Radio History – Antenna Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 “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.


]]> 7
Poetry by Radio: Paul Blackburn and WBAI Mon, 08 Dec 2014 15:00:54 +0000 Paul_BlackburnPost by Lisa Hollenbach

In the Special Collections reading room at UC-San Diego, I tune in to Pacifica station WBAI in New York City, circa the spring of 1961. Or, to put it more accurately, I listen to a copy of a tape made by the poet Paul Blackburn, which includes several WBAI broadcasts recorded that spring. Blackburn also produced his own poetry show on the station from 1964-65, and I’m here researching a project about poetry broadcasting on Pacifica Radio. Listening through the layers of mediation that stand in for Blackburn’s own listening ear, I catch an interview with Allen Ginsberg, a broadcast of Blackburn reading translations of medieval Provençal poetry, a Mozart piano concerto, and a BBC production of King Lear. At one point Blackburn reads directly into the tape recorder from Charles Olson’s Maximus Poems before the next recorded broadcast cuts in. During the Mozart, I can hear a typewriter in the background, and suddenly I’m placed in a room with dimensions. I wonder, though there’s no way to know, if he’s working on a poem.

In a recent post for this series, John McMurria asks, “Why Care About Radio Broadcast History in the On-Demand Digital Age?” As a literary scholar interested in radio broadcasting of poetry from the 1950s through the 1970s, this is a question I think about a lot. I often feel as though I’m working on several neglected cultural fronts at once, examining forms long declared dead, including during the period I study—poetry, radio, spoken word recording, the Pacifica Radio network itself. Yet the on-demand digital age is also reviving public interest and an experimental ethos to both recorded poetry performance and to radio’s digital afterlife. Preserving and narrating the cultural history of sound media history has repercussions for how we listen to the past and for creative possibility in the present.

wbaiI hear echoes between our own digital moment and the 1960s, when the FM band became a site for experiments in underground and community radio, and when poets experimented with new poetic forms, new approaches to performance, and new media. The listener-sponsored Pacifica Radio network—first broadcasting from KPFA in Berkeley in 1949—was an influential innovator in the FM revolution. WBAI, acquired by Pacifica in 1960, quickly became a countercultural hub for freeform radio, minority perspectives, coverage of the Vietnam War and the antiwar movement, and innovative cultural programing. Poets’ voices and poetry were (and still are) heard constantly on Pacifica’s stations. In the sixties a WBAI listener might catch, for example, Ginsberg on Bob Fass’s Radio Unnameable, or a group reading and discussion by members of the Umbra Poets Workshop.

Paul Blackburn (a UW-Madison alumnus) was a fixture of Manhattan’s Lower East Side poetry scene until his early death from cancer in 1971. He co-curated two important reading series at the cafés Le Metro and Les Deux Mégots and helped to establish the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church. He also appeared several times on WBAI for interviews or to give readings before producing his own weekly Contemporary Poetry program. On his program, Blackburn occasionally invited poets into the studio, but he more often broadcast from his extensive tape collection. Blackburn recorded everything. His enormous portable tape recorder followed him to readings; it was also a fixture in his home, where he recorded late-night conversations with friends as well as the radio and his own poetry. A collection of Blackburn’s tapes, including recordings of his radio show, are now held with his papers at UCSD’s Archive for New Poetry.

Blackburn’s radio program often brought listeners to the cafés where poets like Ted Berrigan, Diane Wakoski, John Wieners, and Ed Sanders performed in front of lively, familiar audiences. In doing so, he introduced listeners both to a literary scene and to the importance of that scene to the poetry itself, as poets read works that named the very friends, cafés, and streets caught on the tapes. With casual introductions and a laissez-faire approach to sound editing, Blackburn projected a style and experimental aesthetic that fit well within WBAI’s overall freeform aesthetic at the time.

WBAIFolio-BlackburnBlackburn’s stint as a radio producer was short-lived—an appearance by Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones) pushed the station’s limits on obscenity too far—but his tapes also leave a fascinating record of radio listening. These include broadcasts from WBAI as well as other NY stations, documenting his daily life and poetic interests as well as nationally historic events, like John F. Kennedy’s state funeral. Blackburn probably recorded the radio for the same reasons we all used to—to capture for future listening or to share. But his radio listening also played a role in his compositional practice. One tape, for example, records a series of news broadcasts from December 1965 related to the launch and space flight of Gemini 7. Blackburn would draw on these for his poem “Newsclips 2,” which comically picks up on reports of the crew removing their space suits (“what a great idea, a pair / of astronauts / orbiting earth for two full weeks / in their underwear!”). The poet Robert Kelly states that Blackburn “collaborated with the tape recorder” to tune the page to voice and ear, but the voices indexed by his poetry include not only his own poetic voice but the highly mediated voices of radio—like the one that signs off “Newsclips 2”: “Don’t miss it boys and girls, and that’s / all for tonight.”

A relatively unknown poet’s brief stint as radio producer for a local noncommercial station is unlikely to make it into any major survey of broadcasting history. Yet I’m interested in Blackburn’s tape collection in part because it documents sonically not only a particular time and place, but how that moment was subjectively heard and engaged by artists. The Radio Preservation Task Force, by attending to “local, regional, noncommercial, and under represented movements in broadcasting history,” has the potential to direct us to unexpected places where radio history can be found, and the unexpected voices and sounds heard on American airwaves.


]]> 3