Immaterial Me

My study Immaterial Culture: Literature, Drama and the American Radio Play, 1929-1954 has just been published. So, as well as explaining the subject matter of the book and the objectives of its writer, I decided to devote a few journal entries to the story behind its production, to its birth and life in relation to my own journey.  There is also the small matter of its afterlife, a matter to which no parent, proud or otherwise, can be entirely indifferent.

Along with my other recent publications and current projects, of which I have said nothing in this journal, Immaterial Culture has long kept me from materializing here.  No doubt, I could have made more effective use of broadcastellan as a promotional vehicle.  And yet, writing, like listening to radio plays, is a solitary experience; at least it is so for me.

Like the performers behind the microphone, writers are generally removed from the audience for whom their performance is presumably intended, an audience that often seems so abstract as to be no more than a construct.  The writer, script reader and listener may be sitting in a crowded room, and that crowd may well matter; but what matters more is the immateriality of the words once they are read or spoken.  Words that create images or match stored ones.  Words that evoke and awake feelings, stimulate thought.  Words that, uttered though they are to the multitude, begin to matter personally and take on a multitude of new lives.

That Immaterial Culture is a profoundly personal book will not be readily apparent to anyone reading it.  After all, I have refrained from using the first person singular to refer to myself as the reader or interpreter of the plays I discuss.  I thought I’d leave the privilege to say “I” to that “obedient servant” of the Mercury Theatre, the orotund Orson Welles.  Instead, I decided to disappear and let the play scripts and productions I audition take center stage, a prominent position they are often denied.

Talking about old radio plays as if they have no presence, as if they are chiefly of interest to the (broadcast) historian, only makes matters worse. Immaterial Culture, then, is an invitation to listen along, an invitation to talk about American radio plays of the past as one still discusses the material culture of books, motion pictures, theater, and television programs …

The Lion in Winter Wonderland; or, What’s That Fir?

Once a year, in the run-up to Christmas, my better half and I make the seemingly interminable journey from Wales to London for some seasonal splurging on art and theater. Now, I don’t travel all the way east to the West End to waste my time on pap like Dirty Dancing. This isn’t snobbery, mind; I simply can’t thrill to a feast of re-processed cheese and the prospect of paying for it through a nose bigger than Jennifer Grey’s old one. Besides, why raid the bottom shelves of our pop cultural cupboard when I’ve got a heaping plateful of squandered opportunities to chew over? During the days of my graduate studies in English and American literature, I had little money to spare for Broadway theatricals, which is why I now tend to seek out revivals of plays I missed the first, second, or umpteenth time around—drama with some history to it, be that pedigree or baggage. James Goldman’s The Lion in Winter has a bit of both.

As an added attraction, the current Theatre Royal Haymarket production also has the ever Ab-fabulous Joanna Lumley, whom I first saw on stage in the 2010 Broadway revival of La Bête. Lumley plays caged lioness Queen Eleanor opposite Robert Lindsay’s Henry II, the husband who keeps her under lock and key.  Witty and fierce, The Lion is a domestic drama fit for the tryingly festive season. All the same, the darn cat is in a confounded state of seasonal disorder.

What those stepping into the auditorium from the audio-visual onslaught that is Christmas time in the city cannot but gasp at is that even Henry’s halls are decked: his French chateau, anno 1183, features a regal Tannenbaum, no less. It certainly had my eyebrows raised to the alert level of WTF: you might expect a Green Knight, surely, but a bebaubled evergreen?

The proud Lion is prepared to pounce, though, ready to defend itself against “turbulent” critics crying bloody murder in the cathedral of culture. Goldman acknowledged that his “play contains anachronisms” such as the “way . . . Christmas is celebrated.” As he states in the notes duly reprinted in the playbill, the ahistorical trimmings are “deliberate”; “though it deals carefully with history,” The Lion “remains a piece of fiction.”

Towering over the assembled branches of Henry’s living family tree, the familiar, dead one serves as a reminder of the storyteller’s presence.  The needling transplant from our present day tells not only of the author’s intervening re-inventiveness but also of his obligation to make that past relevant: the dramatist does not simply stage history; he fashions it. To withhold evidence of this intervention would mean to falsify, to deny the hand and mind involved in the process of transcribing.

Goldman was nonetheless concerned that this never-evergreen might overshadow his research and cast doubt on his responsible interpretation of verifiable historical events. “This play,” he pointed out to his audience, “is accurately based on the available data.”

The elephant of a dislocated trunk aside, The Lion is refreshingly unself-conscious; it is a deluxe soap free from the by now irritating additives of postmodernist reflexivity. For all its modern day translations—of which only its pre-gay lib treatment of the 19th century construct of homosexuality struck me as dated—it affords a close look at historical figures that rarely seem human to us in the accounts of battles and political maneuverings.

If Goldman reduces the sweep of history to an intimate first-family portrait, he chose a subject that warrants such an approach; as historian John Gillingham argued, what “really mattered” to Henry II “was family politics,” in the belief of the failure of which he died. Far from being a Peyton Placeholder, Goldman’s “Christmas Court that never was” has been assembled to bring historical intrigue home.

Of “historical value”: Hitler’s “Best” Straight Talk and Other Continuity Types

As soon as I decided to make radio plays written in the United States in the 1930s, ‘40s and early ‘50s the subject of my doctoral study, I set out to scour New York City University libraries for scripts published during that period. My degree is in English, and I was keen not to approach broadcasting as a purely historical subject. The play texts and my readings of them were to be central to my engagement with the narrative-drama hybridity that is peculiar to radio storytelling. Whenever possible, I tried to match script with recording—but, to justify my study as a literary subject, I was determined to examine as many print sources as possible. One text that promised to provide a valuable sample of 1930s broadcast writing was Radio Continuity Types, a 1938 anthology compiled and edited by Sherman Paxton Lawton.

Back in the late 1990s, when I started my research, I was too focused, too narrow-minded to consider anything that seemed to lie outside the scope of my study as I had defined it for myself, somewhat prematurely. Instead, I copied what I deemed useful and dutifully returned the books I had borrowed, many of which were on interlibrary loan and therefore not in my hands for long. It was only recently that I added Radio Continuity Types to my personal library of radio related volumes—and I was curious to find out what I had overlooked during my initial review of this book . . .

Radio Continuity Types is divided into five main sections: Dramatic Continuities, Talk Continuities, Hybrid Continuities, Novelties and Specialties, and Variety Shows. Clearly, the first section was then most interesting to me. It mainly contains scripts for daytime serials, many of which I had never heard of, let alone listened to: Roses and Drums, Dangerous Paradise, Today’s Children. There are chapters from Ultra-Violet, a thriller serial by Fran Striker, samples of children’s adventures like Jack Armstrong and Bobby Benson, as well as an early script from Gosden and Correll’s Amos ‘n’ Andy taken from the period when the program’s format was what Lawton labels “revolving plot drama.”

Aside from a melodrama written for The Wonder Show and starring Orson Welles, I got little use out of Lawton’s book, mainly because I concentrated on complete 30-minute or hour-long plays rather than on serials I could only consider as fragments. Besides, I was not eager to perpetuate the notion of radio entertainment as being juvenile or strictly commercial.

Anyway. Looking at the book now, I am struck by Lawton’s choices. Never mind the weather report on page 346 or Madam Sylvia’s salad recipe. How about the editor’s selection of “Occasional speeches”? Historically significant among them are Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first inaugural, a “Welcoming” of Roosevelt by Getulio Vargas, President of Brazil, as well as Prince Edward VIII’s announcement of his abdication.

No less significant but rather more curious are Lawton’s “Straight Talk” selections of fascist propaganda by Benito Mussolini, Joseph Goebbels and Adolf Hitler: “Long live the National Socialist German Reich!” and “Now and forever—Germany! Sieg Heil!” Surely, such lines draw attention to themselves in a volume promising readers “some of the most successful work that has been done in broadcasting.” What, besides calling Goebbels’s “Proclamation on Entry into Austria” and Hitler’s “I Return” speech (both dated 12 March 1938) “straight” and “occasional,” had the editor to say about his selections? And what might these selections tell us about the editor who made them?

In a book on broadcasting published in the US in 1938, neutrality may not be altogether unexpected, as US network radio itself was “neutral”; but Lawton—who headed the department of “Radio and Visual Education” at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri—seems to have gone beyond mere representations of “types.” Introducing a translation of Hitler’s speech, which comments on the reluctance of “international truth-seekers” to regard the new “Pan-Germany” as a choice of its people, Lawton argued it to represent “some of the best work of a man who has proved the power of radio in the formation of public opinion.” There are no further comments either on technique or intention. No explanation of what is “best” and how it was “proved” to be so. No examination of “power,” “public,” and “opinion.” It is this refusal to contextualize that renders the editor’s stamp of approval suspect.

The “continuity” Lawton was concerned with was of the “type” written for broadcasting—not the “continuity” of democracy or the free world. When he spoke of “historical value,” the editor did so as a “justification for a classification” of the kind of “continuity types” he compiled (among them “straight argumentative talks” by Senator Huey Long and Father Coughlin). And when, in his introduction, he speculated about radio in 1951 (“when broadcasting [would] be twice as old” as it was then), he did not consider what consequences the “best” and “most efficient” of “straight talk” might have on the “types” that were still “in common use” back in 1938.

Given its definition of “historical value,” it hardly surprises that Lawton’s anthology was not in “common use” for long. There was no second edition.

History Stinks (and Your Granny Didn’t Smell So Good Either)

I’ve long tried—and, you might say, failed and pretty much given up on—filling a gap in the construction of our cultural histories, most of which are entirely too preoccupied with images and their interpretation. Western culture may privilege vision over any other sense—but if you think that the past will unfold before your eyes simply by looking at graphics, photos or printed records, you’ve been led by the ear you aren’t using. It’s no use being so eye-minded as to forget all about lowbrow radio programming, for instance. After all, sound-only broadcasting had a greater influence on most folks living in the middle of the 20th-century than the press or motion pictures—certainly a greater influence than most scholars are prepared to acknowledge. Radio comforted and counseled, intimated and importuned. It brought the world home and played on our minds like no competing medium could.

Crooning, cajoling, and commanding attention, whatever talent stood at the microphone became part of a soundtrack to the everyday of millions of dial-twisters who took in or were taken in by the big bands and banter, by sermons, sportscasts, and soap operas. Radio sold products as well as ideas and ideologies. It excelled in telling stories, be they fictive, factual or false; and, if you let it, it keeps on telling them or telling you about them . . .

While I have long suspected the picture to be incomplete if we insist on looking at the past as a sequence of images, I never seriously considered that, aside from sound, there is a story, too, in the way we smelled. And yet, in my old hometown of Cologne, Germany, alone—the burg that gave us the word for all our attempts at olfactory cover-up—the romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge once ‘counted two and seventy stenches.’

There would have been no soap—and no soap operas—if we didn’t have trepidations about not being quite fresh, anxieties that were over-ripe for commercial exploitation. In the US, tuners-in of the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s were constantly being alerted to the dangers of B-O, reminded to ‘Lux’ their ‘dainties,’ and told to gargle before putting their kissers to the test. Lest they could endure facing guilt by omission, listeners lathered up with products like White King toilet soap, the box tops of which they collected and sent in to broadcasters as ocular proof of their hygienic diligence, for which cumulative evidence they were duly awarded various prizes (or premiums).

For all the restrictions faced by press and broadcasting, advertising some sixty, seventy years ago, was certainly more in your (presumably unwashed) face than it is now. It sounds as if listeners-in back then were in far greater need of Lysol and Listerine. Could it be that our forebears required more frequent scrubbing because they were more likely to labor manually without having access to as much running water, cold and hot, than our more sedentary selves take for granted today? If so, did they really need to be reminded of their particular emanations?

Advertisers did not rest until the natural acquired the whiff of the common. The airwaves, though they were not permitted to be polluted by sounds suggesting most of the bodily functions to which we give vent in private, certainly were awash with voices alerting us of the social consequences of reeking to high heaven.

However fleeting, sound has not been an instant bygone ever since we succeeded in preserving it some 135 years ago. Granted, such records do not tell us the whole story of how people talked and what they had to say; but whatever we bottle as fragrance is even more likely to throw us off the scent in our quest for the real, something that complicates our efforts whenever we feel inclined to stick our nose into the past.

The irony that I am using a print ad to illustrate my point has not eluded me. It is an ad, no less, from a magazine catering to the radio listeners, consumers who were often told, as they waited for the advent of long-promised television, that only sight could complete the picture. It is a myth in which even radio broadcasters were complicit. Sure, the picture of the past is always incomplete; it is as much a composite as it is a construct. Still, I prefer to keep augmenting my impressions of those yesterdays by lending an ear to the ticking of our clocks. If we keep on looking, and look on only, we might well be missing what is right under our noses …

“The terror of the unforeseen”; or, Missing The Plot

While not entirely lacking in fancy or imagination, I generally avoid speculating about roads not taken, avoid taking in prospects retrospectively by asking “What if . . . ?” What if I had never gone to America? What if I had not left again some fifteen years later? What if what I had left had not been a country whose majority had just re-elected George W. Bush? While I would not go so far or sink so low as to substitute that “What if” with a nonchalant “So what,” I much rather ask “What now?” or justify whatever decision I made with a defiant “So there!”

I suppose dismissing the value of such speculations by arguing that any alternate of myself would not be myself at all is a way to avoid accusing myself of not always having chosen the best or most sensible path. Perhaps, a little foresight might have worked wonders greater than could ever be performed by getting myself worked up wondering, in hindsight, what I might have been; but to compound the failure to see the future with the failure of facing up to the past as is strikes me as perversely self-destructive . . .

Now, this is not about me sighing for what might have been. Since I don’t ask “What if,” such regrets rarely present themselves—itself ample justification for not indulging in morosely remorseful constructions of alternate biographies. This is about the alternate history I took with me on that trip back in early November 2004, when I left America for a new life in a part of the old world I had never seen let alone set foot on. The book in my hand luggage was Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America—which, I thought, was just the volume for the occasion, just right for the moment of leaving behind what had been home to me and what, owing to the hysterical war-on-terror politics in the shaping of which I had no right to take part, had felt increasingly less like the freest, the friendliest, much less the only place to be.

In The Plot Against America, Roth considers what might have happened if Charles A. Lindbergh had defeated Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941 to become President, largely on the strength of a persuasive if false—and unfulfillable—promise of “an independent destiny for America.”

Roth conceives of an alternate 22 June 1941, five months after Lindbergh’s inauguration, while yet adhering to the historical fact that it was the day on which the Treaty of Non-Aggression between Germany and the Soviet Union was broken when the former nation embarked upon Operation Barbarossa in an attempt to conquer the latter.

On that 22 June in AR (Anno Roth) 1941, Lindbergh, as President, addresses his countrymen and women by expressing himself “grateful” that Hitler was waging a war against “Soviet Bolshevism,” a war that “would otherwise have had to be fought by American troops.” Listening with dread to that address over the radio are the central characters of Roth’s nightmarish revision, a Jewish family from New Jersey who are terrorized by the thought that the pursuit of an ostensibly “independent destiny for America” means the alignment with a regime engaged in the Holocaust, that putting America first means putting an end to their civil liberties, which means “destroying everything that America stands for.”

“The terror of the unforeseen,” Roth writes, “is what the science of history hides, turning a disaster into an epic.” Good histories, including alternate ones, may yet provoke terror by not swaddling in the paper logic of hindsight causalities what, however palpable, is yet uncertain and unascertainable as events unfold, and by reminding us not to mistake the unforeseen with the unforeseeable.

I remember opening The Plot sitting at a New York airport named after another American president and finding myself distracted by a German family visibly disquieted by the book’s cover art. There, staring at them was a swastika, the symbol of the terror that could have been foreseen. I was so self-conscious of this act of provocation that I was unable to read on; and once I had arrived in Wales, I was too absorbed in my own altered state—the detachment from what I had known and been—to have much use for any engagement with any alternate past one.

This week, for no particular reason, I picked up the book anew, and I read it as a commentary on two historical pasts—1941 and a 2004 (mis)informed by 11 September 2001—that somehow seems too comfortably remote, the anxieties that had given rise to its creation and my purchase of it being past as well. I can now amuse myself by pointing out that the day I read the abovementioned passage in Roth’s book coincided not only with the anniversary of that imaginary radio address but also with the birthday of Lindbergh’s spouse Anne; I can appreciate references to popular radio programs (“You should be on Information Please”) and personalities like Walter Winchell that render The Plot verisimilitudinous, conveniently to extract them for the sake of yet another cursory entry into this essentially escapist journal whose raison d’être was the sense of homelessness and estrangement I felt when I arrived in Britain on the eve of Guy Fawkes, that celebrated plot against King and Parliament.

What if I had not mislaid—and not even missed—The Plot all these years? What if I had avoided the impulse of discontinuity, of creating for myself a virtual space and time capsule of extra-historic hence fictitious isolation and had made more of an effort instead to participate in the real debates that are shaping my future? By refusing to ask myself “What if . . .?” as I belatedly re-enter The Plot I seem to be defusing Roth’s argument, fully aware that, by doing so, I may well expose myself to—rather than becoming exempt from—that certain “terror” of not foreseeing.

For the Record: Lindbergh and the Electrola

Announcer Graham McNamee called it the “most terrific broadcast [he] ever took part in.” He was referring to NBC’s on-the-spot coverage of Colonel Charles L. Lindbergh’s return from France to the United States on this day, 11 June, in 1927. It certainly was a technical achievement worthy of “this new world hero, this new ambassador of America to all other countries,” as McNamee heralded the “unassuming, quiet boy” who was anxiously awaited “not only the crowd of us ordinary folks but the cabinet of the President of the United States, high officials of the army and of the navy [. . .].”

According to the September 1927 issue of Radio Broadcast, NBC’s coverage of the event set a “new record,” requiring fourteen thousand miles of “wire line” and involved three-hundred and fifty engineers.

Now, the figures differ depending on who does the counting and recounting. In Empire of the Air, for instance, Tom Lewis claims it took twelve thousand miles of wire and four hundred engineers. But never mind those figures now—or the fact that the figure of Lindbergh itself differs now that the man must be held accountable for his fascist views and Third Reich sympathies. It was an historical event on and in the air, in aviation and broadcasting alike.

Awarding him with the Flying Cross, President Coolidge called Lindbergh a “[c]onqueror of the air and strengthener of the ties which bind us to our sister nations across the sea.” When it came to strengthening ties, the public-conquering airwaves were second to none. Not only was NBC’s coverage of Lindbergh’s return home the biggest network hookup to date, it was also, as McNamee reminded listeners, “the first time band music or music has been transmitted from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific coast, which is another epoch.”

As columnist John Wallace argued in the September 1927 issue of Radio Broadcast, the

making known of great national events, while they are actually taking place is, after all, radio’s unique contribution, and the one field in which it reigns supreme without competition from phonographs, theaters, churches, or newspapers.  And it is greatly to radio’s credit that it does this job so thoroughly and well.

Seizing the day, NBC may have rather overdone its coverage of the “hullabaloo incidental to Lindbergh’s arrival.” Commenting on the banquet given in the aviator’s honor, Wallace remarked that he

would have been quite content had all the speeches of eulogy been omitted and only that of the flyer broadcast.  Never have we heard worse blah sprung at a banquet, and sprung by such eminent leaders, divines and statesmen!

Aware that his was no doubt a minority report, the journalist added that “the nation as a whole was interested in every and any detail of the flyer’s reception and credit must be given to the National Broadcasting Company for slipping up on no smallest part.”

What, though, of all those who were unable to be part of that moment because they were away both from Washington, D. C., where the celebrations took place, and from the wireless? Able to annihilate space, radio was nonetheless time-bound. Given the “ephemeral” nature of broadcasting, the effort and money set aside to capture and yet not hold this historic moment seemed almost perverse:

Thousands of dollars are spent to engage talent, wires covering half a continent are hired, advertising is scheduled in newspapers, several studio rehearsals are held, and finally the elaborate program is put on the air. For an hour it lasts but it can never be repeated. If you did not hear it, all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put it into your loud speaker again.

For some time, radio listeners had been able to appreciate the voices of their radio favorites on their phonographs. Not only could they take home Sam ‘n’ Henry, Vaughn De Leath, or the Happiness Boys—radio had made that happen—but they could hold and keep them there. “A very great number of well-known radio artists are regularly recording for each of the important phonograph companies,” Radio Broadcast pointed out—and supplied a list of

fine recordings made by the favorites of the Atwater Kent hour, and the famous artists of the Victor, Brunswick and Columbia hours. As for the jazz bands, the comedy duos, and other entertainers with a more local fame, they, too, are forever at your beck and call on the black discs.

What makes the festivities in honor of Lindbergh’s return to America another milestone in the history of radio is that, for the first time, phonograph records of the live broadcast were made available for sale. As Radio Broadcast reported,

Victor has the distinction of pioneering and they offer three double-face records of the national welcome to Colonel Charles A. Lindbergh at Washington. On these three records you have the voice of President Coolidge, the interspersed announcements of Graham McNamee, a short address by Colonel Lindbergh, and his longer speech at the National Press Club. It’s all there and if you close your eyes, it isn’t hard to imagine that the events are just taking place.

True, what has been preserved for us is an edited copy of the live event; the “ceremonies were recorded on forty-six record surfaces” and “edited down” to six. True, editing is judging what matters; it is, to a degree, falsification, intentional or otherwise. Still, without the technology available back then, without the efforts of those broadcasting pioneers, I would not be writing about radio today.

As much as I at times deplore my second-hand experiences, my removal in time and space from thrilling events and fascinating personages, I, as a belated auditor, am indebted to those records. And I am grateful, too, for the “new record” in aviation that marked the beginning of an age in which sound was no barrier.

Related recording
Graham McNamee on Lindbergh’s return to America (11 June 1927)
Recollections at 30, featuring the 11 June 1927 broadcast (26 December 1956)

The “Invisible Rudolf”: Behind the Mike of a Radio Criminal

“As you know, in many countries in Europe the people are only permitted to hear what their government wishes them to hear through government controlled radio stations.” With that reason to be grateful for being an American, uttered on 8 June 1941, veteran announcer Graham McNamee introduced listeners who might have tuned in to Behind the Mike to hear the “sound effect of the week” or learn how radio series were readied for commercial sponsorship to a kind of broadcasting unlike anything heard over NBC, CBS, or Mutual stations. Despite imposed strictures, McNamee continued, there operated “within these countries or near their borders courageous men and women who, opposing the government, broadcast at the risk of their lives the truth as they see it to their fellow men.” Recusant, daring, and hazardous—such were the cloak-and-dagger operations known as “freedom stations.”

For anyone broadcasting—indeed, for anyone lending an ear to those broadcasts—the German government had a word: “Runkfunkverbrecher” (radio criminal). It also insisted on having the last word: a decree to silence those opposing the regime that would turn the cornerstones of democracy into gravestones.

Just how dangerous was it to turn off the Volksempfänger and tune in those secret stations instead? In Voices in the Darkness (1943), British historian Edward Tangye Lean (brother of film director David Lean), offered this piece of evidence from the Strassburger Neueste Nachrichten, dated 15 March 1941:

The Nuremberg Special Court has sentenced the traitor Johann Wild of Nuremberg to death for two serious radio crimes. Both before and after the coming into effect of the radio decree he behaved as an enemy of state and people by continually listening to hostile broadcasts from abroad. Not content with that, he composed insulting tirades whose source was the enemy station.

As Lean points out, propaganda minister Goebbels issued a “list of stations to which listening was allowed.” Along with their ration cards, German citizens received a “little red card with a hole punched in the middle of it so that it might be hung on the station-dial of a radio set.” The card read:

Racial Comrades! You are Germans! It is your duty not to listen to foreign stations. Those who do so will be mercilessly punished.

Warnings were not always heeded and what was “verboten” on the air became increasingly sought-after. So, the radio-savvy Nazis devised a method to catch “Rundfunkverbrecher” in the act. Explaining how that was done was one of the “criminals” who, along with McNamee stood Behind the Mike that afternoon.

Introduced as “Rudolf,” a “young man who [had been] in charge of one of these freedom stations,” the guest speaker, having first explained how such cloak-and-dagger operations were originated by stray Nazi Otto Strasser, went on to explain:

Well, the Germans would set up mobile stations in automobiles. These stations were on the same wavelength as the freedom stations. They would play loud records as they drove through the streets. If you were listening to a freedom station and the mobile transmitter playing loud records would pass your door, your radio would pick up their broadcast and blare. Following this mobile transmitter was another car, full of Gestapo, the secret police. They traced the blare and you’d be under arrest and in a concentration camp.

“Rudolf,” who now lived in the US, proudly announced that he was “becoming an American citizen”—a “citizen of a country that needs no freedom stations,” because “here,” he reasoned, “you can hear the truth.”

The United States would not enter the war for another six months; and even though commercial broadcasters were reluctant to embrace the kind of “important messages” that were not designed to hawk a sponsor’s wares, propagandists were gradually emerging from Behind the Mike—though it would be considered rather unorthodox to have the “truth” delivered in a Germanic voice.

Still, American broadcasters could learn a lot from “Rudolf”—if, indeed, McNamee’s guest was the man whom a British newspaper had dubbed “Invisible Rudolf—the Voice of Austria.” As a contemporary historian, Charles Rolo, describes him in Radio Goes to War (1942), Rudolf was an “ex-Viennese lawyer” whose gravest “Verbrechen” it had been to impersonate Hitler on the air, making the kind of Versprechen (promises) for which the Führer was best known around the world—those he had no intention to keep . . .


I don’t often indulge in morning afterthoughts. I might—and frequently do—revise what I said (or, rather, how I said it); but I generally just take time, and one time only, to say my piece instead of doling it out piecemeal. Unlike the producers of much of the (un)popular culture I go on about here, I don’t make a virtue of saying “As I was saying” or make my fortune, say, by milking the cash cow of regurgitation. To my thinking, which is, I realize, incompatible with web journalism, each entry into this journal, however piffling, should be complete—a composition, traditionally called essay, that has a beginning, middle and end, a framework that gives whatever I write a raison d’être for ending up here to begin with.

Although I resist following up for the sake of building a following, it does not follow that my last word in any one post is the last word on any one subject—especially if the subject is as inexhaustible as the Eurovision Song Contest, which festival of song, spectacle and politics compelled me previously to go on as follows: “It [a Eurovision song] is, at best, ambassadorial—and the outlandish accent of the German envoy makes for a curious diplomatic statement indeed.”

Diplomatic blunder, my foot. My native Germany did win, after all, coming in first for the first time since 1982, when Germany was still divided by a wall so eloquent that, growing up, I did not consider whatever lay to the east of it German at all. Apparently, this year’s German singer-delegate Lena Meyer-Landrut, born some time after that wall came down, did not step on anyone’s toes with her idiosyncratic rendition of “Satellite,” a catchy little number whose inane English lyrics she nearly reduced to gibberish.

Her aforementioned insistence on turning toenails into “toenates” intrigued a number of bemused or irritated viewers to go online in search of answers, only to be directed straight to broadcastellan. Perhaps, the United Kingdom should have fought tooth and nates instead of articulating each tiresome syllable of their entry into the competition, a song so cheesy that it did not come altogether undeservedly last, even if European politics surely factored into the voting.

Britain never embraced European unity wholeheartedly—and those in the thick of the economic crisis now challenging the ideal of Europe may well resent it. Is it a coincidence that the votes were cast in favor of the entrant representing the biggest economy in Europe, a country in the heart of the European continent?

While not content, perhaps, to orbit round that center of gravity, other nations may yet feel that it behoves them to acknowledge the star quality of Germany, which, according to contest rules, is called upon to stage the spectacle in 2011. After all, why shouldn’t the wealthiest neighbor be host of a competition some countries, including Hungary and the Czech Republic, declared themselves too cash-strapped even to enter this year.

I may not have been back on native soil since those early days of German reunification, but there was yet some national pride aroused in me as “Satellite” was declared the winner of the contest by the judges and juries of thirty-eight nations competing in Oslo this year along with Deutschland.

That said, seeing a German citizen draped in a German flag as she approaches the stage to take home a coveted prize, however deserved, still makes me somewhat uneasy. Given our place in world history, the expression of national pride strikes me as unbecoming of us, to say the least. I was keenly aware, too, that there were no points awarded to Germany by the people of Israel.

Will I ever stop being or seeing myself as a satellite and, instead of circling around Germany, get round to dealing with my troubled relationship with the country I cannot bring myself to call home? That, after the ball was over, formed itself as a sobering afterthought. And that, for the time being, is the beginning, middle, and end of it. Truth is, I take comfort putting a neat frame around pictures that are hazy, disturbing or none too pretty.

Dunkirk 70 / Roosevelt 69

This week marks the 70th anniversary of “Operation Dynamo,” an ad hoc rescue mission involving small civilian ships coming to the aid of French and British soldiers who had been forced into retreat at Dunkerque during the for Allied troops disastrous Battle of Dunkirk. The operation, which became known as “The Miracle of the Little Ships,” was recreated today as more than sixty British vessels, sailing from Kent, arrived on the shores of northern France.

During the course of a single week, nearly 340,000 soldiers were brought to safety, however temporary. Many civilians who had what became known as “Dunkirk spirit” were recruited after listening to BBC appeals on behalf of the British admiralty for aid from “uncertified second hands”—fishermen, owners of small pleasure crafts, any and all, as the BBC announcer put it, “who have had charge of motor boats and [had] good knowledge of coastal navigation.”

Eager to maintain its neutrality prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, America was understandably lacking in such public “spirit,” frequent outcries against Nazi atrocities notwithstanding; but even long after entering the war, the US government kept on struggling to explain or justify the need for sacrifices and (wo)manpower to a people living thousands of miles from the theaters of war. On this day, 27 May, in 1941, one year after the operation at Dunkirk began, US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt came before the American public in another one of his Fireside Chats.

Although the nation was “[e]xpect[ing] all individuals [. . .] to play their full parts without stint and without selfishness,” the Roosevelt administration took considerable pains to explain the significance of the war, the need for “toil and taxes,” to civilians who, not long recovered from the Great Depression, were struggling to make a living.

If Hitler’s “plan to strangle the United States of America and the Dominion of Canada” remained unchecked, FDR warned the public,

American laborer would have to compete with slave labor in the rest of the world. Minimum wages, maximum hours? Nonsense! Wages and hours would be fixed by Hitler. The dignity and power and standard of living of the American worker and farmer would be gone. Trade unions would become historical relics and collective bargaining a joke.

Crucial to America’s freedom was the security of the oceans and ports. If, as FDR put it, the “Axis powers fail[ed] to gain control of the seas,’ their “dreams of world-domination” would “go by the board,” and the “criminal leaders who started this war [would] suffer inevitable disaster.”

The President’s address—broadcast at 9:30 EST over CBS stations including WABC, WJAS, WJAS, WIBX, WMMN, WNBF, WGBI and WJR—departs only slightly from the script, published in the 31 May 1941 issue of the Department of State Bulletin. Whatever changes were made were either designed to strengthen the appeal or else to prevent the urgency of the situation from coming across as so devastating as to imply that any efforts by the civilian population were utterly futile.

The address, as scripted, was designed to remind the American public that the US navy needed to be strengthened, alerting listeners that, of late, there had been “[g]reat numbers” of “sinkings” that had “been actually within the waters of the Western Hemisphere.”

The blunt truth is this—and I reveal this with the full knowledge of the British Government: the present rate of Nazi sinkings of merchant ships is more than three times as high as the capacity of British shipyards to replace them; it is more than twice the combined British and American output of merchant ships today.

In address as delivered, this passage was rendered slightly more tentative as “The blunt truth of this seems to be,” a subtle change that not so much suggests there was room for doubt as it creates the impression that the great man behind the microphone was weighing the facts he laid bare, that the devastating and devastatingly “blunt truth” was being carefully considered rather than dictated as absolute.

No mention was made of the “Miracle of Dunkirk,” that remarkable demonstration of spirit and resilience. More than a flotilla of “little ships” was required to defend the US from the potential aggression of the Axis powers. The challenge of American propaganda geared toward US civilians was to make the situation relevant to individuals remote from the battlefields, to motivate and, indeed, create a home front.
In Britain, where “ignorant armies clashed” just beyond the narrow English Channel and where the battlefields were the backyards, there was less of a need to drive home why the fight against the Axis was worth fighting.

In the US, the driving home had to be achieved by breaking down the perfectly sound barriers of that great American fortress called home, by making use of the one medium firmly entrenched in virtually every American household, an osmotic means of communication capable of permeating walls and penetrating minds. Radio served as an extension to the world; but it was more than an ear trumpet. It was also a stethoscope auscultating the hearts of the listener. As FDR, who so persuasively employed it in his Fireside Chats, was well aware, the most effective medium with which to imbue the American public with something akin to “Dunkirk spirit” was the miracle not of “little ships” but of the all-engulfing airwaves—and the big broadcasts—that helped to keep America afloat.

“The Hut-Sut is their dream”; or, Accent on Eurovision

Eddie Cantor

Folks flicking through the May 25-30 issue of Radio-Movie Guide back in 1941 were told about a “New Song Sensation,” a novelty number written by Ted McMichael (of the Merry Macs), Jack Owens and Leo V. Killion. The identification of the tunesmiths aside, this was probably no news at all to America’s avid dial twisters. Published only a few weeks earlier, the “Sensation” in question had already “featured on the air by Kate Smith, Bob Hope and Alec Templeton.” In fact, as early as 23 April, listeners to Eddie Cantor’s It’s Time to Smile program would have been exposed to what was tongue-in-cheekily billed as a “Swedish Serenade” overheard by an illiterate boy who “should have been in school”:

Hut-Sut Rawlson on the rillerah and a brawla, brawla sooit,
Hut-Sut Rawlson on the rillerah and a brawla sooit.
Hut-Sut Rawlson on the rillerah and a brawla, brawla sooit,
Hut-Sut Rawlson on the rillerah and a brawla sooit.

According to Radio-Movie Guide, Benny Goodman was so keen on the ditty that he wanted to “buy an interest in its profit for five thousand dollars.” It is easy to see the attraction of such novelty nonsense at a time when news from Europe were similarly bewildering yet decidedly less diverting. And before we tut-tut a nation at war for going gaga over a trifle such as “The Hut Sut Song” while being gleefully indifferent to—or woefully ignorant of—the world, we might consider the musical offerings conceived for the current Eurovision Song Contest, an annual agit-pop extravaganza that, in this, its fifty-fifth year, is playing itself out against the somber backdrop of the European fiscal crisis.

Much of Europe may be cash-strapped and debt-ridden, but the thirty-nine nations competing in Oslo this year have it yet in their means to bestow points and favors upon one another—or to withhold them. Even the least affluent countries of greater Europe may take comfort as well in the potentiality of turning freshly minted tunes into pop-cultural currency. Europe is less concerned, it seems, with the phrases it must coin to achieve such a feat.

The emphasis on rhyme over reason is apparent in traditional Eurovision song contest titles—and winners—like “Boom Bang-a-Bang” (United Kingdom, 1969), “Ding-A-Dong” (Netherlands, 1975), and “Diggi-loo, Diggi-ley” (Norway, 1984). It is an orchestrated retreat to the banks of a mythical “rillerah,” a clean plunge into a stream of pure nonsense beyond the realities of the Babel that is Europe. Might an agreement to be agreeably meaningless be a key to intercultural understanding?

“The Hut Sut Song” came with its own dictionary:

Now the Rawlson is a Swedish town, the rillerah is a stream.
The brawla is the boy and girl,
The Hut-Sut is their dream.

By comparison, most Eurovision entries, which, in the past, included “Volare,” “Waterloo,” and some inconsequentiality or other performed by Celine Dion, do not make much of an effort to render themselves intelligible. While by and large performed in some approximation of English, today’s Eurovision songs are, for the most part, incomprehensible rather than nonsensical, as if members of the vastly, perhaps inordinately or at any rate prematurely expanded union were determined to avail themselves of the English language as a means of keeping apart instead of coming together, inarticulate English being the universal diversifier.

Eurovision songs have always suffered—or, you might well argue, benefited—from less-than-sophisticated lyrics. Take these lines from this year’s Armenian entry, performed by one Eva Rivas: “I began to cry a lot / And she gave me apricots.” Which begs the question, I told a friend the other day: if she had only laughed a little, might she have gotten . . . peanut brittle? Well, perhaps not. Apricots are a symbol of Armenian nationality.

In its well-nigh incomprehensible delivery, “Satellite” takes the cake, though. According to British bookies and the internet downloads on which they rely to establish the odds, the quirky, bouncy little song representing my native Germany—where it became an instant success—is second in popularity only to the entry from Azerbaijan (which, as the contest rules have it, lies within the boundaries of Europe).

A Danish-German-American collaboration, “Satellite” scores high in both the “bad lyrics” and “strange accent” categories, proving, as only a Eurovision song can, that those categories are not mutually exclusive:

I went everywhere for you
I even did my hair for you
I bought new underwear that’s blue
And I wore it just the other day.

The singer, Lena Meyer-Landrut hails from Hanover. Not that this should lead us to expect any pronounced British connections in her house. Still, being a graduating high school student, she ought to have a firmer grasp on the English language. At least, her origins and education cannot account for—or explain away—references to painted “toenates” and underwear “thay blue.” Since, after weeks of tryouts and rehearsals, she still can’t, er, “nate” those undemanding lyrics, her accent is clearly an affectation. Could it be anything else?

Just what kind of “Hut-Sut” are European “brawla” dreaming of these days as they insist on diving, seemingly pell-mell, into the turbid “rillerah” they make of English? Not of a unity achieved through universality, I reckon. Perhaps, they are simply getting back at the native speakers by twisting their tongue in ways that are as likely to alienate as to amuse, and are having the last laugh by turning this recklessly appropriated language into Europop gold with which to pay back the British for steadfastly refusing to adopt the sinking Euro. The apricot stones-filled cheek!

Whether “Satellite”—or Germany—wins this Saturday has perhaps more to do with the recent bailout of Greece than with the merits of the song or the quality of the performance. Then again, a Eurovision song, however frivolous, is generally looked upon as something larger than its number of bum notes and odd intonations. It is, at best, ambassadorial—and the outlandish accent of the German envoy makes for a curious diplomatic statement indeed.