television 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.


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Digital Tools for Television Historiography, Part I Tue, 26 May 2015 13:57:01 +0000 devonthinkPost by Elana Levine, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

This is the first in a series of posts detailing my use of digital tools in a television history project.

When I was researching and writing my dissertation at the turn of the 21st century, analog tools were my friend. Because my project was a history of American entertainment television in the 1970s, I drew upon a wide range of source materials: manuscript archives of TV writers, producers, sponsors, and trade organizations; legislative and court proceedings; popular and trade press articles; many episodes of ‘70s TV; and secondary sources in the form of scholarly and popular books and articles. The archive I amassed took up a lot of space: photocopies and print-outs of articles, found in the library stacks or on microfilm; VHS tape after VHS tape of episodes recorded from syndicated reruns; and stacks and stacks of 3X5 notecards, on which I would take notes on my materials. I gathered this research chapter by chapter and so, as it would come time to write each one, I would sit on the floor and make piles in a circle around me, sorting note cards and photocopies into topics or themes, figuring out an organizing logic that built a structure and an argument out of my mountains of evidence. It. Was. Awesome.

As I turned that dissertation into a book over the coming years, and worked on other, less voluminous projects, I stuck pretty closely to my tried and true workflow, though the additions of TV series on DVD and, eventually, of YouTube, began to obviate my need for the stacks of VHS tapes. Around 2008, I began to research a new historical project, one that I intended to spend many years pursuing and that promised to yield a larger archive than I’d managed previously. This project, a production and reception history of US daytime television soap opera, would traverse more than 60 years of broadcast history and would deal with a genre in which multiple programs had aired daily episodes over decades. Still, as I began my research, I continued most of my earlier methods, amassing photocopies and notes, which I was by then writing as word-processor documents rather than handwritten index cards. By late 2012, I was thinking about how to turn these new mountains of research materials into chapters. And I freaked out.

Sitting amidst piles of paper on the floor seemed impractical—there was so, so much of it—and I was technologically savvy enough to realize that printing out my word-processed materials would be both inefficient and wasteful. So I began to investigate tools for managing historical research materials digitally. Eventually, I settled on a data management system called DevonThink. I chose DevonThink for a number of reasons, but mostly because it would allow me to perform optical character recognition (OCR) to make my many materials fully searchable. This was a crucial need, especially because I would be imposing a structure on my research after having built my archive over years and from multiple historical periods. It would be impossible for me to recall exactly what information I had about which topics; I needed to outsource that work to the software.

This required that I digitize my paper archive, which I did, over time, with help. My ongoing archival research became about scanning rather than photocopying (using on-site scanners or a smartphone app, JotNot, that has served me well). And I began to generate all of my new notes within DevonThink, rather than having to import documents created elsewhere. Several years into using DevonThink, I still have only a partial sense of its capabilities, but I see this not as a problem but as a way of making the software fit my needs. (Others have detailed their use of the software for historical projects.) I have learned it as I’ve used it and have only figured out its features as I’ve realized I needed them. There are many ways to tag or label or take notes on materials, some of which I use. But, ideally, the fact that most of my materials are searchable makes generating this sort of metadata less essential. I rely heavily on the highlighting feature to note key passages in materials that I might want to quote from or cite. And I’ve experimented with using the software’s colored labeling system to help me keep track of which materials I have read and processed and which I have not.

levine-devonthinkBecause I have figured out its utility as I’ve gone along, I’ve made some choices that I might make differently for another project. I initially put materials into folders (what DevonThink calls “Groups”) before realizing that was more processing labor than I needed to expend. So I settled for separating my materials into decades, but have taken advantage of a useful feature that “duplicates” a file into multiple groups to make sure I put a piece of evidence that spans time periods into the various places I might want to consider it. I have settled into some file-naming practices, but would be more consistent about this on another go-round. I know I am not using the software to its full capacity, but I am making it work in ways that supplement and enable my work process, exactly what I need a digital tool to do.

In many respects, my workflow remains rather similar to my old, analog ways, in that I still spend long hours reading through all of the materials, but now I sort them into digital rather than physical piles (a process that involves another piece of software, which I will explain in my next post). In writing media history from a cultural studies perspective, one necessarily juggles a reconstruction of the events of the past with analyses of discourses and images and ideas. I don’t think there is a way to do that interpretive work without the time-consuming and pleasurable labor of reading and thinking, of sorting and categorizing, of articulating to each other that which a casual glance—or a metadata search—cannot on its own accomplish.

But having at my fingertips a quickly searchable database has been invaluable as I write. Because I have read through my hundreds of materials from “the ‘50s,” for instance, I remember that there was a short-lived soap with a divorced woman lead. Its title? Any other information about it? No clue. But within a few keystrokes I can find it—Today Is Ours—and not just access the information about its existence (which perhaps an internet search could also elicit) but find the memo I have of the producers discussing its social relevance, and the Variety review that shares a few key lines of dialogue. OCR does not always work perfectly—it is useless on handwritten letters to the editor of TV Guide—but my dual processes of reading through everything and of using searches to find key materials has made me confident that I am not missing sources as I construct my argument and tell my story. It’s a big story to tell, and one that may be feasible largely due to my digital tools.


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Honoring Hilmes: Across the Borders Fri, 08 May 2015 13:00:22 +0000 Hilmes3 copyThis is the fourth post in our “Honoring Hilmes” series, celebrating the career and legacy of Michele Hilmes on the occasion of her retirement. 

Post by Jason Jacobs, University of Queensland

The impact of Michele Hilmes’ scholarship on me is best told by tracking its contribution to my early formation as an academic. In 1990 I was fishing around for a PhD topic; I’d spent the final year of my film degree at the University of Warwick under the charismatic mentorship of Charlotte Brunsdon, who had introduced a compelling television studies strand into the capstone Film Aesthetics course and, as a result, I found myself writing and thinking a lot about television. It was that period of British television when the last great dramas were still in recent memory: particularly that golden year, 1986, when the BBC transmitted The Singing Detective, The Life and Loves of a She Devil and The Monocled Mutineer; also the year, in fact, when public service broadcasting effectively ended as a practice in the UK. That, in turn, stimulated my curiosity about the history of television drama: Where did these great things come from? What traditions do they inhabit and respond to? With these questions in mind it made sense for me (plus I hail from the region) to enroll at the University of East Anglia under the supervision of Charles Barr, who had recently published a piece in Sight and Sound which had contrasted the achievement of Bordwell, Staiger and Thompson’s The Classical Hollywood Cinema with the dearth of work on television history. There really was very little written in the UK about the history of television that wasn’t anecdotal or mostly concerned with institutional history (such as Asa Briggs’ History of Broadcasting in the UK, rather like – but not quite – Barnouw’s three volume history of US broadcasting). Nothing, certainly, to compare to the work in Thomas Elsaesser’s magnificent collection Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative, which was launched by him shortly after I arrived in Norwich.

hollywoodbroadcastingOf course, as the famous parable by Richard Hamilton instructs us, what I assumed were issues unique to my intellectual tastes and dispositions, turned out to be part of a much wider cultural momentum. There was work being written on television history, and the best of it was coming from the US: indeed most of my reading in my first year of PhD came from US based scholars, in particular William Boddy, William Urrichio and, of course, Michele Hilmes’ Hollywood and Broadcasting. This was precisely the rich, theoretically-inflected revisionist history I craved and, for a long while, my thesis had a strong US component. I even lived in Manhattan for several weeks in order to view as much early material as I could at the (then) Museum of Television and Radio. The advantages of scarce primary material! I didn’t meet Michele until a few years later in Madison and it really wasn’t until the early 2000s that we began to meet and talk fairly regularly. By then television history had considerable momentum, but it remained nationalized. Which is to say there was still that Briggs-Barnouw division: US history on one side, the rest on the other. When we were working on The Television History Book together there wasn’t a moment when we doubted the wisdom of bringing national television histories together – that underpinned, in a very small space, our shared belief in the intellectual fascination of flows of talent, technology, training and ideas between broadcasting nations. It is an indication as much of Michele’s commitment to this as it is to my weakness, that without her example I may have let it drop – so strong had the cultural-nationalist inflected British television history become.

There’s still a bit of that around, but it looks and sounds odd. A couple of years ago Michele was the keynote at a conference in the University of Reading, UK, and although her paper was typically stunning in its ambition and delivery, during questions I noticed some senior British academics carried the whiff of indignation at the effrontery of a Yank speaking so well about aspects of ‘their’ television and its connections and absorption in the US. Afterwards, as I drove Michele and her husband Bruce back to my hotel for a nice cup of tea, we reflected on the odd shortsightedness of such a response. One thing about Michele and her work (and as the title of one of her books puts it!) that is so distinctive and unusual is that she is all about making connections across the lines, and not about policing borders or holding territory.

I don’t have a copy to hand, but in his wonderful book, True Friendship, Christopher Ricks talks about Eliot and Pound’s friendship as incorporating competition, yes, necessarily – but never ruthless competition. Over the past few years I saw a lot of Michele as our projects converged, both interested in transnational relations between British and American broadcasting. Sometimes we’d run into each other at the BBC Written Archives in Caversham Park, or when I was up to my neck in the NBC archives in Madison. Once, over margaritas in her lakeside home, we both expressed a desire the other would publish first – it would be so helpful! I’m glad to say Michele’s Network Nations was first. Here’s an image that shows how helpful it has been, and continues to be for me. Each yellow leaf a reminder to return to her again.