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Electric Sounds

Electric Sounds: Technological Change and the Rise of Corporate Mass Media

Steve J. Wurtzler
Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 416
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  • Book Info
    Electric Sounds
    Book Description:

    Electric Sounds brings to vivid life an era when innovations in the production, recording, and transmission of sound revolutionized a number of different media, especially the radio, the phonograph, and the cinema.

    The 1920s and 1930s marked some of the most important developments in the history of the American mass media: the film industry's conversion to synchronous sound, the rise of radio networks and advertising-supported broadcasting, the establishment of a federal regulatory framework on which U.S. communications policy continues to be based, the development of several powerful media conglomerates, and the birth of a new acoustic commodity in which a single story, song, or other product was made available to consumers in multiple media forms and formats.

    But what role would this new media play in society? Celebrants saw an opportunity for educational and cultural uplift; critics feared the degradation of the standards of public taste. Some believed acoustic media would fulfill the promise of participatory democracy by better informing the public, while others saw an opportunity for manipulation. The innovations of this period prompted not only a restructuring and consolidation of corporate mass media interests and a shift in the conventions and patterns of media consumption but also a renegotiation of the social functions assigned to mass media forms.

    Steve J. Wurtzler's impeccably researched history adds a new dimension to the study of sound media, proving that the ultimate form technology takes is never predetermined. Rather, it is shaped by conflicting visions of technological possibility in economic, cultural, and political realms. Electric Sounds also illustrates the process through which technologies become media and the ways in which media are integrated into American life.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-51008-0
    Subjects: Film Studies, Technology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-18)

    In an essay on some of the historical and theoretical implications of the cinema’s conversion to sound, Alan Williams poses a question rarely asked in histories of the period: “And this is one of the great mysteries of this part of film history. Why, with no previous indications of dissatisfaction, did audiences suddenly embrace the talkies, acting as if they had been dissatisfied with ‘silent’ cinema for a long time?”¹ One solution to this “mystery” requires reconceptualizing the question, broadening the issue from a media-specific approach that considers in isolation technological change in the cinema to a perspective that examines...

  5. One Technological Innovation and the Consolidation of Corporate Power
    (pp. 19-69)

    In the fall of 1930, film studio RKO released Check and Double Check, a film featuring the popular blackface radio performers Amos ’n’ Andy.¹ (See fig. 1.1.) In prerelease publicity, RKO announced that the film would open simultaneously in more than three hundred theaters during the week of October 24. Rather than initially releasing the film at a New York City and/or Los Angeles movie palace or a series of urban centers and then promoting the film in subsequent venues based on these premieres, RKO opted for a massive, simultaneous national release of the film.² Through this strategy, RKO adopted...

  6. Two Announcing Technological Change
    (pp. 70-120)

    In a February 1887 report to Scientific American, a correspondent recounted his trip behind the scenes of the central office of the telephone company. He framed his account in terms of a conceptual contradiction that quite literally haunted late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century acoustic technologies: the simultaneous materiality and immateriality offered by the telephone, phonograph, and radio. The technology itself was materially present, visible, and audible as it performed its representational task, yet the origin and source of technologically augmented voices and other sounds were inevitably absent from the scene of their reproduction. Immaterial voices unhinged from their corporeal origins...

  7. Three From Performing the Recorded to Dissimulating the Machine
    (pp. 121-168)

    Economic forces interacted with often-inflated utopian promises of media’s social impact to shape the identities of emerging acoustic media. But the values ascribed to them and their relationships to preexisting media forms and commodity relations (in short, their social identities) also both influenced and were themselves influenced by the actual physical design of sound technologies. A radio receiver as a material artifact, for example, embodied certain rhetorical claims about broadcasting’s social function even as it made specific physical demands on the consumer who purchased it. Having engineered functioning devices that augmented sound in new ways, corporate innovators also turned to...

  8. Four Making Sound Media Meaningful: Commerce, Culture, Politics
    (pp. 169-228)

    Through the announcements described in chapter 2, corporate innovators of new sound technology proposed certain identities for the apparatus and its different applications. Those announcements did not ultimately determine how emerging sound technology became meaningful. Instead, electrical acoustics developed within a horizon of preexisting anxieties, utopian goals, and overlapping categories of social experience. Seeming to offer new solutions to perceived problems, emerging sound media opened up new conceptual spaces in which material practices might be imagined.

    Attempts to understand the ways in which the new sound media were made socially meaningful can be organized according to three intersecting categories of...

  9. Five Transcription Versus Signification: Competing Paradigms for Representing with Sound
    (pp. 229-278)

    The above line of dialogue, spoken in a 1932 film by one of the first and most successful multiple-media performers of the electrical-acoustic era, expresses a commonsense notion of media identity. The radio was a transient medium, characterized by live performances and direct address. While it was able to eclipse spatial limits, to unite urban centers with the hinterlands (or to unite advertiser with consumer), to bring cultural uplift and edification (or uplifting and edifying entertainment), the radio performance remained a transient, fleeting phenomenon, adrift in the ether and caught in the moment of its creation through the wonders of...

  10. Conclusions/Reverberations
    (pp. 279-290)

    The forces at play in the technological change described in the preceding five chapters reverberate across the history of twentieth-century media and beyond. Our contemporary moment is characterized by the erosion of taken-for-granted notions of media specificity. Technological change and not-unrelated economic developments challenge commonsense assumptions about media forms and practices. Historian William Uricchio has suggested that the process of digitization and convergence are redefining “our present as a moment of media in transition.”¹ The situation is not entirely unlike that surrounding the innovation of electrical methods of augmenting sound. Electrical acoustics prompted a reimagining of the phonograph and more...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 291-366)
  12. Index
    (pp. 367-394)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 395-398)