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  • Defensive Transcriptions:Radio Networks, Sound-on-Disc Recording, and the Meaning of Live Broadcasting
  • Alexander Russo (bio)

In December 1933 Merlin Aylesworth and Richard Patterson, president and vice president of NBC, exchanged a series of memos on sound- on-disc transcription recording. One of the most visible public faces of NBC, Aylesworth had spent much of the last seven years explaining the superiority of live networked radio. However, in these memoranda Patterson lobbied his superior to support a growing opinion within the company that NBC needed to begin to produce recorded programming. Ultimately, Patterson argued, NBC "must choose between expediency and refusing to see the light of competition" and embrace recorded programming.1 This phrase captures the dilemma transcriptions posed to radio networks in the 1930s and 1940s. For Patterson, the most expedient choice was to ignore or attack the increasingly popular sound-on-disc transcriptions, yet at the same time he understood that NBC could do neither. Faced with competition from independent transcription producers, Patterson felt NBC had no choice but to begin to actively solicit and produce recorded programming. That the largest radio network would decide to enter into a business that potentially posed the largest threat to its existence exemplified the network's desire to protect its oligopoly on program production and distribution during the 1930s and 1940s.2 However, the subsequent resistance to this decision suggests that something more than rational economic choice underwrote the history of network radio. This something else was a complex of cultural and institutional goals, conflicts, and beliefs that manifested themselves in continuously evolving debates over the ideal (and supposedly ontological) form, content, and scope of radio broadcasting and sound reproduction.

Broadcasting's content both produced and was produced by the culturally and historically specific context of its operation, including the conditions of technological possibility, the organizational structure of production, and the social horizons of reception. In her history of nineteenth-century telephone and electrical technologies, Carolyn Marvyn commented, "Media are not fixed natural objects; they have no natural edges. They are constructed complexes of habits, beliefs, and procedures embedded in elaborated cultural codes of communication."3 Likewise, in his recent history of sound reproduction, Jonathan Sterne has argued that despite their commonalities, sound technologies had to be forged into a coherent idea of sound media, a process governed by the historical and geographic specificity of its operation.4 This essay expands these insights on new media technologies to include ongoing developmental processes for already established ones.5

In the 1930s and 1940s NBC and CBS justified their oligopoly by ascribing aesthetic value to the product of a system of sound reproduction and distribution technologies. This value was one of liveness.6 Although broadcasting historians have largely considered network-era radio to have been stable, it rested on a fragile articulation of liveness, national address, and listener pleasure that was under constant stress from both within and outside network organizations. The networks' commitment to liveness protected their market position, but it also curtailed their ability to evaluate and respond to new methods of programming production and distribution. Within NBC, conflict over the standards of broadcasting, as a business and as a cultural form, informed both the network's seemingly paradoxical decision to [End Page 4] become a transcription producer and its subsequent difficulties implementing that decision. Liveness represented more than an ideological posture in the service of economic interest. It also functioned as a commonsensical "logic of practice" within broadcasting institutions.7 In addition, control over "sound reproduction" versus "broadcasting" structured conflicts between NBC and Victor Records, both divisions of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA).

This essay places these conflicts in the social, industrial, and regulatory context of the United States in the 1920s and 1930s. The first section discusses how the aesthetics of live radio anchored the political and economic interests of national broadcasting networks. The second section examines transcription records' threat to that definition of radio and, consequently, to the economic basis of network broadcasting. The third section examines the decision by NBC to co-opt this threat by producing its own transcriptions. The fourth section explores how this decision caused repeated conflict within NBC and between the...


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