media history – Antenna Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Teaching with Arclight and POE Mon, 12 Oct 2015 18:30:22 +0000 Project Arclight began two years ago with an idea: If researchers can use Twitter analytics to study trends in discussions of contemporary media, then what if we treated historic trade papers and fan magazines like a giant Twitter stream and explored trends in film and media history? We worked on refining this idea, received a grant, kept working on it, and — just today! — publicly launched our software at

Arclight searches the nearly 2 million page collection of the Media History Digital Library (MHDL) and graphs the results. To provide one example — and an example very much inspired by this month’s baseball postseason, football season, and basketball preseason — here is a visualization of how those three sports trend across the MHDL corpus. Note: Because the MHDL’s collections primarily encompass out-of-copyright works, the results largely cut off after the year of 1964.

Arclight sports line graph -- raw page count

The team that developed the Arclight software — who are acknowledged at the end of this post — are working on a series of journal articles that model how Arclight and the method of Scaled Entity Search can be applied toward investigating large-scale research questions. However, we also hope that Arclight will be valuable as a classroom tool for teachers of film and broadcasting history, especially those teachers keen to expose students to digital humanities methodologies and engage them in active learning. Here are a couple of suggestions for film and media educators about how to use Arclight with your students.

The POE Strategy

For over twenty years, the POE strategy (which stands for Predict, Observe, Explain) has been a highly effective teaching method in the sciences. After being presented with a set of circumstances, students are asked to predict what will happen, observe an experiment, and then explain why it happened and compare their prediction to the outcome. When implemented well, it’s an exercise that actively engages 100% of students in the classroom — not just the two or three who might raise their hands to answer a question that the teacher asks aloud.

The POE strategy is ideal when used with science experiments that play out relatively quickly. What will happen when we mix these two chemicals together? Make your prediction, then observe and explain why the result occurred. But POE can be challenging to implement in a history classroom. If a teacher says, “and guess what happened next?,” then it can certainly facilitate student prediction. But it also perpetuates two unfortunate dynamics. First, the instructor, who reveals the correct answer, becomes reinforced as the authority on the historical record. Second, history is presented as a fixed narrative, rather than as a set of assumptions and arguments that we are always challenging using the available evidence. We need ways to more actively engage students in their learning. And active learning, in a film and media history classroom, means that students get to spend class time doing the work of a film and media historian.

Arclight offers one means of integrating POE and active learning into a film or media history classroom. To use my earlier graph example, a teacher might ask, “How did the discourse of sports change from 1900 to 1960 in books and magazines about American entertainment and media?” Students could write down their predictions, then get to work on their computers or phones running queries for baseball, basketball, football, and other terms in Arclight. Something might immediately jump out at them. For me, it was the decline of both baseball and football during the years of 1942, 1943, 1944, and 1945. Based on this observation, I would offer the explanation that this decline of baseball and football occurred due to the impact of World War II and the enlistment of athletes into armed forces.

But really, this explanation based on distant reading is a new prediction that invites closer inspection, observation, and analysis. Put another way, Arclight is best used with the POEPOE or POEPOEPOE strategy. Any explanation a student offers can and should be further tested. Does the rise of football in the late-1920s and 1930s have more to do with radio coverage or football’s popularity in short films? We need to dig deeper to find the answer.

In developing Arclight, we felt it was important to give users the ability to easily and fluidly access the underlying texts. We were able to achieve this by integrating Arclight with the MHDL’s search engine, Lantern. Students can click through the Arclight graph and access the underlying materials within Lantern. Teachers will also want to encourage students to consult primary sources that are NOT indexed within Lantern, like archival manuscript collections and historical newspapers. Still, Arclight and Lantern provide a fast, user-friendly way for students to actively engage in historical research and analysis within a classroom.

The SES Interpretive Triangle and Changing Graph Views

There is another interpretive method that teachers may want to consider alongside POE.

The line graphs in Arclight are not arguments. They are simply visualizations of how many MHDL pages a given term appears in per year. To help students more fully think through what they are seeing, teachers might ask them to think about the relationships between the terms they are searching, the books and magazines they are searching within, and the impact of digitization and search algorithms within the process. We call this the Scaled Entity Search Interpretative Triangle. And if this sounds big and confusing, see Kit Hughes’ blog posts on the Scaled Entity Search (SES) technical method and interpretive method.

On an interactive level, students can change their visualization and reflective on the corpus and digitization by clicking on the dotted line icon and/or percentage icon. The dotted line icon graphs the MHDL’s entire corpus, revealing how some years have way more pages indexed than other years. The percentage icon helps correct for this by “normalizing” the data that is being visualized by dividing the number of page hits per year by the number of total pages per year. In other words, the normalization feature accounts for the fact that more pages were scanned from some years than others. And in the case of the sports visualization, the trend lines change quite a bit — especially in the stability of the lines from the late-1940s through the mid-1950s:

Arclight sports line graph -- normalized

Ultimately, no visualization is perfect, nor should it be. By offering users a variety of visualization options and the ability to access the underlying data, we hope to drive home the understanding that all graphs are incomplete abstractions and best used as jumping off points into further analysis. Yet they are valuable precisely because they may lead us toward analyses and questions that we otherwise would have never considered. And we hope that you and your students may even have fun creating, changing, and playing with these visualizations.

Please give Arclight a try with your students and let us know how it goes. We hope that it allows students to playfully engage in historical exploration and come away with valuable lessons about digital technology too. We are all living in a big data world. We have long trained our students in how to closely read a singular text. We need to complement this with more teaching activities that encourage analyzing many texts at a large scale — and dealing with all the uncertainty and messiness that goes along with it.


This project was developed by teams at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Concordia University and sponsored by a Digging into Data grant from the U.S.’s Institute for Museum and Library Services and Canada’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. Additional support came from the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education and Concordia University’s Media History Research Centre.

The Arclight Software Development Team is Comprised of:

Project Directors: Charles Acland and Eric Hoyt

Interface Design and Programming: Kevin Ponto and Alex Peer

Search Index Development: Eric Hoyt, Kit Hughes, Derek Long, Peter Sengstock, Tony Tran

Thank you also to broader team and community who contributed to Project Arclight.

One final thanks…

The author wishes to thank the Madison Teaching and Learning Excellence (MTLE) program. Without MTLE, this media scholar would never have learned about POE or adopted the strategies of active learning.


Conference Announcement: Saving America’s Radio Heritage at the Library of Congress Tue, 08 Sep 2015 15:18:43 +0000


Post by Michele Hilmes, Professor Emerita at University of Wisconsin-Madison

The Radio Preservation Task Force (RPTF), a unit of the Library of Congress’s National Recording Preservation Board, will hold its first national conference February 25-27, 2016, in Washington, D.C.

Keynote speakers will include Professor Paddy Scannell of the University of Michigan, a noted radio scholar and historian, and Sam Brylawski, former Head of the LOC’s Recorded Sound Division and a digital recording pioneer.

In 2014, the National Recording Preservation Board recognized the need to address the perilous state of the nation’s radio heritage, which has not received the archival and critical attention of other U.S. media. Over the last two years, the RPTF has coordinated a nation-wide effort to identify major collections of radio recordings and other materials that will help to raise cultural awareness of America’s rich tradition of radio-based soundwork and make it accessible to future generations.

A year and a half later, we have built an organization consisting of more than 130 media studies scholars actively engaged in researching radio’s past and identifying key archival sources; over 350 affiliate archives, collections, and radio producing organizations across the US and Canada; and a growing number of online partners who aid in critical discussion and dissemination of our efforts.

The most recent additions to our group of affiliated organizations include NPR, the Pacifica Radio Archives, the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, the Association for Cultural Equity/Alan Lomax Archive, the Paley Center for Media, the Prometheus Radio Project, the Media Ecology Project, the Studs Terkel Archive, and the Third Coast International Audio Festival.

The Library of Congress Packard Campus of the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center located in Culpeper, VA.

Our first national conference, Saving America’s Radio Heritage, will bring these groups together, along with members of the broader academic, archival, media, and general public, to discuss what we have accomplished and plan for future activities. Over three days in February, we will tour the LOC’s Packard Center, meet for a day of panels focused on radio’s history and cultural significance at the LOC’s Madison Building, then move to the University of Maryland’s Center for Mass Media and Culture (formerly the Library of American Broadcasting) for a second day of workshops and caucuses focused on issues of outreach, growth, and education.

RPTF Logo 2

The Radio Preservation Task Force curates a regular series for Antenna about radio history and archival issues, which can be accessed here. More information about the RPTF can be found at the organization’s new website. Stay tuned for further news and discussion of the conference and the RPTF’s activities. For additional information about the task force, please contact: radiotaskforce <at> Questions about strategic planning and partnerships can be directed to the RPTF’s National Research Director, Josh Shepperd (Catholic University): shepperd <at>


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In Memoriam: Peg Lynch and Her Records of Broadcast History Mon, 03 Aug 2015 14:00:19 +0000 Ethel and Albert, recently passed away at the age of 98. Her contributions to radio and early television may not be well known, but materially this forgotten show exists. ]]> Peg Lynch

Post by Lauren Bratslavsky, Illinois State University

“You’re early. There’s an episode… houseguest arrives early and I’m unprepared.” Peg Lynch’s voice trailed off as she opened the door to let me in. At the time, she was 94 and still mentally composing episode plots for the long-ago radio and television program she created, Ethel and Albert. It was a show about nothing really: a miswritten phone message, a broken light bulb, a failed dinner party, and so on. I stumbled across her show when I was poking around my university’s special collections. I read some Ethel and Albert scripts and was amused. I researched what I could about the show, but was disappointed at the overall lack of information. I learned from the archivist that Lynch was still alive. I nervously called her up and asked her some questions about what it was like to work in radio and television, especially as a woman. Lynch didn’t think it was that special, or why anyone would care about her experience in the business, but she invited me to her home to meet her. I later learned this was one of her endearing attributes – that is, inviting people to her home and treating them lovingly as long lost relatives.

I was a bit stunned to see Peg Lynch’s obituary more than a week ago in The New York Times. I knew that her health had taken a turn for the worse and that this may have been the 98-year-old woman’s last leg. What surprised me was the fact of the obituary itself, which led to obituaries in Variety, LA Times, and elsewhere. It was not that Lynch didn’t deserve the lengthy write-ups and accolades of her work in radio and television; she was long over due for such recognition. I was amazed that her little-known career was finally gaining notice. For a few years now, I’ve queried radio fans and television historians whether they’ve heard of Ethel and Albert, which gained a nation-wide audience in 1944 to 1950, then a television audience from 1950 to 1956, and back to radio until the 1970s. For some, the characters rang a bell, but very few clearly recognized the show or Peg Lynch.

NBC Ethel and Albert title card 1To be fair, there are many radio and early television programs that are obscure, and indeed unmemorable. What makes Ethel and Albert, and the later radio incarnation, The Couple Next Door, remarkable is that Peg Lynch created the show and wrote every single episode by herself and starred in both the radio and television versions. The only analog to Lynch’s creator-writer-actor career was Gertrude Berg. Berg’s career is well documented in the history books and broadcasting lore, most likely in part due to the notoriety associated with the blacklist as well as awards, as noted in her obituary. Lynch’s work, never touched by controversy or industry awards, became just one of the thousands of entries in program encyclopedias. Without mechanisms such as television syndication or lasting celebrity status, like that of Lucille Ball or Betty White, Lynch fell further into obscurity. Had it not been for an email sent by Astrid King, Lynch’s daughter, the New York Times most likely would not have picked up on the news of her passing. And then, write-ups of Peg Lynch, “a pioneering woman in broadcast entertainment,” would not have circulated as it did.

A page from Peg Lynch's scrapbook, posted to her Facebook page.

A page from Peg Lynch’s scrapbook, posted to her Facebook page.

Why is Peg Lynch’s career significant for radio and television history? While obituaries frame her as a pioneer, I think a more apt description is that she persevered in an industry that was constantly changing and predominately male. As outlined in her obituary and in far greater detail on her website, Peg started in radio as a copywriter in the early 1930s at a local, small-town radio station in Minnesota. When she asked for a raise that reflected her many responsibilities, which included such tasks as writing ad copy and a daily women’s program, she was denied. She quit and continued to work in different radio stations, making her way out of the Midwest and to New York City. All the while, she held on to her creation, Ethel and Albert, a middle-aged married couple who were known for their gentle and realistic bickering. She first pitched Ethel and Albert to NBC in 1944, who made her an offer but wanted 50/50 ownership over the rights of the show. Lynch walked way. Instead, Lynch secured a network deal around the time NBC-Blue turned into the ABC network. Someone at WJZ (NBC-Blue/ABC’s flagship station) got a hold of Lynch, offered her an evening slot and allowed her to retain full ownership. Ethel and Albert was not sponsored by one company, but rather was part of the co-op model of radio sponsorship. In 1946, Ethel and Albert was a short-lived test case for television at WRGB, GE’s experimental studio. Ethel and Albert remained on the radio until 1950, when Lynch was offered a real television opportunity: a ten-minute recurring segment on NBC’s The Kate Smith Hour. First, in 1953, NBC had Lynch turn her popular ten-minute segment into a half-hour network sitcom, sponsored by Sunbeam. Sunbeam dropped the live sitcom in favor of a different genre, the spectacular (as chronicled in Variety). CBS then picked up Ethel and Albert, sponsored by Maxwell House, as a summer replacement for December Bride in 1955 (an awkward promo for the switch over is on YouTube).

Peg-Lynch-PapersDespite decent ratings, CBS did not continue working with Lynch. I suspect this decision had something to do with I Love Lucy and CBS not wanting to have two programs featuring bickering couples, even if Ethel and Albert were far more subdued and realistic than Lucy and Desi. ABC aired Ethel and Alberts final television run, which was sponsored by Ralston Purina (Chex cereal and dog food). The show ended in 1956, at another transition moment when sitcom production moved from New York to Hollywood and from live to film. As Lynch recounted in her oral history (available through the University of Oregon’s Special Collections), there was talk of moving the show to Hollywood, but she preferred to stay on the East Coast. And really, she was tired of the weekly pressures to write new episodes while rehearsing and performing live. After television, she did some commercial work. Oddly enough, Lynch went back to radio, penning a near-copy of her original creation but under the title, The Couple Next Door for CBS Radio. Lynch had a couple more runs on the radio in the 1960s and 1970s, specifically on NBC’s Monitor and then NPR’s Earplay. With the last radio show in 1976, titled The Little Things in Life, Lynch’s long broadcast career ended.


The story of Peg Lynch can serve as a sort of public service announcement to those of us who toil in archives and seek out broadcast history’s margins. Two points in particular come to mind: the materiality of broadcast’s forgotten histories and the active role we play in shaping the use and availability of the material record. First, echoing Laura LaPlaca’s recent Antenna post, if we focus on all that is gone (and resign to the fact of this lack), then we overlook “the broadcast archive’s extraordinarily expansive physicality.” Lynch’s creative output is indeed physically available, even if mentions and critiques of her work are largely absent from our histories. The initial radio and television broadcasts were ephemeral in the sense that they were live broadcasts, moments of popular culture that began and ended in their programmed time slots. But there is a whole swath of materiality that exists in various forms and locations. There are the paper materials that Lynch saved throughout her career: scripts, letters, and a few other paper materials. Lynch’s mother compiled news clippings, photos, and various correspondence into scrapbooks. Decades after the height of her career, Lynch received an invitation to establish an archival collection at the University of Oregon in 1969 (how and why that happened is a whole other story), so all those scripts, scrapbooks, and paperwork are open for research (and soon, there will be more).

Throughout the 1970s and well into the 2000s, the physical meetings and tape-swapping of old time radio fans sustained the memory and the audio record of Ethel and Albert and The Couple Next Door. The fan conventions seem especially crucial in the age before the internet, as in, a time before old time radio websites posted shows and interviews. The conventions, and later on, the fan websites, fostered networks of old and new fans (Lynch loved her fans and her fans loved her). Even more material records exist now that we can search databases of digitized trade publications (like this article in Radio and TV Monitor, written by Lynch about the benefits of marital bickering, that is available on Lantern). References to the production side of Ethel and Albert certainly exist in the vast NBC corporate archives. The audio tapes exist in physical form and circulate digitally on the web. And the live television program? Those exists, too. Nearly every episode was filmed on a kinescope, which Lynch owned and now safely reside at the University of Oregon.

Which brings me to my second point: As radio and television scholars, we participate in recirculating the canon as well as seeking out new examples that corroborate or challenge existing histories. Just the very act of taking an interest in a little-known program or writer can help broaden the scope of broadcast histories or refine particular stories, such as the case of a little-known woman who was among the very few people to create, write, and star in her own show. The Peg Lynch Papers at the University of Oregon had been mostly dormant since they arrived decades ago. The archivists had various priorities in their immediate purview – the limited resources in such an institution necessarily limits which donors to follow up with in their twilight years. Thus, active interest from a faculty member or a researcher can help call greater attention to little-used or little-known collections, especially those collections whose creators are still alive. Those kinescopes of every episode? Up until two years ago, those were under Lynch’s couch and in cabinets in her home. After my first visit to Lynch’s home, I told the archivists about my visit, including the films and the fact that Lynch was still relatively lucid and had stories to tell. I’m sure that those kinescopes, as well as more papers, audio tapes, and ephemera would have made it to Oregon, thus joining the rest of Lynch’s collection. But the oral history? The personal relationships? The chance to participate in a collective nudge to ensure the preservation of a so-called ephemeral broadcast history? That probably would not have happened without some active participation and good old phone calls.


We can celebrate all that has survived, while prodding to discover what else exists. And we can continue to draw from the canon, while interrogating the wealth of materials that exists in the hopes of broadening and refining our histories. So long, Peg.


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“Something Into Nothing”: On the Materiality of the Broadcast Archive Mon, 27 Jul 2015 20:50:29 +0000 2Post by Laura LaPlaca, Northwestern University

eBay launched when I was seven years old and I bid on a beat-up old pair of Milton Berle’s shoes. I watched episodes of The Texaco Star Theatre over and over again with the shoes perched next to me on the couch. I thought it was incredible that they could be on the television screen and in my living room at the same time – like I had the power to pluck enchanted objects out of fairy tales and keep them for my own.

By the time I graduated from high school, I had just under 3,800 pieces of broadcast memorabilia. As I accumulated each one, I polished it, and labeled it, and learned its story. The history of broadcasting, as I knew it, grew wider and deeper along with the piles on my bedroom floor.

The material relationship I developed with broadcast history as a collector and, eventually, as a media archivist in more formal settings, leads me to balk a little bit when I hear the radio and television archive referred to as “ephemeral.” There are certainly undeniable benefits to emphasizing ephemerality, not least of which is the perpetuation of a sense of urgency; it is imperative that we maintain a high level of alertness as we devise and implement strategies for preventing losses of content. But we tend to emphasize ephemerality to such a degree that we do not discuss the broadcast archive’s extraordinarily expansive physicality at all. Its size and weight, as well as the infrastructures – both physical and intellectual – that support it, too often go unremarked upon. We should recognize that deflecting our attention away from the corporeal mass of the broadcast archive can undermine institutions that need our continual support. I return often to one of archivist Rick Prelinger’s Tweets: “The ‘archive’ is overtheorized; ‘archives’ (where the labor of record keeping takes place) are undertheorized and underfunded. #archives.”


What’s more, fixation on that which is ephemeral – or missing from the archive – dampens the spirit of discovery that so powerfully impels us toward knowledge. An overwhelming majority of the time, researchers walk into archives seeking to corroborate a preexisting thesis. And an overwhelming majority of the time, they walk out of archives feeling as though they did not find “enough.” For them, the archive is lacking – what they need has not been saved. As an archivist, I often find myself imploring researchers to shift their attitude at this moment of resignation, to move past bemoaning the lack and move toward celebrating that which has survived. This is usually the point at which new and different kinds of histories present themselves.

Whenever possible, we should strive to walk into archives with a spark of that collector’s greed that is such a terrific incitement to curiosity. We should let an acquisitive impulse – an open desire to know as much as possible – drive us, so that the archive can inspire, rather than merely support, our work. The process of grabbing on to something material, celebrating its miraculous survival, and then compelling it to dictate its own story is powerful. And when we let the objects come first, the problem is no longer that the archive is found lacking, but that we will never be able to discover everything that the archive has to offer. While this shift in attitude doesn’t change the hard facts of destruction and deterioration (which again, we need to continue to stay apprised of), it does facilitate the circulation of otherwise untold stories and, in this way, works as something of a preservationist tactic in and of itself. Indeed, many objects in archives are not constitutively “ephemeral” at all, but have nevertheless been obscured or erased by our sheer inattention.

Eugenia Farrar

Eugenia Farrar

The following is one of my favorite examples of what can happen when an ignored artifact asserts its materiality and cries out to be interrogated. This is the story (in brief) of radio pioneer Eugenia Farrar – the first person to sing over radio waves – and her century-long post-mortem fight against ephemerality.

In the fall of 1907, Farrar visited the Manhattan studio of Lee de Forest, an early radio inventor, to aid in the test of an experimental transmitter. Since de Forest had not yet invented a radio receiver, there would be no way of knowing if the transmission had been successful – and absolutely no record of Farrar’s song. Somewhat sardonically, Farrar approached the curious machine and said, “Here goes something into nothing!”

As she began to sing a rendition of “I Love You Truly,” a popular song of the day, a civil engineer tinkering with the USS Dolphin’s new radiotelephone at the Brooklyn Navy Yard clutched his earpiece and trembled, listening in rapture to what he could only assume was the voice of an angel. The engineer, 19-year-old Oliver Wyckoff, called the papers to report that he had experienced divine communication. The editor on duty dismissed the call as a prank, but – just in case it were true – buried the story on the seventh page of the next morning’s paper.

Lee de Forest

Lee de Forest

The Farrar story became the stuff of legend: no one could verify Wyckoff’s testimony, de Forest was notoriously fond of claiming credit for dubious innovations, and the broadcast itself had disappeared “into the ether” without a trace. De Forest and Farrar attempted to promote their achievement throughout the early 20th century, but their story faded and was almost entirely forgotten.

In 1966, six decades after having heard the “angel’s” voice, Oliver Wyckoff received a cardboard box containing Farrar’s cremated remains. He left the box unopened on a shelf in his office for years. The extended Wyckoff family inherited the remains, which they respectfully referred to as “The Madame,” and shuffled the box between their closets and garages until 2007. By this point, exactly one hundred years after the historic broadcast, the box itself was on the verge of complete disintegration.

Farrar’s remains were acquisitioned by the Brooklyn Navy Yard Archives and sound artists Melissa Dubbin and Aaron Davidson were commissioned to design an urn to properly contain them. Dubbin and Davidson used phonograph cutting techniques to carve a mid-20th century recording of “I Love You Truly” into a ceramic urn like the grooves on a wax cylinder. Farrar’s post-mortem journey ended with her ashen physical remains protected by the materialized solid form of her voice. The “angel” was interred during a ceremony at the historic Green-Wood Cemetery in 2010.

Perhaps there is no event as “ephemeral” as this forgotten broadcast of “something into nothing,” and no artifact more precarious than an “angel’s” displaced ashes.

Yet the stark materiality of Farrar’s remains, the way that they literally escaped their container and demanded to be attended to, preserved this important story about early radio innovation. Confronted with a tangible object, Dubbin and Davidson, as well as a small cohort of researchers, were incited to reconstruct the long-forgotten events of the fall of 1907, which were widely circulated by the media over a century later alongside coverage of Farrar’s interment ceremony.

I had the rare privilege of hearing the “angel’s voice,” quite on accident, when I was on fellowship at the Library of Congress. I was archiving a collection related to the radio talent program Major Bowes’ Original Amateur Hour – the earliest example of a phone-in voting contest, in the mode of American Idol. I was thrilled when I heard early performances by Frank Sinatra (his voice cracked fantastically), Paul Winchell, and Connie Francis. But I was absolutely stunned to find myself holding the small square form of Eugenia Farrar’s intricately embossed calling card, addressed to Major Bowes himself, requesting a spot on his show. A note from Lee de Forest followed, with a tiny golden radio tower emblazoned on it. I located the tape of the broadcast and listened as Farrar sang “I Love You Truly” in her lilting, distant voice and explained to the audience that, since only one man had heard it the first time around, she was glad to reprise her song “so that it might not be forgotten.”

Although I never saw the urn, Farrar’s words about the persistence of memory conjured the image of her song etched in ceramic, buried beneath the earth, and turned into a material thing. For me, the urn stands in for a whole class of artifacts that are both beautiful and haunting for the very fact of their durability.


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Pacifica Radio’s From the Vault Mon, 29 Jun 2015 15:08:23 +0000 archives

Post by Brian DeShazor, Pacifica Radio Archives

The Pacifica Foundation, founded in 1946 by Lewis Hill – a Quaker, conscientious objector, poet, and pacifist – began broadcasting at KPFA, 94.1 FM in Berkeley, California, on April 15, 1949. It was the first of its kind. The mission was to create a new kind of radio, supported by listeners, owing nothing to sponsors, providing an outlet for poetry, independent journalism, free speech, creative expression, and a safe haven for artistic experiments with the radio medium. Predating National Public Radio, over the next 28 years, the network added four stations: KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles, CA (1959), WBAI 99.5 FM NYC, NY (1959), KPFT 90.1 FM Houston, TX (1970), and WPFW 89.3 FM Washington D.C. (1978). Perhaps best known as a chronicler of social justice movements and cultural change, Pacifica stations contributed to their communities by broadcasting unique coverage of HUAC hearings, the civil rights movement, the anti-Vietnam war movement, the women’s movement, the gay liberation movement, the student free speech movement, the Black power movement, the Native American Indian movement, and many others. Pacifica stations consistently embraced the performing and literary arts, offering sometimes the only forum for cutting edge and classical arts, as well as providing a stage to experiment with music, radio drama, spoken word, sound sculpture, and the art of radio documentary. This may be my favorite description of the programming ideals from a 1960 KPFK member folio program guide (all of which are freely available online at

“As a listener-sponsored station KPFK is free from the restrictions and inhibitions of commercial radio. We may attempt to discharge our special responsibility to the community with vigor, intelligence and imagination.

Our approach to broadcasting is permissive, bold and somewhat naive, because we feel that these attributes hold the secrets of growth and true wisdom. We choose to focus on the positive aspects of our freedom; what we are freed for; rather than what we are freed from.

We are free to serve: By tapping the creative resources of our nation and community we give hearing to deserving and unknown literary and musical talent, we provide a forum for the full discussion of public affairs, and we serve the community by an active participation in its cultural and intellectual life.

We are free to explore: In public affairs we are free to probe beyond the superficial level. Our programs are designed to stimulate, not to mirror complacency.

We are free to innovate: By broadcasting original works, special interviews, and live concerts, we can give free radio its rightful position as a provocative and intimate communicative medium. We are free to create new formats and recombine old ones. We can afford to risk without fear of the consequences on a popularity rating scale.

We are free to challenge: Our view of current happenings and long-term trends in this community and the world can be fresh and insistently honest, equally free to challenge the dogmas of the avante garde or the traditionalist, the intellectual or the anti-intellectual, the happy few or the complacent many, as the occasion requires. We frankly admit our prejudice, against the pretentious in any form or walk of life. Sacred cows find no sanctuary in our studios.

We have no commitments other than to these ideals.”

The Pacifica Radio Archives has over 60,000 program units, and has digitized approximately 10% since the advent of the digital age thanks to several grant funded projects and by public request. We are currently in the final months of a two-year project to preserve and make accessible 2,000 programs covering the women’s movement, in a project titled “American Women Making History and Culture: 1963-1982”, funded in part by a grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission at the National Archives and Records Administration.

fromthevaultFrom the Vault is the Pacifica Radio Archives radio series produced weekly to rebroadcast and contextualize the history captured on reel-to-reel tape from 1949 to about 1999 by the Pacifica radio stations. The series is heard on the Pacifica Radio stations and its 200 affiliates. The series was created in 2006 in an effort to disseminate the history preserved to new audiences, promote the grant funded projects that helped digitize selections of the collection, and raise funds to continue preservation and access projects.

With thousands of tapes to choose from, it’s no easy task to curate. We begin each week mindful of current events and obituaries. We work from a calendar of historic events, commemorations and anniversaries to motivate our research. Programs of note include: The first march on Washington for Gay Rights, 1979; a previously unknown 1964 speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and my personal favorite, Flora Molton, a blind blues street singer from Washington D.C.

Flora Molton.

Gospel and country blues musician Flora Molton.

We are always seeking ways to make the materials contemporary and reach new audiences. In the works is a program on the 50th anniversary of the Watts Uprising in Los Angeles. We will be using the KPFK 1965 radio documentary, The Fire This Time, but not in the traditional way. On July 10, 2015, the archival sound will be used in a live concert event produced by Grand Performances as source material in a new hip-hop/ rap music mixtape performance curated by Lyricist Lounge co-founder Anthony Marshall, featuring dead prez, Jimetta Rose, ill CamiLLe, Bambu, food4Thot, and members of the Watts Prophets. From the Vault has produced 486 one-hour episodes to date.

Now that the Pacifica Radio Archives is partnered with the RPTF we look forward to expanding our Campus Campaign and our efforts to make the radio history part of educational curriculum.


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Teaching Radio’s History Wed, 24 Jun 2015 13:00:27 +0000 28-01-04-Coast-to-Coast-NBC-hookup

Map of NBC’s combined red, blue, orange, and gold networks in 1928.

Post by Bruce Lenthall, University of Pennsylvania

Teaching a media history course nearly 15 years ago, one day I found myself stumbling in search of a metaphor to help explain to undergraduates the network radio system that arose in the late 1920s.

“Think about network stations on television,” I suggested.

“What are network stations on TV?” the students asked. “How are they different than any other stations? How do you find them?”

“Do you remember those two knobs on a television?” I asked, trying to make this as simple and concrete as possible. Succeeding, instead, in showing my age. “Essentially, one knob let you change between the national channels, the network channels. When you turned the other knob, you changed channels among the local, non-network ones.”

There was a long pause.

Finally, with the air of one who has figured out something that has long confused her, a student spoke up. “This is really helpful,” she said. “My grandmother had a television with dials on it and I never could figure out what you used them for.”

IMG_2382The point here is not the futility of trying to explain television knobs and dials to a generation in the age of the remote control. The point is not even my own occasional cluelessness about current cultural experiences. No, the real point here is about some of the challenges of teaching radio history.

When I teach the history of radio – as I have done in a variety of course contexts from a media in history course to a history of American culture in the 1930s – I am routinely reminded that for undergraduate students, the basics of the early radio systems have long since been lost from cultural memory. Notions of national networks, of limitations on the number of stations – and with that, limitations on what audiences might hear and who might speak on the air – are unfamiliar. Even the metaphors a later generation might use to recall some of the early days of radio no longer have currency.

At the same time, though, other elements of the American system of broadcasting as it rose to prominence remain so entrenched in our deeply held assumptions that it can be hard for students to question them at all. For many of my undergraduates, commercially funded, for-profit broadcasting seems such a natural and positive way to organize media that it can be difficult for them to step out of such a system and examine it.

Such challenges are, of course, common ones for instructors: how to make the unfamiliar understandable and to understand the familiar by reexamining it through new eyes. And such challenges are why, in part, studying media history in general, and radio history in particular, is so powerful. Comprehending the unfamiliar media of the past can help us to see the familiar ones all around us anew. Digging into the history of broadcasting provides a comparative perspective – a comparison that enables us to see the system of our own time as distinct. Examining the historical comparison and the decisions that shaped past radio allows us to take what seems natural to us and to see it as something that has been constructed by choices – choices that could have been made differently. In turn, that perspective enables students to consider the benefits and costs of those choices.

As my classes explore the history of radio, we peer through three sets of lenses: the messages and content on the air, what radio meant to its listeners, and the structure of the industry. I ask my students, which frame of reference provides the most valuable insights into radio’s past? Invariably, my students say we need all three perspectives to really understand radio. That’s true, of course. But it also reveals how hard it is for novice scholars to take a stand. All of us who research radio know there are many valuable approaches to our work that we could take; but we also know that we have to pick one because we cannot do everything at once. My students are less comfortable choosing the approach that offers them the greatest insight.

IMG_2387There is no question, though, which is the easiest area for them to discuss. The early radio programs may be foreign to students, but discussing those programs is not. When we talk about Amos ‘n’ Andy in the 1920s and 1930s, for instance, my students quickly understand the importance of talking about the program’s construction of race. They may not see the differences between the works we read by Melvin Ely and Michele Hilmes on this question at first, but they get there. This becomes an opportunity to consider factors that made radio so popular and the role racial othering played in the creation of a mass audience. Similarly, students are comfortable considering Orson Welles’s “War of the Worlds” as a potential critique of the media itself (OK, for that one, they also see Citizen Kane to help them unpack Welles’s views).

My students have a more difficult time considering what radio meant for its listeners. Here I have raised for them some of the issues I address in my own book. What did it mean to connect with far-flung and often-imagined others? To be part of a mass audience? Where did listeners find a sense of control and where did they lack it? Maybe I am too close to some of these questions or maybe others need to come first, but I’ve never fully gotten students to engage with them. Instead, I have repeatedly found my classes tacking to questions of what was on the air and, even more, the early structure of the industry.

That last one, the structure of radio, is particularly hard for students to understand. It is not just, as I have said, that the comparisons we might offer are both too unfamiliar and familiar for them. More than that, such structures themselves were – and are – often invisible and inaudible. I also wonder if, in the United States, we are not always comfortable thinking about economic motives and structures as something open for questioning. The idea that a radio system that prized commercial success and the pursuit of profit could be something we created, rather than the natural state of a society that values freedom, can be a jarring one. Exchange students from France and Germany in my classes have been quicker than many of their peers to envision means of funding media other than through advertising.

Because the centralized and commercial system of broadcasting is so hard to make plain to students, it is doubly difficult to present alternatives that existed. Alexander Russo has a detailed account of the structures that bolstered radio beyond the networks – an account I have never taught. How to showcase for students the limits of a structure, when the students do not know the structure itself?

Ultimately, understanding that structure requires students exercise imagination as much as analysis: visually representing radio’s complex reach, for instance, and, critically, imagining alternatives to a commercial network system.

In the end, though, the difficulties in teaching this material help make it so compelling. When students successfully come to terms with radio’s messages, meanings and structures, they take something opaque and make it their own, and they take something that is very much their own and find the distance to shine a light into it. Considering a host of historical media systems and critiques – hopefully – sets them up to decide what they value in, and to consider alternatives to, contemporary media as well.

And if, in the process, they learn that once upon a time, people changed channels by walking across the room and twisting a dial, well, so much the better.


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Missing from History: Langston Hughes’ The Man Who Went To War Fri, 12 Jun 2015 13:00:07 +0000 Front row standing (L-R): Hall Johnson, Alan Lomax, D. G. Bridson, Canada Lee, Paul Robeson, Ethel Waters.

Front row standing (L-R): Hall Johnson, Alan Lomax, D. G. Bridson, Canada Lee, Paul Robeson, Ethel Waters.

Post by Michele Hilmes, University of Wisconsin-Madison

I have been so overwhelmed, and humbled, by the recent sequence of posts here on Antenna, sparked by the wonderful podcast assembled by Andrew Bottomley, Jeremy Morris, and Christopher Cwynar, that I wanted first of all to thank all of you who cast so many kind words in my direction, and second to say something about what I’ll be getting up to in retirement.

It was especially gratifying to hear so many of you acknowledge the importance of an historical perspective on the present, to enable us to see it more clearly. This works the other way too: to paraphrase Foucault, the perspective of the present continuously helps us to see things that were obscured in the past, such as the agency of whole classes of people – women, minorities, those outside the mainstream’s scope – as well as the significance of work done long ago and forgotten but now finding new relevance as we push the borders of our field ever wider.

One example of this in the field of sound is the first ever collection of critical essays on the creative work of Norman Corwin forthcoming from California in the spring, edited by Neil Verma with contributions from many of you reading this. It took a new generation of media scholarship, combined with the new interest in sound sparked by the digital present, to enable us once again to perceive the value of Corwin’s innovations, so long unheard and unappreciated.

Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes

Another example involves one of those amazingly serendipitous archival stories we sometimes get to tell. About five years ago, I was at the Library of Congress following up on research for Network Nations. One thing I was looking for was any trace of some of the radio features produced in the US during the WWII years by D. G. Bridson, an important innovator of the radio documentary feature form at the BBC. In his biography, Prospero and Ariel, Bridson describes his experiences working with people like Alan Lomax and Langston Hughes, the premier poet of the Harlem Renaissance, whom Bridson commissioned in late 1943 to write an original “ballad opera” in support of the war effort.[1]

Hughes’ script of The Man Who Went To War was produced in New York in February 1944, featuring some of the most significant African-American performers of the era. Paul Robeson introduced the show and provided the “Voice of God” at the end; Josh White performed the sung narration, with Ethel Waters and Canada Lee playing the central roles of Sally and Johnny. Alan Lomax arranged the music, which was sung by the Hall Johnson Choir, accompanied by noted bluesmen Sonny Terry playing harmonica and Brownie McGhee on guitar.

Hughes, whose struggle to get his scripts on the air in the US had led to frustration and disappointment, wrote to Erik Barnouw in March 1945:

“Probably my best script is THE MAN WHO WENT TO WAR as performed on BBC for England and the colonies last spring…Considering the seriousness of the race problem in our country, I do not feel that radio is serving the public interest in that regard very well… Personally, I DO NOT LIKE RADIO, and I feel that it is almost as far from being a free medium of expression for Negro writers as Hitler’s airlanes are for the Jews.”[2]

Hughes’ answer to US radio’s silence on race was to construct a musical drama that simply refuses to acknowledge that African-American and British identity might not be thoroughly elidable, or that the language of blues and gospel music might not speak for “all freedom-loving people,” without distinction. More musical poetry than drama, Hughes and Bridson built on the “radio ballad” or “ballad opera” form pioneered by Alan Lomax in the US and later developed by Charles Parker in Britain.

Listen here to the opening sequence of The Man Who Went to War:

Paul Robeson

Paul Robeson

The show was never aired in the US, due to rights issues, but was recorded and broadcast over the BBC in the spring of 1944, with highly favorable reception. But here, according to Bridson, its story ends; the last remaining recording – made on glass discs – was shattered soon after. And thus faded The Man Who Went To War, one of the very few of Hughes’ scripts for radio actually broadcast, unheard by the American public and inaccessible to scholars.

But not so! As I found out that day in 2010, the Library of Congress amazingly preserved a recorded copy – not the best sound quality in places, faded and scratched, but bringing to human ears for the first time in more than six decades voices and performances unique to the historical radio soundscape. It has now been digitized and can be found in the LOC collection, though not alas online. I look forward not only to digging into the history and reception of this unique work, but to making it the centerpiece of a history of the radio feature in the United States – the creative tradition that underlies current innovative soundwork like This American Life and Serial but that, like Corwin and so much else in American radio, remains missing from history – until media scholars like us go looking.

Thanks to the field we have together built up, and thanks too to some important historical projects you’ve read about here – the Radio Preservation Task Force, the Archive of American Public Broadcasting, and others in progress – much more of our missing media history promises to be revealed, after decades of silence.   It is my hope, and a goal in retirement, that what I have elsewhere referred to as the “lost critical history of radio”[3] – and by that I mean the critical heritage of American soundwork, in particular – can be revived and made meaningful to those of us who create, listen to, and reflect on soundwork today.


[1] My grateful thanks to Lisa Hollenbach for sharing with me her research in Langston Hughes’ papers in Yale’s Beinecke Collection.

[2] Letter from Langston Hughes to Erik Barnouw, 27 March 1945. B1 F10, Erik Barnouw papers, Columbia University.

[3] Michele Hilmes, “Radio’s Lost Critical History,” Australian Journalism Review Special Edition “Radio Reinvented: the enduring appeal of audio in the digital age,” 36:2, Spring 2015.


Ghost Stories and Dirty Optics: Notes on the Hilmesian Closeup Wed, 10 Jun 2015 12:30:13 +0000 Brox Sisters Listening In. Courtesy: Library of Congress Online Prints & Photographs.

Brox Sisters Listening In. Courtesy: Library of Congress Online Prints & Photographs.

Post by Shawn VanCour, New York University

This is the twelfth post in our “Honoring Hilmes” series, celebrating the career and legacy of Michele Hilmes on the occasion of her retirement. 

This series has offered much well-deserved praise for Michele Hilmes as a scholar, professor, mentor, and colleague, detailing her profound impact on her department, students, and field. I heartily concur with these sentiments but for the present post shift from a concern with “Hilmes” the person to what we might call the “Hilmesian” – by which I mean a certain set of observable tendencies in historiographical technique. I use the word “technique” here in the sense of a regularized set of formal devices deployed toward consistent ends within and across a body of work. What are the defining techniques of Hilmesian historiography, and to what end do those work?

In an effort to open this line of inquiry, I will focus on the technique of the “historical closeup.” For sake of space, my examples are limited mainly to the pages of Radio Voices, although the technique is by no means limited to this work (nor to the work of Hilmes alone). The questions I ask here are twofold: 1) how does the historical closeup work in Hilmesian historiography, and 2) what does it do?

Well-worn cover of Radio Voices. Courtesy: Kathleen Battles.

Well-worn cover of Radio Voices. Courtesy: Kathleen Battles.

1. Ghost Stories (History as Spectrology)

One of the most telling passages of Radio Voices comes at the end:

Historians must continue to investigate the boundaries between what is known and what has been excluded from knowledge, what is heard speaking loudly in our largest public forums and what remains pushed to the sidelines, silenced or muffled in our historical accounts – and must continue to analyze the purposes and effects of such selections [. . . .] History is always ideological . . . . written by historians whose training, purposes, and basic assumptions and selections intertwine with present-day needs and preoccupations, and it finds a readership based on similar affinities (RV 288).

We are to listen, then, to the margins of history, to the voices silenced in existing accounts. Elsewhere in Radio Voices, this is cast as a strategy of Foucaultian reversal, or looking past the “smooth face of consensus” in the dominant discourse to recognize “the ruptured and seamed lines of tension and resistance that consensus seeks to conceal” (RV xvii). Equally important, we are asked to question the ideological underpinnings of our own, revisionist historiography: under what conditions may alternative histories be written, what forms may they take, and what modes of solidarity can they foster?

Radio Ghost. Painting by Rovina Cai.

Radio Ghost. Painting by RovinaCai (2014).

While written under the sign of Foucault, there also lies within Hilmesian historiography a trace of a Derridean spectrology – an asking after what haunts our speech and clings to it as its very condition of possibility. What we are listening for here is not the voices of those who speak from a space “outside” the dominant discourse, but instead those who exist as absent presences within it, whose “silencing” or “muffling”  is the condition for the dominant speech to itself be heard clearly. We listen for the murmurs of ghosts.

The goal here is not simply to restore these spectral voices to a past from which history has erased them, but rather to help their speech find a place within the dominant discourse of the present, creating conditions in which they may both speak and be heard. In Derridean terms, “[the scholar] should learn to live by learning . . . how to talk with [the ghosts], how to let them speak or how to give them back speech, even if it is in oneself . . . in the other in oneself: they are always there, specters . . . even if they are no longer, even if they are not yet” (Specters 221). This closing element of futurority (the “not yet”) is critical: the ghosts of history cannot, by nature, fully arrive within the present – they murmur, indistinctly, and it is the task of the historian to help find a place for their stories.

2. Dirty Optics (The Historical Closeup)

What, then, is the historical closeup, and how can it help us bring the ghosts of history into full presence? Here we may turn to Siegfried Kracauer’s book, History: The Last Things Before the Last, which he frames for his reader as the continuation of a line of inquiry first opened in his earlier book on film theory:

Recently I suddenly discovered that my interest in history . . . actually grew out of the ideas I tried to implement in my Theory of Film . . . . I realized in a flash the many existing parallels between history and the photographic media, historical reality and camera-reality (History 3-4).

First among these parallels was a tension between what Kracauer described as the “realistic” and “formative” tendencies, or competing needs to both respect and rework the reality documented by the camera or historian. However, as he was quick to note in his film book, “Objectivity in the sense of the realist manifesto is unattainable” (Film 15). The rendered reality was instead always inescapably shaped to some degree by the photographer-historian’s own subjectivity and larger concerns of his or her time. There is no possibility of a pure optics in Kracauer; there is no innocent or uncontaminated historical gaze.

New perspectives: Galileo’s telescope. Detail from painting by H. J. Detouche (1754).

New perspectives: Galileo’s telescope. Detail from painting by H. J. Detouche (1754).

The second major tension negotiated by both the filmmaker and historian, for Kracauer, is that both “must . . . move between the macro and micro dimensions” (History 122). In his film book he had pointed toward “Griffith’s admirable non-solution” of alternating between long shots, which offered subjects and actions in context, and closeups, “which do not just serve to further the action or convey relevant moods but retain a degree of independence” (129). For historians, the closeup retained this same power to deform the larger totality of which it was a part:

As I see it . . . [we should] concentrate on close-ups and from them casually . . . range over the whole, assessing it in the form of aperçus. The whole may yield to such light-weight skirmishes more easily than to heavy frontal attack (History 134-35).

The goal here is political, challenging received histories to gain critical insights on the present. This aim is achieved not just at the level of content, but also of form, exploiting the disruptive power of the historical closeup.

3. The Hilmesian Closeup

Who or what forms the subject of these closeups in Radio Voices? They are multiple, including particular programs (from Amos n Andy to Real Folks and An Open Letter on Race Hatred), performers (from Samuel Rothafel to Wendell Hall and Jack Benny), writers and producers (notably, below, Irna Phillips, Anne Hummert, Jane Crusinberry), and advertising agencies (J. Walter Thompson). In some cases, these are familiar figures whose examination in closeup serves to denaturalize the dominant narratives in which they have been traditionally inscribed, letting them begin to speak otherwise. In other cases, they are spectral presences, the muffled voices of those whom history has erased, invited back into the picture to say their piece.

1930s Magazine ad: Super Suds brings you NBC’s Clara, Lu & Em.

1930s Magazine ad: Super Suds brings you NBC’s Clara, Lu & Em.

As an example of the Hilmesian closeup in action, we may look to Chapter 6 of Radio Voices, titled “Under Cover of Daytime.” As with most chapters in this book, we open in long shot: whereas the early 1930s saw shows like The Goldbergs, Myrt and Marge, and Clara, Lu and Em running alongside more general-interest programming in the evening, as network radio expanded, women’s programming assumed a more “subordinate position” in daytime hours and was widely disparaged by critics for its sensationalism and crude commercialism (RV 151). From here we move into an even wider shot, as Hilmes discusses early twentieth century consumer culture’s production of what advertising historian Roland Marchand calls the “feminine mass,” seen as over-emotional, easily manipulated, and lacking in taste. At this point, an initial thesis is advanced: the relegation of more “feminized” and overtly commercial programming to daytime hours served a double containment strategy of 1) controlling women’s voices and 2) reconciling network broadcasting’s competing mandates for private profit and public service (152-3).

L-R: Irna Phillips, Anne Hummert, Jane Crusinberry.

L-R: Irna Phillips, Anne Hummert, Jane Crusinberry.

Three successive closeups of soap producers Irna Phillips, Anne Hummert, and Jane Crusinberry complicate this picture and work in dialectical tension with the opening long shots, showing how the daytime containment strategy at the same time created a space in which women and women’s issues could achieve greater public visibility and cultivate the solidarity needed for the formation of an effective “counterpublic” (RV 159). A closing return to long shot moves back to the previously posited daytime/nighttime division, the intermediary passage through a series of closeups having now challenged what at first appeared to be a strategy of subordination. What lies “Under Cover of Daytime” is not just the persistent commercialism that formed the seedy underbelly of network radio’s surface-level public service commitments, but also the creation of a protected public space in which women could build solidarity and begin to mount challenges to a dominant discourse that had traditionally excluded them. The voices of radio were not just those of male-dominated evening dramas and comedy/variety shows, but also those of daytime women’s programming, which are no longer forgotten or dismissed but now recognized for the serious cultural work they performed.

Nearly every chapter in Radio Voices follows this structure: a “big picture” presented in long shot with larger cultural contextualization leads to the formation of an initial thesis that is then strategically unsettled or modified through the technique of the closeup. The closeup becomes a means to resist or challenge the master narratives and sweeping views to which cultural history might otherwise be prone, a means of politicizing the telling of history at the level of form. It is a technique, I would suggest, that we also find deployed across other works by Hilmes, as something properly Hilmesian, though importantly, not the exclusive property of Hilmes. The historical closeup remains a vital tool for a critical cultural historiography that aims to restore the voices of those silenced in the past and create a space within the present in which they can be heard. Its Hilmesian deployment offers a valuable lesson in how to rewrite history, change the dominant discourse, and begin to make room for our dead.


Digital Tools for Television Historiography, Part III Tue, 09 Jun 2015 13:00:49 +0000 SV300056Post by Elana Levine, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

This is the third in a series of posts on my use of digital tools for a television history project. See part 1 and part 2.

Many of the digital research and writing needs I have been discussing in previous posts might apply to any historical project. Anyone who is grappling with thousands of sources in multiple formats might find data management and writing software useful to their task. But the work of managing audio-visual sources is more specific to media history. Television historiography, in particular, can be especially challenging in this regard, for series television includes episode after episode and season after season of programming — a lot of material for any researcher to take on.

In the case of my history of American daytime television soap opera from its beginnings in the early 1950s to the present, I face a task even more daunting than most TV history, for the genre I am studying has run 15-minute, half hour, or hour long episodes each weekday, 52 weeks a year, with individual series continuing this schedule for more than 50 years. Of course there is no way to watch all of it, or even to sample it in some representative way. Much of it no longer exists, for all soaps were broadcast live initially and many of those that started to be shot on video in the 1960s did not preserve the episodes — producers erased the tapes on an established rotation schedule. As far as I know, no public archive anywhere has all of the episodes of any US soap, although some of the shorter-lived ones do exist in complete form in the hands of media distribution companies or fan collectors. Fan archivists have preserved and uploaded to user-generated streaming video sites a massive amount of their private collections, taped off-air from the beginnings of the home VCR era to the present — there is more than one researcher could ever consume from the post-‘80s era alone.

But my point here is not to marvel at the voluminous output of soap creators and soap fans (although, wow!), nor to lament the disappearance or inaccessibility of so much of this crucial form of American popular culture (although, what a loss!). Instead I’d like to explain what I watch and, more specifically, how I watch, for that is entirely dependent on digital tools.

passionsFor the past 7 years, I have been integrating the viewing of past soap episodes into my daily routine. My choices of what to watch have been directed largely by availability. Other than episodes I have been able to see in museums and archives, my viewing has been focused on the limited numbers of soaps I have access to otherwise, of which I have tried to watch as many episodes as are available. Because I have been a soap viewer since the early 1980s, I have been less concerned with seeing programs from my own viewing history, although I am gradually integrating more material from the user-generated streaming archive over time. Instead, I have focused on the one soap that has been released in its entirety on DVD, Dark Shadows, and on soaps that have been rerun in recent years on cable channels, mostly the now-defunct SOAPnet, and on the broadcast network, RetroTV, which is carried primarily by local affiliates’ digital sub-channels.

In addition to daily reruns of just-aired soaps, SOAPnet reran select past episodes from a number of programs, but also aired a full run of ABC’s Ryan’s Hope from its 1975 debut through 1981 (the show aired originally until 1989). It also reran several years’ worth of Another World episodes from the late 1980s and early ’90s, and Port Charles’ telenovela-style 13-week arcs of the early 2000s. There have been other such instances, as in Sci-Fi’s rerun of Passions’ first few months in 2006. These repeats began airing around 2000, so I started recording them well before I was actively working on this project. As these repeats aired, I saved them first to VHS and then, once I abandoned those clunky old tapes, to DVD. DVD is a poor archival medium. But when I started doing this there were not the digital recording and storage options we now have. As with many other technological tools, what I did worked for me so I kept doing it.

I’ve watched much of this material over the past 7 years and am watching more every day. The recent addition of RetroTV’s rerun of the Colgate-Palmolive NBC soap, The Doctors, beginning with the late 1967 episodes, has further contributed to my archive. But how I do my viewing is where I employ digital video tools.

The author's two-screen work set-up.

The author’s two-screen work set-up.

Because most of my episode archive is on DVD-Rs I have burned over the years, my process is to convert these DVDs to mp4 files. Software like Handbrake accomplishes this on my Mac, as did the now-defunct VisualHub. For content I access through user-generated streaming sites, I use downloading software, some of which is available for free online. I also use iSkysoft iTube Studio for its ability to download from a range of different such sites, and to convert those files to iPad-ready mp4s. Managing the files through iTunes, I transfer them to my iPad in week-long viewing chunks, moving them off my limited-capacity first generation iPad after I watch. This multi-step process can be a bit cumbersome, but it achieves some key goals that have allowed me to watch a lot of content over time.

One goal was that my episodes be viewable in an off-line and mobile capacity to increase my ability to watch any time and anywhere (such as airplanes and my community fitness center gym, which did not have wifi until the past few years). Another goal was for the episodes to be on a screen separate from my main computer screen not only for portability but so that I could multitask as I watch. My pattern for years has been to watch three episodes of half-hour soaps or two of hour-long soaps each working weekday. Skipping commercials, this means spending 1–1 ½ hours of my day watching. I rarely take the time to do that in a concentrated way. Instead, I watch the episodes each day while dealing with email or other lower-attention work tasks, and in a host of other times when I find pockets for viewing — doing my hair, making dinner, cleaning a bathroom, waiting for a kid to fall asleep — these, I assure you, are all excellent times to watch soaps. I also watch at the gym and occasionally in the living room, with earbuds, when someone in my household is watching something else (e.g., Teen Titans Go!) on the “big” TV.

darkshadowsI take notes on the shows when I notice revealing moments (in DevonThink), but daytime soaps were not made for one’s full attention at all times. They are excellent at using audio and video cues to signal narrative significance. When I was watching Dark Shadows (perhaps the slowest of the soaps despite vampires, werewolves, and time travel) I knew exactly when to pay close attention because of the predictable music cues. Each of the soaps I watch has its own such patterns, which I have picked up through my regular viewing.

The work of television historiography is distinct in multiple respects, but surely the volume of content one might consider is especially notable. While watching the programs one studies is a central part of our research, cultural studies has helped us to understand that processes of production and reception are equally significant. Still, this de-centering of the text may be puzzling to those more accustomed to traditional forms of cultural analysis. For my soap research, my often-partial attention to the text has become an unintentionally revealing experience. I’ve come to understand my viewing as the 21st century digital version of the 1960s housewife glancing back and forth at the set as she irons, starts dinner, or moderates between squabbling siblings, an experience hilariously portrayed in a 1960 TV Guide Awards sketch. There may be no more fitting research strategy for a TV genre that has long served as a daily companion to its audience’s lives.


Saving College Radio Mon, 08 Jun 2015 14:11:47 +0000 WMUC Archives, 2012.

WMUC Archives, 2012.

Post by Laura Schnitker, University of Maryland, College Park

On March 26, 1971, an up-and-coming folk singer named Don McLean sat down for an interview at WMUC, the University of Maryland’s student-run radio station. Soft-spoken and thoughtful, McLean discussed a number of topics with DJ Craig Allen, including American music history, environmentalism, and contemporary singer-songwriters. When the conversation turned toward the tensions between commercialism and folk music, McLean introduced a new song. “Take you back about ten years ago when Buddy Holly died,” he explained as he tuned his guitar. “He was my idol. He’s the only idol I ever had. This is a rather long song,” he warned, “so better light up.” McLean then launched into an early rendition of “American Pie.”

Since it would be another two months before McLean’s iconic and best-known song debuted on commercial radio, its audition for a college audience is well-placed among historic gems of American popular music. And it might have been lost forever had it not been recorded and preserved on a 10” audio reel tape that floated around WMUC for over three decades before I spotted it in 2008. I was interviewing the general manager for the college radio chapter in my dissertation when I noticed a tape box on his desk with the inscription, “Interview with Don McLean, Spring 1971. DO NOT ERASE”. I asked if there were any more like it.

WMUC's Don McLean reel from 1971.

WMUC’s Don McLean reel from 1971.

Quite a few, in fact. Over 1,800 audio reels, cartridges, cassettes, and DATs documenting WMUC’s unique history were stacked to the ceiling in a dark, dusty storage room in the back of the station. Some of them were lying under piles of old equipment. Some were tangled in long tails of audio tape that had fallen off their cores. And with no climate control, the natural deterioration of magnetic tape in flimsy cardboard boxes happens at a much quicker pace. These recordings badly needed to be saved. But what constitutes “saving” beyond merely keeping something out of the trash, and whose responsibility is it to do so at a college radio station? Furthermore, what value might college radio archives have beyond the occasional interview with a Pretty Famous Musician?

One thing I’ve learned in the 10 years I’ve been archiving broadcast history is that radio stations have been notoriously remiss in preserving their histories. If they saved anything it was usually printed records; audio recordings were most often destroyed after the stations were reformatted or sold. With no aftermarket for old broadcasts, and the added complications of performance copyright and rapidly changing sound technologies, many station managers probably thought these recordings were more liability than asset. A large portion of the audio collections I manage at the University of Maryland Libraries came from unionized, dumpster-diving sound engineers whose appreciation for their historic value outweighed everything else.

College radio archives are just as elusive. I’ve heard from participants at other campus stations who have described their own storage rooms of neglected recordings that no one knows how to manage, or even care about. I cringed when one station advisor told me that an old reel containing a remote broadcast of Woodstock was being used as a coaster by their current DJs. However, the difference here is that most colleges and universities have the built-in resources to both save their materials and provide public access to them. This is precisely what they should be doing.

As student organizations, campus radio stations are part of university life, and their historical records belong in their university archives. When I asked Maryland’s university archivist Anne Turkos to establish a WMUC Collection in 2011, we embarked on a mission to demonstrate the station’s importance to campus history. With the help of WMUC student staff members, we identified the historic audio and print items that were no longer being used and moved them to the more stable environment of the special collections library. We created inventories and a finding aid, and thanks to the libraries’ new media reformatting center we began ongoing digitization of the audio materials. Listening to them revealed a multi-faceted history I hadn’t expected to find. In addition to music, there was 50 years’ worth of news, sports, dramas, live performances, promos, community affairs and even self-help programming.

Pat Callahan & Herb Brubaker, WMUC, 1955.

Pat Callahan & Herb Brubaker, WMUC, 1955.

In 2013, we created a gallery and digital exhibit to honor the station’s 65th anniversary. “Saving College Radio: WMUC Past, Present and Future” opened in September of that year, and over 150 station alumni showed up to celebrate what had for many of them been the most important aspect of their college careers. They had been vital in helping us reconstruct the station’s history which forever changed my perception of college radio.

Like most people, I considered college radio a mostly anti-commercial musical format favoring the experimental, the up-and-coming, the never-heard-of, the sometimes-unlistenable. While this may be true, college radio should not be solely defined by its relationship to the music industry. Since the first student-run station almost a century ago, college radio has represented empowerment and agency on many fronts: an opportunity for students to find their voices, gain hands-on technical experience, navigate local and federal policies, and influence campus culture. What’s missing from both popular and academic understandings of college radio are these unique station histories that illuminate how college radio stations are also shaped by their relationships to media, politics, geographical regions, campus administrations, the student bodies and the students who run them.

Beyond its significance to popular culture, the Don McLean interview marks an era in WMUC’s past when DJs were bent on professional careers as journalists, producers, and programmers. Many of them fashioned their broadcasts in early 1970s commercial parlance, while others emulated a then-fledgling NPR. It also reflects a time on campus when tensions between students and the administration were high; less than a year after the Kent State shootings, UMD students responded unfavorably to the police presence outside the Steppenwolf concert at Ritchie Coliseum (McLean was the opening act). Four years later, the next crop of students would dedicate their energies to obtaining an FM license, the ones after that to advocating for an all-freeform format. In this context, we see that college radio is not and has never been a fixed entity, but a continuously evolving collective of ever-changing identities.

Much debate surrounds the future of college radio, as streaming services and podcasts have shifted popular attention away from traditional broadcasters, and reports of recent NPR takeovers of college stations have some alarmists claiming that the latter’s demise is imminent. Of course, competition among noncommercial broadcasters for these coveted left-of-the-dial frequencies is not new; the Corporation for Public Broadcasting had college radio in mind in 1972 when it asked the FCC to stop issuing licenses to 10-watt stations in order to open channels for public radio affiliates. Yet despite these threats, and despite rapid developments in media formats, listening habits, access to music and administrations who are tempted by the PR boon and generous price tags that NPR offers, many college radio stations have still managed to thrive. I am not apprehensive about its future. It is time we focused on its past.


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