The Ghastly Impermanence: The Museum, The Department Store and The Landfill

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Government radio is a cross between a museum and a religious school, dispensing classics and credo, but not especially concerned with new works. Commercial radio is a department store, carrying in stock a few luxury items, a lot of supposedly essential commodities and perhaps too many cheap brands of goods. The radio as imagined and desired by some who write for the medium is an artist’s studio, dedicated to creation alone. As such, it is not yet able to stand on its own, and its product must be exhibited in the museum or the gallery of the department store. — Norman Corwin

T.S. Eliot once wrote that art without intellectual context is vanity. Intellectual context is often social context as well. The difficulty of discussing radio drama plainly at times is because most discussion ignores any sort of context, either intellectual or social or commercial. In this sense the American conversation about radio has remained largely vanity. One dare not threaten the sacred notion of Old Timey Radio as a safe haven for rose-colored nostalgia. Sentimentality has become policy and driven intellectual inquiry underground.

Artists like Corwin strove toward an idea of radio as an artist’s studio with radio drama as a natural product of the process. Yet as so often typical in American culture, artistic visions hardly merit a mention in histories of radio. The idea of an artist’s studio proved untenable in Old Time Radio, because the fundamental goal of OTR was not to produce art but rather to produce consumers.

Having worked for years in the department store mindset of the Columbia Workshop at CBS, Norman Corwin found particularly frustrating the fundamental premise of American commercial radio: that commerce is supreme and good commerce brings good art in its wake. After all, it worked for the Borgias, it must certainly work for moneyed corporations.

Commercial radio did work for something: propaganda. Gilbert Seldes, writing in 1937, wrote the following:

The commercial sponsors in radio have seldom received proper credit for their accomplishments. They took radio away from centralized authority; they took it away from the pedantic and from the too serious enthusiasm for instruction and by the process of exhausting their own materials they compelled radio to have an infinite variety. In all these things they may have gone too far, but their direction was right.

The right direction led away from the “centralized authority” of government, away from “instruction” and toward a free market filled with wondrous variety. Seldes explicitly loathed government radio and regularly decried it as “the poor relation of the air.” Decisions, though, about the “infinite variety” rested purely within the authority of corporations who had no interest in variety or art, lively arts or otherwise. The marketplace of advertisers subsumed the Baconian marketplace of ideas, which he viewed as a political good, a force to mobilize the public. Rather than the government controlling the balance of free speech, executives like Lenox Lohr at NBC insisted that the networks must have freedom to determine who is to have speaking opportunities. Yet as Robert West elegantly noted at the time, “The use of the ‘wise discretion’ of the networks usually coincides with freedom for the conservatives and the gagging of radicals and liberals. Selectivity of this kind sharpens the sword of propaganda for the favored interests.”

Seldes continued his observation in relation to the nascent medium of television:

The creation of an audience which can be influenced to political action, is the thing that makes radio programmes important and justifies all our speculations about television. For the audience which television will create will be more attentive and, if properly handled, more suggestible even than the audience of radio.

In this sense, American radio was very much a department store, and the precursor to all that is nauseous about television. That even an intellectual like Seldes, who lamented the decline of literature in society, would assume tacitly that the American commercial radio networks represented the best in democracy might seem strange. But of course it is not. American democracy, then as now, valued its ostensible independence from any social identity that would accord with actual governmental practice. The suspicion was then and is now that Big Government would try to force an identity on Americans by giving them lectures and instruction on carefully chosen topics, designed to make them more liberal. By contrast the free market would magically ensure a diversity of viewpoints and thus more truly represent America. Representing America, though, was the farthest thing from the minds of broadcasting corporations. In this kind of environment, even the idea of an artist’s studio à la Corwin is incongruous, not unlike having a Goya exhibit in a Wal-Mart.

The educational radio of the time was no better for artists. In 1938 the National Association of Educational Broadcasters prevailed upon the FCC to reserve frequencies between 41-42,000 kilocycles for educational broadcast. A good idea–but content did not rise to the occasion. The roots of the NAEB as a confederation of stuffy professors and educational administrators were plainly visible. Levering Tyson of the National Advisory Council on Radio in Education pronounced the entire idea a flop. Though he chalked it up to the dreadful technique of professors and their amateurish methods, more than that perhaps it was a general failure of American educational method.

Corwin, Seldes and Lohr conceived of government radio–dull, instructional, backward-looking–as they knew it in the US. The British and the Canadians, among others, had no such belief. To quote the London Times from 1927:

To the British way of thinking, a service privately conducted and indirectly financed offers no attractions. It seems no more natural to receive the amenities of the microphone as a by-product of publicity than to accept a book, a play, a film, a concert or an educational course on the same terms.

Aware also of the massive propaganda power of radio, the British system proceeded from the premise that such a power should be reserved for the public yet detached from the government. According to the Crawford Committee, “The broadcasting service should be conducted by a public corporation acting as a trustee for the national interest and its status and duties should correspond with those of a public service.” The BBC would collect from the public a license fee for broadcasts in order to fund its endeavors and as an independent entity serve the national interest to inform, educate and entertain to the best of its ability.

While this sounds like the dreaded word socialism to American ears, the truth was that David Sarnoff of the Radio Corporation of America (aka RCA) proposed exactly the same thing. He had no faith, either, in the advertising model and proposed to the FCC that a license fee was necessary also for American radio to ensure quality. The only difference is that the corporation that collected the license fees was not to be a public one like the BBC but rather a private one: RCA, of course. Not until the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 would the United States see something of the sort, in the form of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

The CPB and the American public broadcast model have, however, also had to compete with the commerical radio in many ways–the very thing a noncommercial radio was not supposed to do. The degree of that competition has been the battlefield of public radio for the past thirty-five years. Artists have occasionally produced fine work in this context. Possibly the finest series of radio drama ever produced in the United States, Earplay, thrived for ten years in this context. But it was not half so elegant as this. While Earplay was supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, it was never under the control of NPR, remaining completely within the bailiwick of Wisconsin Public Radio. This broken relationship between regional production and national distribution had plagued “government radio” since even before the time of Corwin and continues to plague it to this day.

With the museum of government radio and the department store of OTR closed to the artist’s work, radio drama remained unable, as Corwin desired, to stand on its own. It lay in wait of another opportunity, another place to flourish. Around 1995, the Internet became that place and has remained that ideal place ever since. Certainly the appeal of the Internet for audio drama artists is obvious. As Tim Crook notes:

Distribution of linear sound narrative can interact with lateral channels of sound, text, animation, photographic and video image on the World Wide Web. The Web is also liberating from the point of view of control and means of production. Sound broadcasting and communication on the Internet is not subject to government licensing and censorship. Transmission is instantly stable in the international dimension. The technology is affordable.

Other people note signs that are similarly optimistic. Downloaded audiobook sales reached twenty five million in 2011, up 32.7% from 2010, and the numbers this year show a similar growth. Probably 2.5 million or so are full-cast productions that would be called radio drama in the broadcast age. Podcasts, too, have changed the playing field. Goodness only knows how many audio drama podcasts actually exists, but certainly many are successful. Jack Ward and Shannon Hilchie’s brilliant Sonic Society continues to bring an intelligent curatorial hand to contemporary radio drama, as it has for the past seven years (and counting Shadowlands, the Sonic Society’s progenitor, ten years). Fred Greenhalgh’s Radio Drama Revival has done the same since 2007 without missing a beat. Moonlight Audio Theatre have registered at least 800,000 downloads of their shows and P.G. Holyfield has registered 300,000 downloads of his series Murder at Avedon Hill.

The sobering difficulty, though, is that the Internet resembles nothing so much as a cosmic scale junkyard. Its organization system is roughly that of the Library of Congress card catalog with all the cards dumped out over the floor of a playpen for five thousand toddlers. Finding material is extremely difficult and searches for material are rarely catalogued upon merit or even upon relevant subject matter. True, the monetary price of distribution is minimal; the chronological price one pays to find an audience, amplified by the price an audience pays to find material is far from zero.

Too, the Internet is not a method of broadcasting like radio, and therefore cannot serve the same social function. That may be a good thing, when one considers the nature of broadcast as being fundamentally propagandistic. However, if one considers broadcast a tool for inclusive democracy and unity, and as a means of bringing the possibilities of culture to the masses, it is far from a good thing. Where broadcast radio reached many and narrowcast cable television reached few, the Internet reaches one. Unlike radio, it encourages not catholic interests but rather confirmation bias and it is no surprise that it has been the cultural divider par excellence. Rather than a macro-identity as a member of a civilization, a nation or a polis, the Internet cultivates micro-identities largely determined in marketing terms. It is “narrowcast” reduced to absurdity. The claim is that it serves the purposes of a plural society, but as David Marc notes in his essay, “What Was Broadcasting?”

Far from empowering the citizenry, cultural pluralism has deprived society of citizens. CP has proved its greatest effectiveness as an instrument of social control, perhaps the definitive framework for maintaining the status quo in an information-based, consumption-oriented society. Cultural pluralism turned out to be a post-modern performance of a reliable old technique: divide and conquer. The 500-channel prophecy promises more of the same.

The power of five hundred channels of brainless cable television pales in comparison to the crushing stupidity of five billion mindless web pages constantly updated and archived. The strength of the Web is that it allows anyone with an idea to reach possibly billions of people. The detriment of the Web–is that it allows anyone with an idea to reach possibly billions of people. Where quality in the bad old days of broadcast happened by accident, on the Web it may happen on purpose but only if you have the temerity, patience and lifespan to filter through the inanity and irrelevance.

This is the contemporary context of the artist’s studio of radio drama. Freed from the department store of commercial radio, ignored by the museum of public broadcast, it finds itself instead scattered about the great human landfill of the World Wide Web. Whether or not it will be able to stand on its own there remains to be seen. Two centuries ago, Beethoven dreamed of a single large art warehouse in the world, to which the artist could carry his art-works and from which he could carry away whatever he needed. The Internet may help to build that warehouse someday, but there is a long, long way to go.

Throughout all of this, the old technologies remain, too, waiting to be rediscovered and turned finally toward the uses they were always denied. If the fate of all outdated technologies is that they become the exclusive province of artists, then they too will have some role to play in building that studio that Norman Corwin desired and the art warehouse of which Beethoven dreamt. For this to happen, however, artists must take the medium seriously enough to stop having conversations about sentimental nostalgia and get down to the brass tacks of aesthetics and craft. I fear that day may still be far off.

Filed under Radio

Omar Willey was born at St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Seattle and grew up near Lucky Market on Beacon Avenue. He believes Seattle is the greatest city on Earth and came to this conclusion by travelling much of the Earth. He is a junior member of Lesser Seattle and, as an oboist, does not blow his own trumpet. Contact him at omar [at] seattlestar [dot] net