- From Parsifal to Perón: Early Radio in Argentina, 1920–1944
During World War I, the Argentine Navy sent Dr. Enrique Telémaco Susini to Europe to study the effects of poison gases. Whether or not he was successful at this, he did return with a set of radio tubes and a goal. On 27 August 1920, Susini and four medical students broadcast Wagner's Parsifal from the Coliseo theater to fifty receivers throughout Buenos Aires. While this was hardly the first or most powerful broadcast in radio history, it was a moment of great significance for Argentina. Susini and his cohort of amateurs [End Page 501] abandoned medicine for electronic communications, and by 1925 they had established and then sold their own station for the lucrative sum of 100,000 pesos ($42,000).
This broadcast of Parsifal is a key moment in Robert Howard Claxton's book, perhaps the most comprehensive history of early radio in a Latin American nation. Following in the intellectual trajectory of radio scholars such as Susan Douglas, Claxton's book places importance on the formative years of radio in Argentina as a starting point for understanding radio and other media in the whole of Latin America. More than just a straightforward history, From Parsifal to Perón looks at the connection between emergent technologies and "cycles of democracy," and the role radio played in shaping ideas of Argentine nationhood.
Why did radio take hold in Argentina in the 1920s? To answer this question, Claxton looks at both the state of technology and the prevailing social climate. By the 1920s Argentina was a technological nation on a par with Europe rather than the developing nations of Latin America and Africa, and part of Claxton's agenda is to recast Argentina as a cosmopolitan nation that has been continually receptive to new technologies. When looking at media in developing nations, historians have typically downplayed indigenous contributions, instead arguing that colonial powers exerted a guiding (if not controlling) hand in their development. With Argentina, Claxton seeks to dispel the prevailing assumptions that "Latin culture places little value on technical [skill]" and that "Latins lack entrepreneurial spirit" (p. xvi). Argentines took an active role in radio, establishing their own broadcast stations, producing radio receivers, and programming with little outside intervention.
What is unique and compelling about Claxton's work is his examination of Argentine radio beyond the capital, a subject typically neglected by historians. While Buenos Aires boasted nineteen stations during this period, there were twenty in the rural interior. Claxton offers accounts of these interior stations, describing their creation, development, and significance to Argentina in rich historical detail. He also presents a thorough history of Argentina's fifteen noncommercial radio "experiments," claiming that these failed because they tended to be out of touch with audiences who preferred commercial programming which maintained stronger focus on Argentina.
Though commercial radio tended to be free of overtly political messages prior to the Perón years, Claxton demonstrates its significance to a burgeoning nationalism. Argentines took great pride in their technological skill as broadcasters and as manufacturers of radio, while commercial programming "helped to create a common but artificial 'past' for all" (p. 113). He closes his book by questioning the connection between new modes of communication and the "cycles of democracy" that Argentina underwent. While he found no connection between radio and political democracy, Claxton did find that radio impacted socioeconomic factors, that advertising [End Page 502] promoted ideals of social equality, and that "listening eventually became a group activity, something that neighbors shared" (p. 135).While these are hardly new findings, they take on added dimensions when viewed in the light of nationalism.
From Parsifal to Perón will be useful to those seeking to understand the spread of media technologies beyond North America and Western Europe. With a growing interest in how technological innovations interact with the forces of globalization, this book will serve as an invaluable resource, given its breadth of historical detail. It will...