Flicking at random, as is my wont when unwinding, through digital copies of decades-old magazines, I came across a poem so trifling as to catch my attention. To be sure, the lightweight verse in question is titled “A Radio Tragedy,” which makes it stand out for a reader who is also a writer on the subject.
Penned by one John McColl, an occasional contributor of lines, rhyming or otherwise, to 1920s magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post, “A Radio Tragedy” appeared in the 28 November 1925 issue of Argosy All-Story Weekly, a US American periodical then in its fifth decade.
Unlike print publishing, broadcasting was still a new phenomenon at the time. As I put it in Immaterial Culture, radio in those pre-network days was yet transitioning from “a ham-and-DXer playground to the bread and butter of virtual bill- boarders, from the site of an amateur cult to a scene of consumer culture involving, by 1930, over six hundred stations and sixty million listeners.”
And even though telephony – the experience of communicating with disembodied somebodies on the wire – might have prepared some listeners to the experience of the wireless – of receiving sounds in the absence of the source from which they emanate – the poem serves as a reminder of the strangeness of the sensation of having to imagine, to image people without seeing them, and of creating a visual “match” for the sounds we hear:
He heard her sing across the night
From Station QMZ,
Her trilling filled him with delight
And tonic ecstasy.
And so he wrote: “You’ve won my heart
With your alluring lay.
We were not meant to live apart
So kindly name the day.”
She did, and set a meeting place,
The news made him rejoice
Until he looked upon her face—
It didn’t match her voice!
Sound, as McColl has it, left the (male) listener wanting, whereas sight made him leave the imagined (female) as unwanted. Sound is not a fair partner of sight. It is a rival. Radio is not simply a receiving set; it is a deceiver capable of upset. Not that this is the first time a siren song turned into a shipwreck of a first date. But radio – or the separation of sight and sound – is made out to be the guilty party-pooper here. It is a maker of mischief – a mis-match maker.
Seeing, on the other hand, is IDing. It is an act of verifying or, in the case of McColl’s “Tragedy,” of disbelieving and calling out your misleading ears. Whether the singer, who had only read from the listener, also struggled to recognize the portrait created by her correspondent in only so many words is not disclosed in this sexist scenario.
As it turns out, McColl specialized in radio verse, further specimens of which he also disseminated via Radio News, billed in the 1920s as “Radio’s Greatest Magazine.” One such efforts, “In an Apartment House” (January 1928) comments on radio as an enemy to creativity and reflects on the impossibility of composing lines on radio while the apparatus is switched on:
“Silently, silently steals the night,
The poet pens – before he
Rhymes more, the radio to the right
Begins a bed-time story.
“Hushedly, hushedly doth the moon
Conclude her silvery journey …”
The radio, left, comes in with a tune
Broadcasted by Ben Bernie.
“Quietly, quietly wakes the dawn,”
Our bard apostrophizes—
Above a radio turning on
The morning exercises!
Radio, the silence killer, hinders concentration and fragments our existence. It nags and cajoles, it renders inopportune the tunes it purveys, generally without the listener’s choosing. In broadcasting, silence becomes an impossibility: translating into nothingness and suggesting equipment failure, soundlessness had to be exorcised through silence-cancelling noise.
Choosing not to tune in, meanwhile, translates into an exiting from the world that broadcasting had promised to open up via transmission of news and entertainment into the homes of the unseen, unseeing multitude.
To be sure, McColl’s “bard” is demonstrated to be living behind the times and beyond modern-day experience. Piffling, overblown and trite, his lines on silence are no match for the wireless that, by the late 1920s – the advent of network broadcasting – had come to dominate the everyday with schedules that timetabled the listener’s existence.
In “Advancement,” published in Radio News in February 1928, McColl echoed the voices of those who questioned the progress achieved through wireless, which had started out more interactively – with the building of sets and the transmission from the home – and far less passive than taking in programming produced by corporations for the supposed benefit of the shut-ins or stuck-at-homes it ended shutting up:
My mother sang me lullabies
Before an open fire;
Though she had other chores to do,
She never seemed to tire.
DeForest and the others have
Now mothers leave their lullabies
To Station KXZ?
These days, I rarely listen to the radio, especially now that tinnitus and hearing loss have caused me self-consciously to reflect more on the experiencing – or the reality of unexperiencing – sound than on the experience of listening that, I realize now, is far less universal than I had assumed perception to be.
It is for this reason that I keep looking out for the signs of broadcasting’s early life, for the waves it made among the as yet inexperienced. I align myself with and imagine myself to be one of the radio listeners of the 1920s, baffled, bemused and disquieted by the speaking furniture in their living rooms – marvels of modern meubles that, within less than a quarter of a century, would be shrunk in size to leave a privileged nook for technology that promised the merging of sound and vision but that also contributed to our unexperiencing the worlds sounds can create for us, through us and within us, if only we see ourselves as something other than sounding boards for producers who profit from casting us as silent consumers.