October 4th
2006
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Distributing Soundwaves – Radio

Parallel to the touchable music media, radio is developed. Its theoretical foundation had been laid by Maxwell in 1873 (without having a clue of what would follow) with his work on the behaviour of electric and magnetic fields, predicting electric and magnetic waves travelling through empty space whose existence was experimentally proven by Hertz in 1886. By the turn of the century several inventors were trying to transmit sound by radiowaves, such as Tesla, Marconi and Popow. World War One fueled this developments – Friedrich Kittler writes:

The one reason, why all the industrialized nations, […] “put huge amounts of money and energy into scientific radio research” and as “the biggest improvement” “pushed the development of more sensitive amplifiers through the use of vacuum tubes” was WW1.

The new weapon systems (motor vehicles, airplanes, submarines) were pressing for such a wireless communication over big distances.[1] Kittler’s focus lies solely on the German Empire/Deutsches Reich where after the war a broad number of educated radio operators looted military property and produced ‘Funkerspuk'; Théberge describes the american amateurs between the turn of the century and WW1 as “one of the largest independent non-commercial amateur fads” of their time.[2] As different as their respective grasp on the origin of the diffusion of this technology is, as different do they describe the rest of the story: In Kittler’s account, the creation of civil broadcasting in Germany appears as a means not only to new revenues and entertainment of the population (the german word is ‘Erbauung’, having a much more moral/ethical connotation, but the only translation I can find is ‘edification’, which doesn’t quite get it) but a way to (re)gain control of the airwaves:

What the civil broadcast, with the help of inbuilt handicaps, made impossible was ‘Funkerspuk’ or rather misuse of military property.

‘Funkerspuk’ had frightened the German government, because the educated radio operators that had come out of WW1 joined the workers’ and soldiers’ councils during the November Revolution, using their skills to spread the word. Kittler further sees a connection between the development of encryption technologies and the introduction of civil radio broadcasts in Germany – ‘simple’ radio was no danger to military communications anymore. The standpoint of the Reichspostministerium, the institution responsible for radio matters, in 1919:

There are serious objections against the general legalisation of the use of receiving apparats for reception of arbitrary messages, like it has happened in particular countries in which the state doesn’t concern himself with the conveyance of wireless messages in national communication, because it would make it technically possible for everybody to listen in to all the messages in the air.[3]

It is quite telling that the ‘newsletter’ character of radio and its exceptional potential to distribute news was clearly recognized, but the consequence that freedom of the press applied to radio, too, was not. The resulting (non-private) radio programm was marked by a multitude of rules and subjugation under a (censoring) inspection authority. Entertainment and official news were allowed, politics, widely understood as party politics, were not.[4] Amateur radio operators were illegalised.

According to Kittler, VHF radio was 1934 developed for military purposes, in attempts to make radio ‘tank-friendly’. This might well be true for germany, but it contradicts the common version of radio-history, in which Edwin Armstrong developed and patented FM radio in 1933 while searching for a method to transmitt sound with less static interference. The two terms are used almost interchangeably, because VHF radio is usually FM as well; german literature mostly uses ‘VHF’, english ‘FM’, and this makes it hard to really sort the facts on this one.

Apart from this chronological questions, Théberge shows just how different radio culture in the US has been right from the start; there too the military tried to intervene against amateur radio, allready before the first world war. But this was less about questions of control, more about practical problems: the density of amateur radio had become so high that communication at see was affected. The result was not a prohibition of amateur radio, but a subdivision of the frequencies between amateurs, navy and military. The amateur radio operators organised themselves, for example in the American Radio Relay League, which after WW1 was heard in congress on behalf of the interests of amateurs in questions of radio legislation. And in WW2 amateurs were an important resource the American Army could access.[5]

Here is a place to tell again the tragic story of said Edwin Armstrong. Although he found a solution for the problem he was working on and tried to put it into practice, his employer was more than unhappy with it – the spread of FM radio would have meant a loss of its AM business for RCA, and necessitated investments in a new technology. So they blocked it through lobbying, and they blocked it through patent law suits, which went on and on and on. Armstrong, ruined and dispirited, killed himself after he had lost at another instance in 1954. It would take his widow thirteen years more to win at the court of ultimate resort.[6] So, although invented in 1933, FM radio was really established only as late as the 1950’ies. Ironically, Germany seems to have been a little faster on this one, because in – rightful – fear of getting just a small part (as all of the european losers of WW2) of the spectrum used for AM in the Kopenhagen conference ::: of 1949, radio receivers after the war were mostly sold with FM capability.

The first big boost for radio was the worldwide economic crisis of the late 1920’ies. For the expensive pianolas it was the end, and for the recording industry a really hard time, but radio as free music delivery flourished. But of course this delivery in commercial radio has never been ‘free’, people pay with their attention which is sold to companies for playing ads. No need to lose many words on this, except for one of maybe the deepest ‘phonographic effects': The way in which music produced for radio-compatibility is not mainly produced to please anyone, but not to drive away listeners. It’s not about popularity, but about minimal unpopularity. There’s only so much variation the listeners don’t fall asleep. Of course you all know this, and it is very easy to hear but still I think it is worth thinking about what this kind of negative selection criterium means for music. Oh, and of course the modern (though outdated?) compartmentalization of popular music as rock, pop, r’n’b etc. is an effect of this attention selling, too, because advertisers seek to play their ads to the ‘right’ portion of the population. Format radio is less an ordering of musical styles, but an ordering of listeners – it is less about characteristics of the music in question, and more about what people of a certain demographic like to hear (mashups are proof of the extreme musical similarity of products usually ascribed to different styles of music). [7]

  1. Friedrich Kittler, „Rockmusik – Ein Missbrauch von Heeresgerät“, in: Shortcuts, edited by Peter Gente & Martin Weinmann, Frankfurt am Main 2002, p.14ff, here quoting William R. Blair, „Army Radio in Peace and War“, in: Irwin Stewart, Radio, p.87
  2. Paul Théberge, Any Sound You Can Imagine – Making Music/Consuming Technology, Hanover 1997, p.134ff
  3. Quoted by Winfried B.Lerg, Die Entstehung des Rundfunks in Deutschland – Herkunft und Entwicklung eines publizistischen Mittels, Frankfurt am Main 1970, p.94
  4. Lerg, p. 139ff
  5. Théberge, p.133ff
  6. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edwin_Armstrong, as of 15.11.2005
  7. Peter Wicke, Jazz, Rock und Popmusik http://www2.hu-berlin.de/fpm/texte/pop20jh.htm, as of 28.10.2005, printed in: D. Stockmann (Hg.), Volks- und Popularmusik in Europa, (= Neues Handbuch der Musikwissenschaft Bd. 12), w.l. 1992, p. 445-477