Intermediality and the Problem of the Listener
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Intermediality and the Problem of the Listener

On the 8th of January 1929, a week before the debut of the BBC weekly journal, the Listener, the cartoonist David Low published in his regular outlet, Lord Beaverbrook's Evening Standard, a piece entitled "Some Illustrations for the B.B.C's New Paper." Like most of Low's drawings, it collected under this central title several small panels, striking such already-familiar targets as BBC blandness (somber-looking performers, one clutching a script marked "Fun in a Morgue"), BBC cheapness (tuppence being handed to a professorial radio lecturer), and the high-handedness of BBC control (a tailcoated man behind "Sir Thos. Beecham, the famous conductor," arms under his own, conducting the orchestra).

Two other panels of the cartoon, however, spoke more directly to the phenomenon of the "New Paper" itself. In one, the caption "The Postmaster-General, flushed with publishing success, considering the issue in monthly parts of an illustrated telephone book," alludes to the bureaucrat's position (as the registering authority in charge of both publications and radio licenses) at the center of the dispute even then raging over the Listener's creation. The illustration, posing him at his desk with quill pen and telephone, seems to invoke not just the purported sterility of BBC product but also the incongruous incommensurability of media. Similarly, the central panel, under a fake Listener logo, shows a raffish-looking version of Nipper, the HMV hound,1 yowling in response to the output of a speaker, above a fatuous lineup for "this week's number." Low had alluded to the trademark in mocking the BBC a year earlier—captioning with "Their Master's Voice" a cartoon that depicted George Bernard Shaw, [End Page 569] Hilaire Belloc, and other intellectuals squatting in headphoned subjugation before a BBC transmitter announcing their ouster due to listener complaint from the "village of Dimwit" in favor of "Piffle and Puffle, the famous non-controversial comedians." (fig. 1)2 In the "New Paper" cartoon, however, the reference is far more complex: the listening dog stands in for the BBC listener whose non-intellectual tastes (as in the previous cartoon) must be served—as marked by the appearance of "talk and patter by the Dimwit Bros." on the list of the week's features; the yowls may signal the resistance of this "listener" to the BBC's notion of educational uplift. But in the context of this cartoon the hound is also the journal itself, performing what Low takes to be its function: the Listener-as-hound attends "His Master's Voice," taking dictation, as it were, from the Corporation; but he also translates it, remediates it, the howls equating to the satirized "contents" of the paper.

Even as it both thematizes and participates in press hostility to the advent of the Listener, then, Low's cartoon implicitly alludes to the complexity of the journal's inter-medial position. Not only does it enact the difficulty of depicting what BBC producer Lance Sieveking called "the stuff of radio" (since Low himself manages to do so only through visual metonymy that usually indexes other audio media);3 it also hints at the incongruity of capturing that "stuff" in print that was expressed by the paper's very title. However unintendedly, Low manages here, while responding to the exigent circumstances of the journal's contested launching, to anticipate some of the difficulties, for scholars, of classifying, representing, and analyzing the Listener in years to come.

Indeed, there's really no word that properly describes the Listener. Neither a "Hansard for Talks" (a phrase commonly bruited in BBC memoranda as the journal was being planned) nor a freely commissioning magazine, neither a house organ in the centripetal sense nor an independent periodical, it has been elided in radio and print culture scholarship in ways that belie its significance for both. On the one hand, scholars working on early radio have relied on it as an invaluable repository for broadcast talks, the sole mechanism for accessing BBC programming from the years before the regular recording of broadcasts. But this has often led them to relax into a wishful assumption of transparency...