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  • At the Speed of Sound:Techno-Aesthetic Paradigms in U.S.–French International Broadcasting, 1925–1942
  • Derek W. Vaillant (bio)

Decades before satellite television and the internet, broadcasters enlisted shortwave radio to furnish live intercontinental programming between the United States and Europe. Unlike long-distance, point-to-point radio and conventional long- and medium-wave amplitude modulation (AM) broadcasting, shortwave broadcasts furnished ambient sound, voices, and music to mass audiences at a remove of thousands of miles. Moving instantaneously across oceans, continents, and national borders, shortwave embodied the leading edge of trans- and international communication and had dramatic influences. Shortwave broadcasters scooped the international press corps at Munich in 1938, and the technology developed into a key tool during and after World War II. Less frequently noted, however, is that by 1938, transatlantic broadcasts had occurred regularly for the better part of a decade.1 In 1931, the French Ministry of Posts, Telegraphs, and [End Page 888] Telephones (PTT) and the U.S. National Broadcasting Company (NBC) began regular shortwave-broadcast exchanges. Whether heard directly on shortwave receivers or via instantaneous relay to AM sets, “transatlantics” heralded bright possibilities for live global communication. Among other things, transatlantics exemplified the ambition of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), NBC’s parent company, to create a “community of sound and vision … to be distributed upon a national and even upon a worldwide basis, through broadcasting.”2

“Shortwave,” in contrast to long- or medium-wave radio transmission, refers to the wavelength of a radio signal using the electromagnetic spectrum designated for point-to-point and broadcast transmission. Unlike amplitude modulation (AM) broadcast signals that travel primarily along the ground at medium- and long-wave frequencies, shortwave signals travel via “sky waves” at high frequencies. Sent from transmitter antennae directed upward at particular angles at particular times of day, these signals reflect off of the Earth’s ionosphere and return to a designated point that can be many thousands of miles away. Atmospheric conditions, solar-activity cycles, and time of day affect when, where, and how shortwave signals can be sent and received clearly—hence the need for multiple transmitters and directional antennae. Transatlantics also required supporting communications technologies; events were coordinated in advance via telephone calls and cablegrams. A transatlantic shortwave transmission could reach listeners directly or via retransmission. In the United States, RCA operated facilities using shortwave receivers, dedicated circuits, and telephone lines to carry programs to NBC for circulation to affiliates across [End Page 889] the country. Pickups from France to the United States could also travel under the waves via transatlantic cables to a receiving facility that could then feed the signal to a broadcast transmitter for listeners.

Beyond their novelty, transatlantics attracted attention for their techno-aesthetics—that is, their “produced,” technical qualities as radio programs, which contributed cultural information to their formal program content. Between the mid-1920s and the onset of World War II, two sets of techno-aesthetic paradigms emerged out of U.S.–French broadcast interactions. They offered a shorthand for both countries’ radio producers, fans, and critics to assess each other and their respective societies. The American paradigm stressed power, abundance, and high-speed execution; it could be measured in quantifiable units, such as the number of kilowatts, stations, transmitters, and quantity of programs. Speed signified U.S. radio’s remarkable capacity for getting information circulating quickly (and frequently) on the air. The French counter-aesthetic paradigm emphasized quality, scarcity, and restrained pacing; it accorded value to a program’s artistic and aesthetic merit, reflected constraints on the number of stations in France, and prized reflection and analysis in a program over instantaneous results.3

U.S. commercial broadcasters took technological power, abundance, and execution at high speed as measures of efficient technological exploitation that warranted universal emulation. In France, by contrast, state-controlled public broadcasting and specific economic, political, and institutional conditions, coupled with differing cultural behaviors and emphases, produced a distinctive counter-aesthetic. This formed in tension with RCA’s normative vision of an international “community of sound,” implicitly guided by U.S. technical expertise and cultural preferences. While more of an alternative cultural formation than an overtly oppositional one, the French...


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pp. 888-921
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