- Electric Sounds: Technological Change and the Rise of Corporate Mass Media
The use of "electrical acoustics" (i.e., electronically amplified audio) links the histories of the phonograph, radio broadcasting, and motion pictures from the latter half of the 1920s, argues film and media studies scholar Stephen J. Wurtzler. Near the beginning of that period, record manufacturers stopped using "acoustic" recording in favor of recording technology that used microphones and electronic amplifiers. Motion picture studios used electronics to introduce the "talkies" at about the same time, and radio broadcasting of voice and music was established, again using electronics. Wurtzler examines the use of electrical acoustics across these industries, hoping to find new insights into cultural, economic, and technological history.
All these industries experienced vertical integration that accompanied, or was in some way enabled by, the adoption of the new electronic technologies. Wurtzler explores the common ways that these industries incorporated electronics into their business strategies and promoted technological change to consumers and audiences. Then, turning to the way that phonograph records, radio shows, and motion pictures were made, he shows that electrical acoustics was increasingly used to manipulate or construct the listening experience, not simply to capture an authentic event. At the same time, the skill required to use reproducing machines (radios, phonographs, or projectors) was reduced and made a more passive or less obviously "technical" experience. Especially in motion pictures and radio, the use of electronics somehow enabled commercial and political messages to creep in. Advertisements and political content were inserted into presentations, the former resembling an early form of "product placement." Electronically enhanced media thus blurred lines between previously distinct realms of culture. Further, while these media appeared to link people across time and space into common political or cultural communities, that appearance was deceptive. Throughout the book, Wurtzler strives to look carefully at the hardware of sound recording, transmission, and reproduction, in addition to mediated messages or aural content, audiences, and sponsoring industries.
Given the number of works on segments of the history of audio technology, a cross-media and cross-corporation history has long been needed. This is particularly true in the history of sound motion pictures, where the scholarship has not had much overlap with studies of other forms of sound recording or radio. It would be very useful to have a synthesis of that scholarship that treats the subject comprehensively and presents it coherently to a wider academic audience. It would be even more useful if significant new archival research could inform and enhance such a synthesis. [End Page 505]
Electric Sounds is probably not that book. It will not readily serve those outside Wurtzler's own specialty, because he employs a vocabulary that detracts incalculably from the book's readability. There are also significant problems with his arguments, evidence, and conclusions. The book focuses exclusively on mass media, to its detriment. It might seem reasonable to forego a discussion of the telephone in this study, because it was not a "mass" media in the usual sense. Yet Wurtzler repeatedly mentions, in isolation, the contributions of AT&T and its subsidiaries. He fails to make anything of the overwhelming presence of the U.S. telephone conglomerate in inventing, manufacturing, providing services for, or promoting the technological artifacts that are at the center of his argument. In a work focusing on "hardware" and seeking links across media and corporations, this is an inexplicable omission. Also troubling is Wurtzler's failure to make more than passing reference to governmental regulation and economic intervention. Other historians have established that government-led investigations, legal proceedings, and eventual regulation of the mass media are central explanatory factors in their technological histories. Here, again, is another cross-media linkage ignored.
The major omissions and artificial constraints placed on this work are perhaps the reasons why Wurtzler fails to reach novel conclusions. In a chapter titled "Conclusions/Reverberations" he explains, weakly, that he "stubbornly resists imposing closure" (p. 280) on his subject. Instead, after briefly summarizing his chapters he diverges...