Freeze-Dried Chunks of Music

Phil Ford

Have you ever noticed how hard it is to find commercial recordings of old (25 years or more) broadcasts? Not the featured contents of the broadcasts, mind, but the actual broadcasts, complete with commercials, bumpers, station identification breaks, news bulletins, and the rest? Never thought about it? See, that’s the thing.

I’m teaching a 20th-century music history survey for undergrads this fall, and Peter Burkholder’s new revision of the venerable Grout textbook mentions how new technologies of film, radio, and phonograph changed musical experience. And I thought, hey, let’s try to find an old radio program on CD for the students to hear. Because, familiar as radio is to us, it takes some historical imagination to think about how they might have sounded to ears exclusively attuned to an earlier medium of presentation, the concert. And what I want to think about is medium: not the content, primarily, but the total flow of content the medium enables. When I checked the library catalog at the University of Texas there were many recordings culled from old broadcasts — Horowitz at the Hollywood Bowl and that sort of thing — but no unedited feed of a real-time broadcast. This makes sense, of course. If you buy Lost on DVD you’re paying for the privilege of not seeing the commercials. But the packaging of TV and radio shows tends to reinforce what Marshall McLuhan called our “amnesia” about media effects.

When McLuhan uttered his most famous line, “the medium is the message,” he was warning against the natural tendency to perceive media only in terms of its contents. So if you wanted to understand radio, he thought, what you shouldn’t do is think of it in terms of any particular exemplary thing you might hear on it; you had to stop and think about the way the medium was making you hear that content. Focusing on the content itself just gets in the way. The “message” of a medium is not its content but the amplifications or distortions of the senses by which we apprehend it.

So if you are trying to get a sense of this newfangled medium, the radio, the point is not to hear this or that performance that was once on the radio, but to hear what the radio is doing to that performance, how that performance is insensibly reframed. And from this point of view, when one studies radio one is looking to unearth a sound culture. There are a few new studies on this topic, most notably Jonathan Sterne’s The Audible Past. But it’s a new field and most of the work on it seems to be coming out of media studies and communications.

Anyway, I did find one CD that works: the Yiddish Radio Project, a radio documentary series that has spun off into a wonderful CD compilation of early 20th-century Jewish radio sound culture. Even so, while it is a recreation of a broadcast, it’s a compilation, not an actual warts-and-all broadcast.

Youtube, however, gives us an unedited 6-minute stretch of 1981 TV from the end of “One Day at a Time” to the beginning of “Alice.” Massive nostalgia for some, high camp for others, and a slice of 25-year-old sound culture.
One interesting sidelight: the Taster’s Choice Coffee commercial features the rich mellow flavor of Ken Nordine, creator of the legendarily hip Word Jazz albums.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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3 Responses to Freeze-Dried Chunks of Music

  1. Jonathan Bellman says:

    I can’t speak for the complete television shows, but there is a fairly large community of people who collect recordings of old radio shows. Since recording them live was the only option–often these so-called “air checks” were on 16-inch discs–the commercials and announcements and so on are all preserved. I’ve heard many of them. The collection and sale of these shows is quite a substantial hobby/sub-industry. I believe the name of one such collector was Dave Goldin, but there were others.
    Further: in my childhood in the 1960s Longines Symphonette came out with a 6-or-so record set of stuff from the classic era of old radio shows. The expected things were there, in short clip form: Bobby Thomson’s clutch home run in 1951 that gave the NY Giants the national league pennant, Lou Gehrig declaring himself the “luckiest man on the face of the earth” at Yankee Stadium, Whirlaway winning the Kentucky Derby etc. There were also some ads: Rinso White, Billy Jones and Ernie Hare as “The Interwoven Pair,” etc. The point here is that what our libraries acquire–what gets on their radar screens as stuff one might be able to acquire–is not the complete story; it’s as quirky as any other single view. If the old radio show collectors don’t think to market to sound archives, well . . .

  2. Robert Fink says:

    This may not be quite what you were thinking of, but there are some wonderfully trippy slices of early FM radio culture in the Bay Area at http://www.jive95.com/kmpx.htm. Tom Donahue was one of the first “free form” FM DJs, and you get a full hour of the show, complete with commercials from Bay Area head shops, etc. And 1967 is now more than 25 years ago…
    great blog, BTW
    rwf

  3. bgg says:

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