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Today’s Rich Audio Environment: An Interview with Michele Hilmes

As part of the Radio Survivor Academic Series, we share an interview with scholar and radio studies luminary Michele Hilmes. Hilmes is a Professor of Media and Cultural Studies in the Department of Communication Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a leading scholar of radio and broadcasting.

She has published a wealth of books and articles on the subject, including Radio Voices: American Broadcasting 1922 to 1952 (1997) and Only Connect: A Cultural History of Broadcasting in the United States (2006). Her “Rethinking Radio” essay from her edited collection, The Radio Reader: Essays in the Cultural History of Radio (2001), was a major source of inspiration for my work as a graduate student, when I first embarked on developing a research project. Taking my cue from her essay, I was inspired to uncover an under-examined aspect of radio and music history by looking at Canadian campus radio.

More recently, I had the opportunity to work with Michele and her colleagues at UW-Madison while carrying out a postdoctoral research project on satellite radio broadcasting and independent music. Michele has just returned from the University of Nottingham where she was a Fulbright Research Scholar exploring the history of British/American television co-production. I asked her a few questions about radio in the digital age, the importance of archiving audio, the lost critical history of radio, and the transnational production of sound media.

Radio Survivor: One aspect of your research and writing that really stands out is that you’ve made exceptional contributions to both the history of radio as well as to the study of radio in a new media context. Radio’s New Wave: Global Sound in the Digital Era (Routledge 2013), a recent book you co-edited with Dr. Jason Loviglio, includes a number of excellent chapters on radio and sound in the digital age. Your chapter on the new materiality of radio, a chapter on MP3 blogs and freeform radio by Elena Razlogova, and one on listening practices in the digital age by Kate Lacey were ones I found particularly interesting. How has your historical understanding of radio shaped your writing on radio today?

Michele Hilmes: Recently I was talking to Emily Thompson, the well-known historian of technology at Princeton, and she said something very succinctly I had been thinking about for a while: the advent of digital access to media has “flattened out” their differences, which are rooted in their historical trajectories. Many young people who grew up in the digital era don’t distinguish between broadcast, webcast, and podcast sound — it’s all just streaming digital sound to them — and therefore the distinctions that shaped the forms and content they’re listening to are lost on them.

Things like formats, genres, and modes of expression become just individual producer choices, not the result of institutional struggles deeply rooted in our shared cultural history. So I see my job as always bringing an awareness of historical distinctions and the reasons for them into the discussion of new media — ultimately, it makes the experience of listening much richer and deeper

Radio Survivor: You’ve also been very active with issues of sound preservation, as a former director of the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research for instance, and you’re currently participating in the Radio Preservation Task Force. What are some of the major issues facing the preservation of media, particularly radio and sound media, and what steps can be taken in order to help save and store historic sound recordings?

Michele Hilmes: This a complex and important issue, and I am very grateful for initiatives like the Radio Preservation Task Force, as well as other ambitious archiving projects going on all over the world, for focusing the possibilities that digital media bring to neglected technologies and forms. One issue with radio and sound, to borrow a phrase from the archiving world, is that audio recordings are not “eye-readable” — unlike a photo or a film, they do not reveal information about their content or meaning to the naked eye.

You need special technology to unlock them, and a lot of that technology has receded into the distant past. And even if you locate that transcription disc player or that wire recorder or that reel-to-reel machine, sound must be experienced in its own time — you can’t skim — and unlike the print credits that appear at the end of films, vocal information about the production is often missing or hard to understand. Really, sound recordings are the archivist’s nightmare, and that’s why photography and film have had far more success in the preservation department. One important thing that digital media have brought to sound is a visual — eye-readable — key to their existence. This opens up all kinds of exciting possibilities, not just for preservation but for access and circulation

Radio Survivor: One of your recent articles for the Australian Journalism Review is titled “Radio’s Lost Critical History.” What distinguishes radio’s critical history from radio history more broadly speaking?

Michele Hilmes: I was referring to the neglect of radio and soundwork in media studies and scholarship generally until recent years, in two senses: first, the lack of the radio archive as mentioned above, cutting off our knowledge of historical development of the medium and its forms; and second, the lack of a tradition of radio criticism. For instance, a newspaper like The New York Times employs an armada of theater, music, book, dance, and film critics; even television (I speak ironically) gets critically reviewed in its pages every single day.

But where is the radio critic, the person who might be reviewing the enormous outburst of audio art that has sprung up over the last two decades? Occasionally we see a mention of a show like This American Life or A Prairie Home Companion, but there is no place — aside from a handful of online sites like this one — where soundwork is seriously discussed and put in a critical context that understands radio not as a “flattened,” unrooted individual expression but something that has a tradition and an aesthetic heritage.

You need a knowledge of the archive for that — where would film studies be if most of the films before 1940 were inaccessible and unknown? Where would the study of literature be if most books disappeared moments after their publication and could not be re-read or shared with others? But ’twas always thus — even in the 1940s serious audio artists complained that radio did not get the critical attention it deserved. As Fred Allen remarked, “Radio is the only medium that died before it was born.” But I think we’re on the verge of a revival.

Radio Survivor: Last year you completed a prestigious Fulbright Research Fellowship at the University of Nottingham, where you studied Transatlantic television co-production. You’ve explained that there is a “transnational creative space created by the collaboration of British and American television producers over the last 50 years” and that this has created a transnational public that includes audiences from around the globe who share many cultural preferences and experiences. I know that most of your research focus during the fellowship was on television but I’m wondering if you uncovered any interesting findings pertaining to transnational sound cultures or radio practices, perhaps in regards to the BBC?

Michele Hilmes: Absolutely yes, the BBC and US radio broadcasters were positively and productively interlinked from the 20s through the 50s, and beyond. I’ve written about some of this in Network Nations — it truly is amazing that, with recording relatively rare and with broadcast transmission ranges limited, people at the BBC, NBC, and CBS knew each other, found ways to listen to each other’s work, and competed to innovate in all kinds of ways.

One particularly fruitful channel where this took place was the BBC’s North American Service — a shortwave segment of the BBC Overseas Service (now the World Service) aimed directly at the US and Canada, initiated just before WWII. It lasted until the mid 1960s, though scarcely anyone remembers it now. It broadcast British shows into North American airspace, where many of them were recorded and re-broadcast by US and Canadian stations. It also initiated productions in the US and Canada that also aired in Britain, and during the war years co-produced a variety of shows with US networks, like the amazing show Trans-Atlantic Call — it originated in London one week, New York the next, courtesy of the BBC and CBS.

Another example: Alan Lomax, the well-known folk song collector, was recruited by the BBC in the early 1950s to produce a series of programs in the UK, hugely influential in the British folk revival movement. His “ballad opera” ‘The Martins and the Coys” was commissioned by the BBC and produced in their North American studios in New York. We all know about the pirate ship broadcasters, beaming US hits into England from off the coast. And moving forward, the well-known BBC DJ John Peel got his start in the US, in both commercial and underground radio. I could go on, believe me.

Radio Survivor: Lastly, what radio programs or stations have you been listening to as of late?

Michele Hilmes: One station my husband and I particularly enjoy, thanks to the miracle of digital streaming, is a French station, FIP. It provides a fantastically eclectic mix of music, better even than the days of 60s freeform here, that can range from rock to folk to hip-hop to classical to electronica to jazz in a single half-hour, from around the world. I hear American music on FIP that I would never hear on American radio, as well as an incredible variety of other music. And no commercials.  Thanks, Radio France.

For people who like radio drama, don’t wait a minute before tuning in (again, digitally) to BBC Radio Four and Four Extra (digital only). They produce a mix of new original work and drama from radio’s golden age — including quite a bit of American drama — with some of the best actors in the world, people you’ve seen on screen and stage.

Closer to home — but what does that mean anymore? — I listen constantly to Wisconsin Public Radio, both networks, for the absolutely essential news programs but also for local discussion programs that cover important topics far better than newspapers or television. To The Best of Our Knowledge, a discussion program produced by WPR, was recently mentioned by the Guardian newspaper in the UK as one of the best shows available in podcast anywhere. On the Media is a great show from WNYC. And of course, I was drawn into Serial like everyone else.  How wonderful to experience today’s rich audio environment — richer than ever before, this historian would argue. That’s something else that a knowledge of history can often provide: an appreciation of the particularities of the present.

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