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Radio Survivor Academic Series - radio history

Thinking through Radio History: An Interview with John Durham Peters – Pt. 2

This week, we are pleased to bring you the second part of an interview with media historian John Durham Peters. Last week, part one of the interview touched on intriguing issues in radio studies such as questions about the future of radio and radio’s non-human element. This second post asks about communal listening practices (and their inscription on communication technologies), the relationship between radio and a sense of community, radio and the “mysterious voice from beyond,” and the task of researching media, and specifically, radio history. Peters offers an engaging and thought-provoking account of the ways in which media history informs and shapes our relationship with radio and communication today.

Radio Survivor: Last week, we began to talk about the relationship between humans and radio, stepping close to a discussion of the social aspect of radio. In regards to the sociability of media, I want to ask about loneliness. We can listen to radio using many different devices and technologies today — headphones, smartphones, laptop speakers, receivers in cars, satellite radio and television, and cable. Is listening becoming less of a communal practice and more of an isolated or lonely experience?

John Durham Peters: It is well known that when Sony first introduced the Walkman in 1984 it had two headphone jacks so that two people could listen at the same time. Sony feared that solitary listening would be considered rude and would feel lonely and isolating. How things have changed: private listening may still be rude, but it has become the rule. If you buy a cell phone today, the assumption is that it is yours alone. Even the grammar of the Verizon answering machine script lets you supply your name, but then automatically uses the singular verb “is not available.” It used to be that a family or household would share a landline number. The one body per handle rule also shows up in Facebook’s controversial real name policy.

Perhaps the online lack of authentication that comes with physical presence has inspired these hysterical disciplines—too many specters again. The disappearance of a shared communicative address also follows the demographic trend of increasing numbers of households composed of single people. In the heyday of the telegraph, you could send a “telegram” to someone at “general address, San Francisco,” but general address is relatively rare today. Radio long had an implicitly public dimension, a “for-anyone-as-someone” structure, as my colleague Paddy Scannell puts it.

My son will listen to the radio in the car—as long as he is the only one there. He finds it irritating to listen with another person. The fortuitous peculiarity of the system of broadcasting in the mid twentieth century—use of the public air—implied a public form of address, but this side-effect seems to be fading quickly with other modes of delivery. Each medium has its externalities, its unanticipated consequences, and delivery by wire or by private address loses that appeal to the public interest. (Of course neoliberal deregulation also played a part in removing the public interest!)

Radio Survivor: On a related note, what is radio’s relationship to “community” today?

John Durham Peters: There are certainly many vestigial aspects of radio that point to community, which I take to mean proximity or touch in some way. Call letters are a legacy that implies geography—nation and history. In Iowa City, where I live, we have the good fortune to have both WSUI and KSUI, whose names were given before the Mississippi River was defined as the divider between call letters starting with W and K. (SUI = State University of Iowa, the old name for the University of Iowa, also a legacy.)

But if that’s all we’ve got for community, it’s pretty flat compared to the old FCC requirement to ascertain local service. Radio remains probably the preeminent emergency communication system, with television. For tornadoes and severe weather, people in my part of the country still rely on radio and television. (This is perhaps one reason why the Minot, North Dakota, train derailment of 2002, which covered the city with a cloud of ammonia and poison gas but was not reported due to chain ownership, still plays such a mythical role in horror stories about media monopoly.)

Weather and other forms of danger are deeply local, and this means that media able to send a live signal with instant updates will remain in place for communal needs, though cell phones are competing with radio for this. (This point coincides with the argument of media events scholars, who suggest that the large-scale or national address that was once the broadcast norm at mid-century is today only revived in cases of emergency.) A car trip without a satellite radio can still give a sense of cultural geography in terms of station formats and accents. But it is interesting that radio remains unsurpassed for providing a sense of a mysterious voice from the beyond; in the TV series Lost, for instance, radio transmissions provided some of the spookiest material. Perhaps, like bells, radio already signals nevermore.

Radio Survivor: In Calendar, Clock, Tower, your chapter in Jeremy Stolow’s edited collection, Deus in Machina: Religion and Technology in Historical Perspective, we’re informed that time, space, and power are fundamental problems facing both old and new media. As I’ve been writing for this Academic Series for Radio Survivor, I’ve encountered a number of individuals who have pointed to some of the complexities facing the archiving of sound, whether that be a lack of institutional resources and support, or the fact that audio archives often require a wider variety of technologies to both store and access them.

We can certainly locate issues of time, space, and power in terms of our ability to access historical sound recordings. One of my goals with these interviews is to get a sense of what prominent media historians, such as yourself, think about a large archival project such as the Radio Preservation Task Force. As a consultant for the project, what do think a project like this can accomplish and what might its contribution be to the larger undertaking of uncovering media history?

John Durham Peters: I want to make two points. First, sound recording was relatively late in human technical history. Prehistoric humans were painting images on the walls of caves, but no one figured out how to record a sound for playback until the 1860s and 1870s (we can single out Edison, but many were involved). This means that a sound archive is a modern and quite marvelous thing. Media that record temporal processes like sounds require greater technical development than ones that record spatial processes like pictures.

Second, no era ever fully appreciates its own treasures. McLuhan pointed out that the more ubiquitous something is in a given moment the less likely it is to be preserved. One of my students, Perry Howell, wrote an excellent seminar paper about the brief use of milk cartons to advertise missing children, something that produced billions of exemplars, but his archival ambitions were repeatedly stymied. No one had preserved any of them, even though they live on in memory and campy jokes.

I can remember how excited some of my colleagues and I were in the early 1990s, if I remember rightly, about cassette tapes of the complete broadcast day of WJSV, recorded in 1939. For here we could find something no one had bothered to record—the flow and sequencing of an entire day’s radio broadcast in the late 1930s. In making an archive you never know what the future will value.

Stewart Brand, the futurist, once quipped upon the discovery of stone scriptures preserved in a Buddhist monastery in China that he would have rather had a carefully cataloged set of daily specimens of monk poop. This mischievous example of archival contrarianism makes the point that even though you can never archive everything, you always risk leaving out something that later generations will find the most precious.

I should add that I am highly skeptical of the digital fantasy that miniaturization will, in fact, enable us to preserve everything. It is true that digital databases are unprecedentedly massive, but no one has figured out how to create a long-term chain of custody for digital records. Already, floppy discs from the 1980s are almost utterly useless in a way that handwritten letters from the 1840s are not, or Dead Sea scrolls from 2000 years ago are not. Due to the constant outmoding of digital technology—according to Moore’s law, a single technological generation in computers is 18-24 months—we may have vast records now, but it is anyone’s guess if we will be able to read them in 25, 100, 250, or 1000 years.

I’d like to see archivists figure out formats that are rigorously durable and not subject to the marketing and fashion swings of digital technology. As media historians we need modes of archival durability for deep time. We know there are treasures in there, but we can’t know now what they are. Amid the digital bonanza of our moment, radio archivists and historians will have to be visionary about how to make these sounds still audible in decades, centuries, and—why not?—millennia.

Radio Survivor: Fascinating. Thanks, John!

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