The Avant-Garde and Our Disregard: Network Radio as a Modernist Misfit

My copy of Tuning in to the Neo-Avant-Garde: Experimental Radio Plays in the Postwar Period arrived in the mail today.  Chapter 3 bears the somewhat cumbersome title “A Forefront in the Aftermath? Recorded Sound and the State of Audio Play on Post-‘Golden Age’ US Network Radio.”  My contribution to the volume, it is a sequel of sorts to Immaterial Culture, in which I sought to engage with radio plays written and produced in the United States between 1929 and 1954 – before sitting in front of the television became a national pastime in the US. The chapter looks at plays written and produced in the wake of that so-called ‘golden age of radio.’

In status and quality of production but not initially in quantity, radio plays in the United States decreased rapidly in the 1950s.  The ‘Aftermath’ referred to in my title meant an adjustment to the political developments and economic realities of post-Second World War society.  It reflects at once victory and defeat, opportunity and opportunism: the redefinition of the Pursuit of Happiness in terms of consumer culture, the concrete threat of anti-Communism, and the effect both had on the production, distribution and the experience of aural art.

In my writing, as in my teaching, I tend to be concerned primarily with definitions and the questioning of terminology. What is ‘radio’ about radio plays, for instance? And what, if anything, makes them ‘avant-garde’ rather than merely ‘experimental’?  

Addressing the conflation of – or the disregard for – production and broadcasting in discussions of radio plays qua texts, “A Forefront in the Aftermath?” considers the questions whether a radio play not ‘heard over the radio’ is still a radio play and whether aural play can meaningfully be termed ‘avant-garde’ without regard to the conditions under which it is produced and the system in which it becomes enmeshed.  

When, in 2018, I was invited to submit a proposal for the conference Tuning in to the Neo-Avant-garde, I set out by mulling over the term ‘neo-avant-garde’ to determine whether I could make a meaningful contribution to the discussion.  As someone who has devoted a doctoral study, an obscure book, and several hundred blog posts to mid-twentieth century US radio culture, I harbored doubts about the aptness of the label ‘neo-avant-garde’ in the context of my endeavor to keep up with texts presumably well past their sell-by date: plays created for and broadcast on US American network radio priorto 1954 – the year that the TV dinner came on the market to drive home that radio was no longer fresh, the year that retired radio satirist Fred Allen, reflecting on his career in broadcasting, declared that radio had been ‘abandoned like the bones at a barbecue.’  “A Forefront in the Aftermath” examines the leftovers – and it has a bone to pick with those who glean selectively.

Examining recordings of US network radio broadcasts dating from, roughly, the first decade after the end of the Second World War, alongside commercial records and tape recording exchanges, my essay seeks to demonstrate how experimental ‘radio play’ – as distinguished from the broader term ‘audio play’ – was defined and circumscribed by the system of network broadcasting.  The creative possibilities of recorded sound, in particular, where never fully explored.

It is no coincidence that, just as New York City was becoming the centre of the Western art world – and sound recording was gaining recognition as art – radio ceased to be regarded as a medium for artistic experimentation, which it had been, to some extent, in the 1930s and early 1940s.  Experimentation, once in the service of left-wing, anti-fascist causes, had no utility for broadcasters when such an agenda no longer served to unify the US American public against foreign powers, as wartime propaganda had done.

In recent years, modernist scholars have tried to claim the output of the popular medium for modernism.  Calling the guarded play of popular culture ‘avant-garde’  – after decades of disregard – is part of that misguided and rather disingenuous effort.  The fact that US network radio does not fit modernist narratives suggests that constructs such as modernism are not fit for the purpose of catching up with the unclassifiable products of the past.

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