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Thinking through Radio History: An Interview with John Durham Peters – Pt. 1

Once again, we are very excited to present an interview with a leading media historian for Radio Survivor’s Academic Series. John Durham Peters is a media and cultural historian and social theorist who is currently the A. Craig Baird Professor in Communication Studies at the University of Iowa. He is also a consultant and participant with the Radio Preservation Task Force, an initiative that has been an ongoing focus of this series. He’s the author of Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication and The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media, which “reveals the long prehistory of so-called new media” and is forthcoming this year from The University of Chicago Press.

In this interview, Peters shares his expertise on a number of pressing issues in Radio Studies, including his thoughts on the likelihood of radio moving into new secondary functions as we head into the future, our persistent desire for shared listening experiences, and the need for archival durability. We’ve broken the interview down into two separate posts. This first section includes questions about the future of radio and radio’s non-human element. The second post, which will be shared next week, asks about communal listening, the relationship between radio and community, and the task of researching media history.

Radio Survivor: You delivered a fantastic plenary talk at the “What is Radio?” conference in Portland, Oregon in 2013. I truly enjoyed this conference because it was a rare opportunity for so many scholars, practitioners, and listeners to come together and talk about radio. Your talk, “Radio’s Nonhuman Penumbra” fell under the closing plenary category of “Radio’s Future.” In her review of the conference, and of your talk, Radio Survivor’s Jennifer Waits wrote that you described radio as “one of the most existential media” and as possessing “a wonderful non-human dimension.” Going back to both the title of the conference and of the plenary, how might we foresee the future of radio?

John Durham Peters: Radio is difficult to define. Indeed, “what is” questions are often philosophically difficult, no matter the topic. Because radio involves a live signal, which is dependent on natural conditions such as the electromagnetic spectrum, and operates in the acoustic, that is temporal, dimension it invokes existential questions in a way perhaps more intense than other media. (I love it that radio amateurs are avid followers of weather reports about the solar wind–there is a cosmic side to radio.)

To be fair, many media raise implicit larger questions: writing and photography have always been associated with death and the grave, and cinema has always been connected with life and motion (as the history of its various names, from bioscope to motion pictures, suggests). But because radio depends on a live transmission, a jumping of the spatial gap between two termini, and on sound, it always implies questions about touch, connection and vanishing. Sound, as Hegel famously said, exists by disappearing, and if sound did not disappear, it would pile up into an unintelligible soup of brown noise. Sound’s ability to be heard depends on its constant vanishing, its making room for what comes next. In this and other ways, the spectrum is full of specters.

This feature of sound has inspired a number of thinkers who see acoustics as a special domain of existential questions, perhaps most notably the media theorist Friedrich Kittler, who, as an amateur musician and inveterate tinkerer with audio and computer hardware, saw sound media–radio holding a prominent place among them–as the most philosophically rich and aesthetically beautiful things that human beings (or the gods) had ever brought into being. Kittler’s unfinished magnum opus on music and mathematics–only two of a projected eight volumes were published in his lifetime–saw key acoustic innovations with the Greek alphabet, so he sketched a long history that is a nice backdrop for speculating on the future of radio.

One thing clear in media history is that old media never die, they just take on specialized functions. Even the telegraph didn’t exactly die; it just got absorbed into the Internet. If you look for an equivalent to radio before the twentieth century, one strong comparison is bells. Alain Corbin’s Village Bells on bells in the nineteenth-century French countryside is a book beloved among radio historians, and with good reason. Bells were the heart of communication systems in towns throughout Europe and North America. They were both civic and religious media. Bells proclaimed the time, summoned soldiers and worshippers, announced holidays, funerals, and weddings, as well as coming storms or dangers. They were at once herald, headline, weather report, siren, and status update. As bells were displaced by other sounders of community news, the one meaning they kept was a sacral one: the sound of deep time, death, and the echo of history. When they “gradually stopped being signs, portents, or talismans,” Corbin notes, bells were left with the role of “anchoring the gnawing sense of nevermore.” The eerie sense of days long gone we hear in bells today was not heard 300 years ago: a changing media ecology has changed the medium and message of bells.

I expect something similar with radio; indeed, we have already seen radio undergo big changes.  We should not expect radio’s obsolescence but rather the discovery of new, restricted, sacralized, secondary functions. Something like this already happened with the rise of formats in 1950s America.

Radio Survivor: Thinking about the non-human dimension of radio, I’m reminded of your work on the sociable aspects of communication, particularly during, as you’ve called it, the “twilight of broadcasting,” where “peer-to-peer communications occur via mediated devices as freely as they do via the flesh.” Would you say the non-human dimension of radio has changed in the twilight of broadcasting?

John Durham Peters: The article from which the phrase “twilight of broadcasting” comes considers the psychotic results when broadcast and interpersonal modes of address are confused. As many historians of radio have noted, it took a while for radio personae to hit upon the sociable, conversational formula of addressing not masses but individuals in the comfort of their homes.

It actually is remarkable that more listeners did not believe that performers were not their personal friends. But what protected listeners from that psychotic supposition was the knowledge that there were many other simultaneous co-listeners out there in a large imagined community. As live public address to the great audience invisible fades away in radio address we revert more and more, in many cases, to the constellation dreamed of in wireless telegraphy, of instantaneous one to one, almost telepathic communication, connected by a brain wave or material apparatus at a distance. (It is interesting that some of the earliest descriptions of schizophrenia treated it as radio waves.)

To be sure, there are still many situations of address to an unknown audience–indeed, that may be the basic fact of any kind of communication, even face to face. But with the fading of the society-defining ambition of broadcasting built into the daily and weekly programming schedule, the imagined co-listenership of radio is disappearing. If you listen to music on YouTube, you have to make do with the total number of hits–but you lack the sense of simultaneously fellowship with others in real time. I remain convinced that music sounds better when heard on radio than on individualized music services such as Pandora, just because you have the sense that it has the durable quality of something public, something real, not just a private phantasm that no one else is sharing. A child seeing something will point to it: one of our basic existential needs is to share our experiences. We seek validation to know we are not crazy, that this experience is more than spectral.

Radio Survivor: Thanks! We will pick up from here next week.

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