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An archaeology of early radio production: doing sound historiography without the sound

What did early US radio sound like? During radio’s initial rise to prominence in the 1920s, before the “golden age” of network broadcasting in the 1930s and 1940s, what kinds of programming, production practices, and performance styles greeted audiences’ ears when they tuned into this new medium? What strategies of musical instrumentation, sound mixing, and dramatic representation were favored for these broadcasts, and what styles of singing, playing, speaking, and acting did early radio listeners hear?

At first glance (first whisper?), these questions should seem easy enough to answer. Why not just play a few recordings of old programs – “listen in” on the past, as it were, to the surviving traces of that bygone era – and hear for ourselves? However, those recordings do not, in fact, exist, at least not for this early, prenetwork period. To reconstruct this otherwise silent soundscape, the historian is thus left to either project back onto the past from anachronistic evidence of subsequent network-era recordings (in short, doing bad history), or look to other sources entirely – that is, doing sound historiography without the sound.

A. P. Peck, “How Broadcast Stations Operate,” Radio Listeners’ Guide and Call Book, Late Fall 1925. Used with courtesy of Larry Steckler.

In my own work as a radio historian, I have advocated confronting these challenges through a production-oriented approach that uncovers the lost sounds of early radio through an archaeological dig into the creative practices of the professional soundworkers who made them. From the programmers who sculpted radio’s emerging temporal rhythms and flows to the writers who crafted new, radio-friendly forms of music, drama, and talk, the directors who guided performers on the studio floor, the singers, musicians, actors, and speakers who appeared before the radio microphone, and the control room engineers who fashioned the final radio mix, the historical record offers rich evidence of the forms of sonic labor cultivated by the producers and performers charged with the daily task of radiomaking. In excavating these emergent forms of radio soundwork, here are a few places I suggest we look – topoi, if you will, for a new sonic archaeology conducted in the absence of the sounds themselves:

Sylvan Harris, “Fundamental Principles of Radio,” Radio Listeners’ Guide and Call Book, Late Fall 1925. Used with courtesy of Larry Steckler.
  • The job of soundwork is also a matter of paperwork, with federal regulators and station staff swiftly spawning internal systems of record-keeping that rivaled any other form of modern bureaucracy. Early license periods were short, with regulators issuing regular guidelines to stations seeking renewals that covered everything from studio acoustics to preferred classes of programming service. Station records are similarly instructive sources, including everything from internal memos on shifts in programming policies, to program logs that reveal nascent scheduling strategies and document quality control issues, to scripts that include handwritten musical and sound effects cues.
  • In addition to official station records, personal papers of popular singers, announcers, and program hosts populate the archives, offering treasure troves of materials on early production strategies and documenting the careers of sound workers otherwise lost to time. Oral histories may similarly help call back into presence the sounds of a bygone era, while surviving caches of listener letters are filled with pertinent details concerning beloved or reviled techniques practiced by early radio performers.
  • The radio industry also yielded an entire secondary print market, including professional journals in which members of the new profession traded tips and strategies, textbooks for those seeking to refine techniques of radio speaking, popular radio magazines that took fans behind the scenes of their favorite performances, and critics’ columns that spilled small oceans of ink on the merits or problems with particular programs, performers, and production strategies.
F. R. Bristow, “Causes and Cure of Radio Interference,” Radio Craft, January 1930. Used with courtesy of Larry Steckler.

If we were at first confronted with a seemingly vanished stratum of programming from radio’s prenetwork period, adopting the production-oriented approach I have advocated reveals a vast wealth of historical traces that let us reconstruct the sounds of this lost era via other means. This approach not only enables us to reconstruct what early broadcasts sounded like, it also tells us why they sounded this way – why, in other words, workers pursued the creative choices they did, and what larger pressures or rationales informed those decisions. Studying these emergent forms of soundwork gives us better insight into radio history, revealing the development of dominant production practices and aesthetic norms by a surprisingly early date. Some of these norms and practices would continue to inform network productions of subsequent decades, while many would also be echoed in practices adopted by workers within the neighboring film and record industries during the closing years of the decade, upon their own embrace of the twentieth century’s new technologies of electric sound reproduction. Lending an ear to the work of those who engaged in the daily task of making radio in this sense can tell us not only more about the history of broadcasting itself, but also about much broader transformations in modern sound culture in which the radio medium played a formative part and whose reverberations continue, in many ways, well into the present.

Featured image credit: Radio by Vande Walle Ewoud. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. lawrence steckler

    Congratulations on the publication of this new and exciting book about the early days of radio. Also my thanks for the credit lines. Always enjoy seeing my name in print.

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