 12 February 1954
Why should broadcast scholars care about preservation? One of the most compelling arguments is that, from its earliest years, there has been a strong preoccupation of radio producers (and consumers) with not only the live qualities of wireless transmission, but also the possibility to record and re-use these ephemeral sounds. From the 1920s onwards, the increasing use of recorded sounds established recording and archival practices as central components in what radio sounded like for its listeners. Such practices not only suggest an overall influence on aesthetic changes in radio sound and programming, but require scholars to reconsider the co-constituting role of the archive in radio production. ((For a useful resource on the production of (radio) sound in terms of studio labour and technological practices, see Paul D. Greene and Thomas Porcello, eds., Wired for Sound: Engineering and Technologies in Sonic Culture. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2005.))
While various practices of collecting, ordering and re-using sound have been central to program production, there is a key difference between film and broadcast archives. Recordings held in broadcast archives today are closely linked to the production context and the needs of program makers, yet they are disconnected from the original domestic context in which broadcast sound was received. Indeed, while broadcast reception was one of the defining and ubiquitous experiences of twentieth century modernity, the sounds emitted via receivers leave few traces in the archive. Sound archival records, moreover, are often the product of multiple transfers and re-recording, and should be understood as the product of “phonomanipulation” techniques and acts of “reading sound.” (( Patrick Feaster, “‘A Compass of Extraordinary Range’: The Forgotten Origins of Phonomanipulation.” ARSC Journal 42.2 (2011): 163-203; Greg Goodale, Sonic Persuasion: Reading Sound in the Recorded Age. Urbana/Chicago/Springfield: University of Illinois Press, 2011.)) On the whole, the existence of many radio recordings are connected to the demands of program production, rather than historical documentation or preservation concerns.
Sound archive, Berlin radio station, November 1946
The Radio Preservation Task Force (RPTF) meeting and conference in early 2016 will offer its participants a forum to pool resources and exchange information. At the same time, it represents an invaluable opportunity for scholars, archivists, policymakers and broadcasters to develop a shared field of inquiry devoted to radio preservation. ((For my own reflections on how radio preservation can be situated in a broader field of sound preservation and media archiving, see “Sound in Media Studies: Archiving and the Construction of Sonic Heritage,” in Maria Hanáček, Jens Gerrit Papenburg and Holger Schulze, eds., Sound as Popular Culture. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press (forthcoming 2015). Recent sound preservation projects in Europe include LARM Audio Research Archive (Denmark), BBC Genome Project and World Service Archive Prototype (UK), along with Europe-funded collaboration projects like Europeana Sounds and Transnational Radio Encounters (TRE).)) Currently, the RPTF members are endeavoring to compile information on sound collections connected to radio stations across all U.S. states. On this basis, collective efforts will be made to identify the most important and urgent materials for digital preservation. One of the challenges for the RPTF will be to develop comparative perspectives within and beyond the U.S. context, which is related to a concern articulated by Hilmes about sound studies publications in the 2000s:
“[I]f our investigations of sound – surely one of the most elusive and boundary-defying media of all – is to be kept strictly within national borders, we will not only miss out on much that might add to our discussion, but we will build on a tendency to think that the specific ways that sound culture developed in the United States are somehow necessary and natural. […] We should be careful not to do with the variables of sound culture what has been done to sound generally in this visual age: create a seemingly transhistorical, transcultural essentialism that is actually predicated closely on an American model.” (( Hilmes, op. cit., 258.))
In these reflections on sound studies, Hilmes draws an analogy with radio. Scholars most familiar with U.S. radio history, Hilmes reminds us, should endeavour to make sense of other cultural impulses and models for the production, distribution and reception of radio. The European traditions of radio art and experimental radio traditions are given as an illustrative case in point for such variables in sound culture, let alone historical developments in radio sound preservation. ((One of the first formal radio archives was established at the Berlin local station in 1930, but archival practices in Germany have been split across local stations and regional/national bodies. While largely centralised activities of the BBC can be observed from the mid 1930s, the privately-funded British Institute of Recorded Sound recorded radio as part of its broad remit from 1955. International collaboration in music and sound archiving was formalised in post-war organisations such as the International Association of Music Libraries, Archives and Documentation Centres (IAML), and the International Association of Sound Archives (IASA).))
As such, Radio Preservation Studies will be required to reflect on the diversity of engagements with radio, but also the ongoing exclusions created within broadcasting and through normative ideas of radio heritage. ((An important concern includes the alternative practices generated by those denied access to broadcast channels. For a recent study which contrasts African American preaching on wax to white religious preachers on US radio: Lerone A. Martin, Preaching on Wax: The Phonograph and the Shaping of Modern African American Religion. New York: NYU Press, 2014.)) Attention may be directed to different types of radio (e.g. community, commercial, state-funded), and alternative models (e.g. pirate radio, closed-circuit radio, peer-to-peer practices). Radio archiving and preservation has also been constituted differently in organizations representing the civic, regional, federal and transnational (e.g. EBU, IBU). In order to fully address past and future preservation issues, this new field will necessarily continue in the interdisciplinary vein of radio studies, and will surely benefit from insights from archive and library studies, public history, heritage studies, museology and curation studies, memory studies, material culture studies, media archaeology, technology history and critical production studies. Without a doubt, Radio Preservation Studies still needs to be fully conceived and articulated. Yet not unlike the enthusiasm for sound studies a decade ago, radio preservation studies is a long overdue and promising new direction.
The Informal Economy of the Amateur Archive: Collectors as Cultural IntermediariesShawn VanCour / New York University
QRL Card, Courtesy of Marty Biniasz and Forgotten Buffalo
It’s a Friday morning in October 2014, and I am interviewing Marty Biniasz of Buffalo, New York, on behalf of the Library of Congress’s Radio Preservation Task Force. Marty is a former news anchor, past president of the Buffalo Broadcasters Association, and holds a personal collection of several hundred audiocassettes with over 20,000 hours of airchecks featuring local DJs, news, and public affairs programming from more than a dozen Western New York stations. He and fellow collector Steve Cichon are authoring the first book on the history of Buffalo broadcasting, and together they have helped preserve thousands of films, audio, and pieces of broadcasting ephemera for their local historical group, Forgotten Buffalo. You have likely never heard of either of them.
In current media studies parlance, we might categorize the forms of collection and preservation pursued by these individuals as part of an “informal economy” of archival practice, existing beyond the boundaries of official broadcasting institutions, below the level of chartered libraries and museums, and off the radar of most academic media historians. These bottom-up modes of archivization form the invisible substrate on which much of the history of local broadcasting may be written, impacting what sounds can enter the historical record and what cultural significance is accorded to them: if journalists, as the saying goes, write the first draft of history, the amateur archivist is the first to gather and organize its traces. To facilitate effective dialogue between these often neglected custodians of local broadcasting history and official keepers of national cultural memory, we must recognize the operational logics of the amateur archive, whose informal economy I suggest may be broken down into three smaller, component economies:
1. Moral Economy (Bootlegging as Public Service)
Cover of 1968 Radio Shack Catalog
In a recent post on OTR fandom, Nora Patterson notes the instrumental role that bootleggers played in preserving programs not actively archived by commercial networks. The concept of “moral economy” is useful for explaining such activity, adapted from E. P. Thompson’s formulation by scholars of fandom to describe responses to perceived breaches of contract between producers and their audiences. In a 1997 article for the New York Times, critic Allan Kozinn boldly declared “Bootlegging as a Public Service” that righted the wrongs of an entertainment industry whose overzealous antipiracy efforts had also threatened more ephemeral content unavailable through commercial channels:
“From a broader cultural perspective, bootleggers are doing something crucially important . . . . preserving recordings that would not otherwise have been kept, including material taped from radio.”
Fandom is by no means a precondition for bootlegging, nor is amateur archivization necessarily the province of fan studies. Nonetheless, the concept of a moral economy seems in many ways applicable: the bootlegger responds to failures by established institutions (both commercial and cultural) to adequately preserve and value local broadcasting, producing an unofficial, grassroots archive to complement the official one.
Moving this amateur archive into channels of official memory involves not just a physical transport of recorded material but also a negotiation between traditionally opposed structures of cultural valuation. Intended acts of cultural recognition may in this context be easily mistaken for symbolic violence – an attempted cooptation or perversion of alternative knowledges whose legitimation has been repeatedly denied in the past.
2. Fiscal Economy (Gray Markets)
Rain Blanken, “Make a Cassette Tape Wallet,” DIYFashion.com
Informal economies are never wholly separate from nor resistant to economies of capitalist exchange, occupying the space of so-called “gray markets.” As Clinton Heylin notes in his history of bootlegging, this “secret recording industry” has always been subject to market forces, with bootleggers cultivating markets neglected by official producers, who may in turn claim them for their own once their value has been proven.
While bootlegging is often not for profit, neither does it operate outside the sphere of monetary exchange. If recordings hold the stored labor of the musician, as Jacques Attali claims in his political economy of music, so too do they that of the bootlegger, who may seek appropriate compensation for his time and materials. Ed Brouder’s Man from Mars site, for instance, lets collectors view databases of his own holdings and purchase copies of desired recordings, for which the site explains, “Fees charged are for studio time, tape stock, office supplies, and postage only.” Richard Irwin’s Reel Radio online aircheck archive moved from a free to paid subscription service in 2006 to cover server costs, and by 2010 had nearly doubled its fees to meet increased operating expenses that Irwin attributed to “[listener] attrition, lack of corporate support and ongoing theft and trade of our exhibits.”
Online services are also directly impacted by the formal economies of official copyright regulation; Dale Patterson’s Rock Radio Scrapbook collection announces on its front page that “Rock Radio Scrapbook pays music licensing fees to the Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada,” while the growing popularity of Irwin’s site has made it a target of an RIAA crackdown that leaves the legality of many similar services in the U.S. in serious question.
Understanding the forces of capital that shape and limit the amateur archive is a necessary condition for effective dialogue between official and unofficial keepers of cultural memory, while raising concomitant policy issues that directly impact prospects for broader public access to archived materials.
3. Libidinal Economy (From Bootlegger to Ragpicker)
Edouard Manet, The Ragpicker (1865-70)
In his book on the late Orson Welles, Joseph McBride cites a 1981 talk in which Welles proclaimed, “I’m an amateur director . . . in the sense that ‘amateur’ derives from love.” This libidinal economy of amateurism, applied to collecting, moves us from the figure of the bootlegger to Walter Benjamin’s ragpicker, who strives to rescue the detritus of mass culture from destruction. In what sense may these salvage missions be characterized as labors of love?
Speaking with collectors, tales abound of last-minute rescues of master tapes discarded or on the brink of destruction by station owners who failed to see their value. As Benjamin says in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” “every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably.” The collector here appears as the final bulwark against otherwise inexorable forces of historical destruction and amnesia, the hero in a desperate scene of object-rescue.
In his work on collecting and consumerism, Russell Belk argues that efforts to save the object are often acts of love, but a love of two kinds: agape, that “selfless love” in which the collector gives himself over to the object, and eros, in which the object forms the screen for the collector’s own projections and desires. The amateur archive is suspended between these two loves.
Erik Desmaziere, Library of Babel; Anatomical Cabinet of Frederik Ruysch
Agape relinquishes the object in the very act of saving it and may better facilitate its reinscription within a new order of the official archive. However, it may also produce an indiscriminate antiquarianism that levels differences in meaning and complicates prioritization for preservation purposes, making all objects equally important and worthy of saving.
Eros rescues the object from antiquarianism but may also trap it within the collector’s own private echo-chamber, yielding not a Library of Babel so much as a Wunderkammer whose secret code must be broken before its materials can be extracted and made usable for other forms knowledge-production. Eros bears within it the seeds of critical history, in its selective cutting-up and rearrangement of the past, but it may also foster a possessive individualism whose hold cannot be easily broken. We must learn to recognize which is which.
Closing Thoughts: The Noble Amateur?
“Boris Rose, King of the Bootleggers”
In analyzing the informal economy of the amateur archive, we should take care not to replicate the myth of what Andrew Keen has called “the noble amateur.” While I do not share Keen’s views about the amateur’s destructive impact on creativity and professionalism, knee-jerk valorizations of bottom-up modes of cultural praxis should indeed be questioned, along with their presumed opposition to forms of top-down institutional power. Amateur archivization includes a broad range of practices (some valorous, others not), while efforts to open exchanges between amateur and official archives are ill-served by placing them in a relationship of a priori opposition.
The category of the “amateur” is itself problematic, blinding us to the expertise of the individuals involved – who often have extensive training as professional sound workers and web workers, may be published authors, and in some cases even hold part-time academic appointments. The “amateur” designation may here prove a problematic othering strategy that absolves us from the difficult work of interrogating the foundations and authorizing forces of “official” histories and archiving institutions. Creating effective dialogue between official and unofficial sites of cultural memory is essential for achieving the RPTF’s long-term goals of preservation and public access, but success in this area requires understanding the component economies of the amateur archive and critical questioning of the institutional forces that for too long have rendered it mute and invisible.
“Selling” America to Americans: New Deal Radio and Media EducationJoy Hayes / University of Iowa
1939 Social Security Board poster promoting the new family provisions of the Social Security Act. Pleasantdale Folks, a radio serial produced the same year by the Social Security Board, U.S. Office of Education and NBC, also aimed to sell social security to the American people.
Radio history offers fertile ground to explore the roots of contemporary media forms and formats, as well as perennial problems faced by mediated communication. These problems include questions of authenticity and verifiability, the dialectic of isolation and connectivity, and the issue of media education. The role of media as means of education remains a pressing question in the face of global health emergencies, large-scale disasters, and geo-political conflict. Civic groups, NGOs, governments and corporations continue to use both traditional and Internet-based media to communicate educational and pro-social messages to large and small communities alike. Just as important, however, is the role that media play in everyday learning via cultural production, consumption and socialization. What does it mean, then, to educate through media? Is it a process of propaganda, modeling, selling, or informing? How do these practices work together?
This column offers a brief exploration of these questions by examining the educational broadcasting experiment undertaken in the 1930s through the institutional framework of the Federal Radio Education Committee (FREC). ((The FCC created the FREC in 1934 with the aim of promoting educational broadcasting locally, regionally, and nationally. See Shepperd (2013) for a detailed discussion of the FREC. )) Using the mandate of the FREC, New Deal government agencies – particularly the U.S. Office of Education and Federal Theater Project Radio Divisions – worked closely with commercial networks to develop educational programs for national distribution. After Roosevelt’s landslide reelection in 1936, “federal agencies flowered into [radio] programming centers,” and, by the end of the decade, over 40 government agencies and divisions were writing and producing radio broadcasts. The Office of Education received an estimated $2.8 million worth of network airtime for 12 radio series, and the Federal Theatre Project was given $5 million worth of network radio time for 59 series. ((Smith Sayre, J. (1941). An Analysis of the Radiobroadcasting Activities of Federal Agencies. Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard. pp 22, 25))
Government officials involved in the New Deal broadcasting project argued that radio should be developed into a medium of “democratic propaganda” that “can spread the ideas and ideals of America, can ‘sell’ America to Americans…” (( Anning S. Prawl quoted in Spring, J. H. (1992). Images of American life: A history of ideological management in schools, movies, radio, and television. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, p105)) In the spirit of advertising associated with commercial broadcasting, another official stated, “I believe you can sell government the way you sell soap.” (( Evan Roberts quoted in Smith Sayre, 1941, p113)) While deep tensions existed around the concept of propaganda in the interwar period, the idea of persuasive communication in the service of selling was deeply ingrained in American culture. Advertising and publicity gained a foothold in everyday life in the 1920s and 1930s with the growth of chain stores, corporate-controlled media, and broadcast advertising. Rather than seeing a contradiction between propaganda, education and advertising, these New Deal officials identified a kinship between them.
Working primarily with commercial networks and stations, New Deal radio divisions developed programs that would fit audience (and producer) expectations of what a “commercial” program was. They adopted commercial genres including variety shows, detective stories, audience participation shows, and the historical pageant or “cavalcade” program popularized by DuPont’s Cavalcade of America (1935-1953). Cavalcade shows, which offered a procession of historical, scientific or cultural achievements, included The Epic of America, American Immortals, History in Action, Women in the Making of America, Gallant American Women, Americans All-Immigrants All, Brave New World, and Freedom’s People. Freedom’s People, in particular, developed an innovative and gripping sound montage to present an historical revision and celebration of African American life. ((See Shepperd, J. (2013). Electric Education: How the Media Reform Movement Built Public Broadcasting in the United States, 1934-1952. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of Wisconsin, Madison. for a detailed discussion of Freedom’s People.))
Entertainment-Education: Wings for the Martins
The New Deal radio divisions also produced shows in the “family drama” genre that rose in popularity in the late 1930s and 1940s with commercial programs such as One Man’s Family (1932-1959) and The Aldrich Family (1939-1953). This genre, which focused on non-ethnic, white, middle-class domestic life as a bulwark against social insecurity, provided a forum for popularizing New Deal social programs. (( Hayes, J.E. (2012). White Noise: Performing the White, Middle-Class Family on 1930s Radio. Cinema Journal, 51, 97-118.)) Two of the most widely distributed family drama programs were Wings for the Martins (1938-1939), produced by the Office of Education, National Congress of Parents and Teachers, and NBC for broadcast on the NBC Blue network, and Pleasantdale Folks (1939-1940), a transcription program created by the Social Security Board, Office of Education and NBC for distribution to NBC affiliates and other stations.
A look at these programs reveals an approach to educational broadcasting that resembles the philosophy of contemporary Entertainment-Education (E-E). Theorists and practitioners of E-E argue that the distinction between media entertainment and education is a needless dichotomy: what works to sell commercial goods can also sell pro-social messages. The practice of E-E is fundamentally based on the concept of modeling – the idea that mass media “educate” people to the extent that they provide powerful models for behavior and attitude formation. ((Singhal, A. (1999). Entertainment-Education: A community strategy for social change. London: L. Erlbaum Associates.)) For example, the first episode of Pleasantdale Folks invited the listener to, “Meet the Johnson Family of Pleasantdale: a typical American family in a typical American town. They should be as familiar to you as people in your own home…” ((Pleasantdale Folks (1939). Recordings. Records of The Federal Public Housing Authority 196.4 (Social Security Board, U.S. (FSA) 196-29.) Motion Picture, Sound and Video Branch. National Archives and Records Administration. College Park, MD.)) Listeners were invited to see themselves in the Johnson Family and learn about Social Security programs that could alleviate their hardships.
Wings for the Martins similarly asked listeners to recognize themselves in the Martin Family as it explored everyday problems of raising and educating children. Each program began with the announcement: “Wings for the Martins! A program for all of us who stand by while the younger generation tries its wings!” As the Martin family worked to adapt to changing educational practices, it drew on parent-teacher organizations and local community resources. In one episode, Arnold Martin learned about the new, more practical concept of “homework” that was replacing the old practice of “night work”. Instead of being a vehicle for promoting Jello Pudding or Palmolive Soap, the comical situations encountered by the family promoted new educational practices and a New Deal focus on community awareness and involvement.
Because they worked closely with commercial stations and producers, New Deal government radio divisions patterned their shows on successful commercial genres. Although New Deal radio programs informed listeners and offered them resources for further learning, they did not encourage the audience to examine or evaluate government policies. Instead, educational programs followed the commercial model: they sold New Deal social and cultural policies the way commercial programs sold soap.
A Sound History of Gender and Radio in South AmericaChristine Ehrick / University of Louisville
“Woman and microphone are incompatible,” concluded an unsigned column in a March 1934 issue of the Argentine radio fan magazine Sintonía. ((“Sintonizando.” Sintonía No. 57, 26 May 1934.)) Yet in October 1935, across the river in Montevideo, Uruguay, CX48 Radio Femenina became the first all-woman format radio station in the Western Hemisphere, eventually providing airtime to feminists, anti-war activists and even physical fitness advocates, before the station was blacklisted and temporarily shut down in 1944 due to the pro-Axis proclivities of one of its owners. At that point, back in Buenos Aires, a young radio actress named Eva Duarte was hosting Towards a Better Future, a radio program in support of a military junta that had assumed power in Argentina the previous year and which would elevate a young Colonel named Juan Perón – future President of Argentina and Duarte’s future husband – to national prominence. These and other vignettes speak to the important place of women’s radio voices in two of South America’s most important early radio markets and call our attention to the links between radio history, women’s history, and sound studies in Latin America and beyond. In my forthcoming book, Radio and the Gendered Soundscape: Women and Broadcasting in Argentina and Uruguay, 1930-1950, which will be published later this year by Cambridge University Press, I begin by asking what it meant to hear women’s voices on the radio during the medium’s so-called golden age. Perceived alternately as vulgar and seductive, shrill and soothing, women’s radio voices echoed and delineated the contradictory place of the feminine in modernity and of female bodies in the public sphere, all of which in turn underscore the gendered points of intersection between sound history and cultural history.
Women have been integral to the story of radio in South America
Starting in the late 1960s, Murray Shafer laid the foundations for what would become the interdisciplinary field of Sound Studies with his concept of the soundscape, which he coined as a way to describe the “acoustic environment” of contemporary societies. ((R. Murray Schafer, The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World. Rochester, VT: Destiny Books, 1993, 7.)) Sound Studies has subsequently opened up an entirely new paradigm for understanding the role of the sonic in the forging of modernity. Jonathan Sterne has called on scholars to “think sonically” and to use sound to “ask big questions about their cultural moments and the crises and problems of their time.” ((Jonathan Sterne ed., The Sound Studies Reader. London: Routledge, 2012, 3. )) Scholars are increasingly using sound as a category of historical analysis, exploring how sound of term paper and the perception of sound have varied over time and place, as well as how one might “hear” social, cultural, and political change over time. ((Some recent and forthcoming sound studies-inspired historical studies include: Aimee Boutin, City of Noise: Sound and Nineteenth-Century Paris. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, forthcoming 2015; Edwin C. Hill, Black Soundscapes White Stages: The Meaning of Francophone Sound in the Black Atlantic. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013; Ana María Ochoa Gautier, Aurality: Listening and Knowledge in Nineteenth-Century Colombia. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014; and Isaac Weiner, Religion Out Loud: Religious Sound, Public Space, and American Pluralism. New York: New York University Press, 2013.)) Yet relatively little consideration has been given to the ways that sound might reflect and construct gender (and vice versa). Building upon groundbreaking historical work on women and radio by scholars like Michele Hilmes and Kate Lacey, I employ the concept of the gendered soundscape to advance a dialogue between sound history and gender history. ((Michele Hilmes, Radio Voices: American Broadcasting, 1922-1952. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997; Kate Lacey, Feminine Frequencies: Gender, German Radio and the Public Sphere, 1923-1945. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996.)) Helmi Järviluoma et al introduce the term, asking readers to contemplate the way gender – and gendered hierarchies – may be projected and/or heard in sound environments. We not only “learn gender through the total sensorium,” as they put it; gender is also represented, contested, and produced through the aural. ((Helmi Järviluoma, Pirkko Moisala and Anni Vilkko. Gender and Qualitative Methods. London: Sage, 2003, 85.)) Thinking historically about gendered soundscapes can help us conceptualize sound as a space where categories of “male” and “female” are constituted, and by extension the ways that power, inequality and agency might be expressed in the sonic realm.
One of the most immediately gendered sound categories is the human voice, a richly historical convergence of biology, technology and culture. Voice differences have roots in biological sex difference, but gendered constructions of the human voice vary widely over time and place. While by no means absent in the traditional gendered soundscape, women’s voices have been muted and private, and the near absence of female voices in the public realm is one of the primary ways in which the gendered soundscape has manifested and reproduced itself over the centuries. The advent of radio opened a new chapter in this ancient struggle of women to speak and be heard. Depending on content and context, these voices carried the potential to not only challenge taboos on women’s oratory, but to assert the female bodies into spaces and spheres from which they previously had been excluded. ((See Nirmal Puwar, Space Invaders: Race, Gender and Bodies out of Place. London: Berg, 2004.)) By tuning into the gendered soundscape we come to understand radio as a key arena for the reinforcement and contestation of gender, as well as the often contradictory ways that the perceived dissonance of the female radio voice was employed to compel (and sometimes incite) listening audiences.
Argentinian radio star Silvia Guerrico
Radio and the Gendered Soundscape integrates these theoretical considerations with the stories of five women and one radio station in the overlapping radio markets of Buenos Aires, Argentina and Montevideo, Uruguay. The two cities are focal points of a regional study of radio in what I refer to as the rioplatense cultural zone. Movement of people, ideas, and radio signals between the two cities was fluid and frequent. Uruguayan Silvia Guerrico was a journalist and author of moderate acclaim in her hometown of Montevideo before relocating to Buenos Aires, where she created a pioneering radio variety program in the 1930s. Residents of one city could quite easily hear radio broadcasts emanating from the other, and “foreign” broadcasts could and did become a matter of diplomatic conflict between neighbors. In the late 1940s, for example, the voices of exiles from Peronist Argentina – including popular female comedian Niní Marshall – sometimes reached back into their country via Montevidean frequencies. This book will leave the reader with a greater appreciation for the place of both women’s voices and Latin American broadcasting in the history of radio, as well as for the sonic dimensions of gender and the gendered dimensions of sound.
Primary Sources, Primary Sounds: The Radio Preservation Task Force of the Library of CongressJosh Shepperd / Catholic University
Sound history is cultural history. And a giant part of our history has yet to be preserved, researched, or taught in our classrooms. Our omissions are disproportionately distributed among the local and the liminal, the pastoral and the public, and marginalized and minority experiences. Sound trails continue where paper trails end, and we have an opportunity to provide new insight into the cultural history of the U.S. thanks to recent innovations in sound preservation technology. The Radio Preservation Task Force (RPTF) of the National Recording Preservation Board (NRPB) of the Library of Congress (LOC) is a growing 125-faculty member and 275-archive Digital Humanities initiative working to broaden the historical record by unearthing, mapping, and making available materials that that chronicle experiences neglected in existing historical accounts, such as minority, political, orientation, social advocacy, and educational groups. Perspectives and events that have remained unaddressed by the primary document record will receive new recognition by focusing preservation on the conversational and community building character of noncommercial and local radio history.
The Jefferson Reading Room at the Library of Congress
A historical marvel of nation-building, serialization, and aesthetic innovation, radio has also been utilized for multiple purposes beyond entertainment: from education, to a technology of opinion-formation, to a medium for political problem-solving. Much of the early history of the ether consists of distance learning broadcasts, public forums, and civic debates, and in addition to local theatrical and drive time programming the task force is concerned with making these important historical records accessible for the first time. To frame the project in historiographical terms, the RPTF is approaching radio history as a study of what the Birmingham school might call the genealogy of how strategies for circulation of discursive codes, as representations, became central to an expanded concept of the public sphere that included popular culture. If we accept the historiographical argument that content representations are also implementations of discursive, political, and industrial strategies, then radio might be viewed as a medium in which institutional and intellectual projects endeavored to communicate with and persuade community members about a specific perspective or initiative. In this way, radio history has the capacity to reveal the development and dissemination of cultural aspirations and viewpoints, and its consequent archive can be understood as a series of concurrent media advocacies that sought to define conditions of social attunement.
Beginning with these guiding historiographical tenets, many dominant debates that we associate with the academic study of media theory, audiences, and media industries suddenly propel radio into a central position of interest. For example Paul Lazarsfeld and Theodor Adorno’s argument over how quantitative survey research of educational broadcasting might promote progressive goals is an ongoing debate between qualitative humanists and social scientists. Wilbur Schramm’s post-war construction of communication departments provided a stable home for educational broadcasting, early public policy analysis, and anti-fascist projects UNESCO and Voice of America. CBS president and Lazarsfeld protégé Frank Stanton built a huge production culture of writers, producers, and developers who defined radio as a civic medium for commercial practice. And in many ways, this paradoxical concept, commercialism as civic practice, is for better or worse the major successful media advocacy of the 20th century. Our memory of media history sometimes seems entirely inseparable from this logic of consumerism, to the extent that the discipline is overwhelmingly focused on affirmative or resistant reactions to what amounts to a very small sampling of the experience of media, as it has been facilitated by national and transnational entertainment.
Soul Music/Civil Rights Legend DJ Herb Kent at WVON-Chicago
Preservation activities are beginning to show us that a paradigm shift might be necessary within the discipline, one focused on a dramatically expanded notion of what media has meant, and how it has mattered. The expansion and new availability of primary sources will provide content for graduate researchers to write about previously hidden origin stories, genealogies, and struggles for diversity. It’s past due that a media advocacy take place within the discipline itself to promote new visibility for historically subaltern groups omitted or maligned by commercial mass media representations; an advocacy that would seek to reinterpret “media” history not only as the legacy of a robust and impressive entertainment-based infrastructure, but as an exegesis of how communications technology has been functionalized as a tool of discursive blocs. If radio is approached as a history of, for example, how civil rights groups have utilized communications for non-theatrical message circulation, we might re-orient our relationship to “old media” as a study of the sound of mediated social centers, as an apparatus whose practitioners sought not just a “target” audience, but purposive listeners.
The perceived historical record is primed to grow significantly over the next several years thanks to our mandate from the National Recording Preservation Board, NRPB Chair Sam Brylawski, and our large consortium of media researchers headed by Project Director and eminent historian Christopher Sterling. Digitization, education, and distribution initiatives will increase archival representation and access, and in truth we still don’t know what or how much we’ll turn up. But we do know that as the golden age of library science continues to streamline methods of preservation, that (without exaggeration) tens of thousands of historical statements will be introduced into circulation over the next 3-5 years.
As I write, the RPTF ((RPTF logo designed by artist Daniel Murphy (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee))) is conducting a second round of aggregation of participating archives. Our current participant consortium is impressive – besides the Library of Congress we will be working with the National Archives of the U.S. and Canada, Our Coordinating Archive – The Library of American Broadcasting, The Paley Center, Peabody Awards, Stanford Archives of Recording Sound, Syracuse Belfer Audio Archive, Newseum, and the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research, among many, many others. ((http://www.loc.gov/programs/national-recording-preservation-plan/about-this-program/radio-preservation-task-force/affiliate-archives/)) But we believe that many of our most important finds will turn up in personal collections, radio station attics, library basements, and historical societies. Over the next 3-6 months the RPTF will be working to locate and nearly double archive participation to include these equally important repositories, culminating in a conference to discuss preliminary findings at the Library of Congress.
Radio Preservation Task Force
Besides archive aggregation, over the next 16 to 24 months the task force will commence multiple projects. Our first mandate is to develop a metadata interface so that educators, radio enthusiasts, and researchers might locate content specific recordings. Building from these forthcoming analytics, we plan to promote the preservation of radio’s cultural history through two major initiatives. The first will be to construct a letterhead board of curators, federal and state archives, and media historians to identify and pre-designate archival locations to receive endangered collections before they are discarded or incinerated. Our second major initiative is to promote digitization and access through the creation of content-based research caucuses comprised of archives and research specialists. Our caucuses will work together to identify the most significant newly unearthed recordings, and apply for preservation and digitization grants. As the task force works to address historical gaps and secure safe sites for historical materials, our caucuses will commence a national educational initiative with multiple digital projects, including the American Archives of Public Broadcasting, to provide content analyses, syllabi, and curated exhibits for newly circulating recordings. Looking ahead – 24 months and beyond – the RPTF hopes to work with copyright organizations to make selected sound digitizations available for educational fair use.