Why Care About Radio Broadcast History in the On-Demand Digital Age?
As the Radio Preservation Task Force embarks on a collective effort to identify and make publicly accessible radio broadcast recordings and the documents that inform their contexts of creation and use, it is worth posing the question of why we should care about these historical archives beyond their value as traces of the past. Indeed, a pervasive talk among cultural commentators and media scholars defines the significance and status of our contemporary media culture as a “post-broadcast” or “post-network” temporal break from a past media culture that emerged out of the radio broadcasting era of the first half of the 20th century. Frequent tropes invoked to describe this temporal break as progressive, liberating or even revolutionary include those pertaining to media source (from a few to many), media quality (from a lowest-common-denominator mass culture to a plethora of taste-diversified niche cultures), and media use (from passive reception to active engagement). Yet despite this increasingly prevalent temporal narrative, many scholars, including those who invoke the “post” to examine contemporary media culture, have increasingly problematized the verity of this narrative, whether in recognizing the on-going prevalence of broadcast network programming in contemporary media culture or questioning the liberatory state of our socially networked, on-demand media culture. Questioning this temporal narrative shifts the emphasis away from a technology-centric focus on these tropes of progressive social change to understanding media as a material location that is situated in a particular place and time. Locating and making publically accessible radio broadcasts and their supporting archival documents facilitates placing our media past within their particular material locations in place and time while mitigating the generalized understandings that radio broadcasting’s past was a “mass” media of little variety, low quality and limited engagement.
Radio Preservation Task Force organizers Josh Shepperd and Chris Sterling have foregrounded the importance of place in organizing the search for radio archives on a geographical basis so that researchers in specific locations can develop a situated knowledge of radio history in their designated areas and develop relationships with the institutions and private collectors who might house radio archives. This localized research intends to expand our understanding of local and regional radio programming, an area that has been subordinated to the study of national network programming, and to reveal how localized contexts informed perceptions about national network programming. Thomas Conner, a doctoral student in the Communications Department here at UCSD, has begun a search for radio broadcasting in our neck-of-the-woods. Of particular importance will be finding Spanish language broadcasts that have emanated from both sides of the boarder. Also significant are the military broadcasts that have aired in this city where the military has had a prevalent place in the culture and economy of San Diego. While the search for these broadcasts continues, Thomas has discovered exciting finds such as 100 hours of LGBT programming on local public radio in the early 1980s located at The Lambda Archives of San Diego. The search takes perseverance as the vast majority of solicitations reveal no records or a mute response. Sometimes one’s own passions for radio history can sustain the search. An avid Woody Guthrie fan, Thomas is hopeful to find recordings of the American folk singer and socialist’s local radio broadcasts from Los Angeles in the late 1930s, which to date are non-existent.
Another way in which radio broadcast history can complicate technology-centric narratives of media progress is in the area of media policy. Defining the stakes of media policy today has been the debate over applying “network neutrality” regulations to broadband internet service which would prevent internet service providers from charging users for faster data speeds. But network neutrality talk draws heavily from its conceptual origins in internet utopianism and romantic individualism, the idea that if the networked digital technologies for communication remained open to everyone, society would evolve beyond the corporate controlled and homogeneous mass media of the industrial era toward a more liberated networked information era where individuals were freed to innovate, create, consume and prosper. Evident in statements from Lawrence Lessig and Robert McChesney, two prominent public intellectuals of the media, is a Horatio Alger mythology: “most of the great innovators in the history of the Internet started out in their garages with great ideas and little capital” because “network neutrality protections minimized control by the network owners, maximized competition and… guaranteed a free and competitive market for Internet content.”
Though present in broadcast policy history, this mythology of the liberating forces of market competition was couched within a broader discourse of public ownership of the airwaves. In my research on the emergence of cable television I found a similar discourse of the liberating forces of “pay-TV” to free viewers from the low culture of network television through creating a competitive market. But opposed to pay-TV were low-income and rural residents who were against this stratification of access to television that required subscribers to pay. African Americans too disputed understandings that cable technology would stimulate competitive markets open to all. Following two decades of having close to no opportunities to participate in the economic ownership of broadcast stations or television networks, African Americans faced similar barriers to owning cable systems, particularly when market competition logics drove cable policies by the 1970s. These challenges to the mythology that free markets could redress class and race inequalities included right or entitlement claims for equal access to television. Because many of these rights claims were motivated by the active pleasures that television provided in everyday life, pleasures that had been established in radio broadcasting, they also disputed official meanings of the public interest in broadcasting, including paternalistic notions that citizens were in need of ethical guidance to participate fully in democratic governance.
Restoring these historical contexts of pleasure and entitlement to broadcasting as a medium of public ownership is not only important to revising on-going “post-broadcasting” references to a prior era of limited variety and low quality, but also to intervening in today’s media policy debates. A voice in the broadband internet policy debate that has been subordinated to the organizing efforts of media activists and internet social networking companies who have supported network neutrality is a broad coalition of civil rights organizations who support an open internet but oppose the logic and limitations of network neutrality legislation. Organized through the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council, an advocacy group that has fought to open opportunities in media for historically disenfranchised people, this coalition is skeptical that network neutrality rules, and their promise of an open marketplace, could address issues of class, gender and race discrimination. The coalition advocates for more affirmative policies that would intervene into market forces, such as under Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act that gives authority to the FCC to take “immediate action” if broadband is not “deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion.” The coalition also recommends modeling the procedures for resolving complaints after Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of a race, religion and sex. This prioritizes the rights of historically disempowered people to equal opportunity that are not accommodated through the free market promises of network neutrality legislation.
Just as these rights claims of historically disenfranchised groups should not be dismissed in policy debates over our media future, we should not dismiss radio broadcasting’s past as a period that contrasts with the revolutionary status of our media present. Instead, a renewed focus on the material histories of radio broadcasting’s past can challenge us to suspend universal assumptions about open markets and attend to the localized material practices and rights claims of the historically disenfranchised.