Wire(less): When Radio Answers the Phone

Well, it only took about five months, but, taking a break from the broadcastellan journal last night, I finally completed my fourth podcast. Titled “The Voice on the Wire,” it explores the relationship between radio and telephone. Its publication coincides with two BBC Radio 4 broadcasts, one documenting the history of radio sound effects (“Two Coconut Shells, a Blow Lamp and a Raspberry”), the other (“Down the Wires”) the development of the Electrophone, an early device for taking in theater over the telephone. I will discuss those two programs later this week; but today I’ll simply play the barker and do a bit of self-promoting:

Step inside, folks, step inside! This way to the big show. That’s your mind, ladies and gentleman, or at least it can be, with pulp-peddlers like me around to give you strange ideas. Be there when an invalid is strangled in her bed; listen to the disembodied voice of a man in the act of committing suicide, and witness assorted cases of murder, mayhem, and madness. Get your wires double-crossed here, folks! You’ll come across the most tremendous and terrifying tales of treacherous telephony. You’ve never heard such smooth operators, such neurotic callers. Busy signals, freak connections, hang-ups and heavy breathing—we’ve got it all. There’s nothing like a case of espionage and betrayal, of lines that go click in the night, of outcasts and shut-ins whose lives are being cut as short as an inconvenient call . . . as long as you are not at the receiving end.

I’ve gone on about thrillers like “Sorry, Wrong Number,” “Meridian 7-1212,” and “Long Distance” at some length in my doctoral study; unlike Roland Barthes, I find it easy to go on about what I love. It’s an even greater thrill to let radio speak for itself, to tune in and sample various melodramas from series including Inner Sanctum Mysteries, Suspense, The Whistler and Radio City Playhouse, and to put together this collage of telephone terror.

While it is the most famous of all plays written for American radio (“The War of the Worlds” being an adaptation, however innovative and radical), “Sorry, Wrong Number”—dubbed “radio’s perfect script”—was only one in a long line of audio dramas that took up the receiver and took it on by shouting across the wire, that means of point-to-point communication for the triumph over which the wireless was originally developed.

For decades, it was the wire that remained triumphant. In the 21st century, this failure has been rectified and “wireless,” an almost forgotten word in the early 1990s, now means both the intimate chat between two individuals and the broadcasting (or podcasting) of voices to the multitude. Still, whenever I see a sign saying “wireless”—and despite the fact that I am using such a network at home and, if lucky, on my travels—I still think of the old cat’s whiskers and the behemoth of a mass medium into which it had transmogrified by the 1930s—a culture of pre-internet voicecasting and sound-snatching turned into a one way operation and forced into commercial service.

As I argue, radio anathematized telephone as the anti-wireless, and for good reasons. Heard on an experimental program that glorified the sound medium and its potentialities, a play like “Meridian 7-1212” demonstrated how private talk, unlike public speech—once it was tele-communicated rather than delivered face to face—promoted selfishness and enabled sinister deeds. Pointing up the failures and dangers of telephonic exchanges, the radio, which has been accused of being a fascist medium, emphasized the public service it rendered by bringing and keeping a people together and glossing over or making a joke of differences, tasks of great importance during economic crises (as confronted in the 1930s) and war (from World War II and Korea to the installation of Russia as the new enemy to beat).

I rarely use the phone these days; and cellular ones are largely a nuisance or a mystery to me. I can manage to keep my appointments—and my distance—without them; but perhaps it was listening to all these tales of terror that convinced me to twist radio’s dial instead of running the risk of dialing wrong numbers.

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