- Electric Sounds: Technological Change and the Rise of Corporate Mass Media
Steve Wurtzler’s Electric Sounds has much to offer its readers: it is well written, well researched, and well argued. But its greatest innovation is historiographic. As the author suggests in his gentle style, “with sound technology as the primary object of study, traditional notions of medium specificity begin to fray around the edges.”1 Wurtzler analyzes the development of electrical acoustics across three key sound media of the second quarter of the twentieth century: film, radio, and sound recording. As he writes, the electrical configurations of these technologies were all based on different arrangements of the same basic electrical apparatus that afforded the possibility of collecting, storing or transmitting, and reproducing sounds through electrical means. They shaped one another in both concept and practice—a relationship that was readily apparent to users and practitioners at the time.2 Though perhaps a simple point, it becomes clear that the interconnectedness of sound media is actually a fundamental theoretical insight. By contrast, many of our histories of sound media remain histories of a single medium, separate from others. Perhaps it is more apparent in the study of sound media, but if we have learned one thing from media historiography, it is that all media are simultaneously other media in some fundamental way. The easy distinctions so central to introductory mass communication textbooks and to “medium specificity” arguments do not hold much conceptual weight.
Wurtzler succinctly makes this point and then uses it as the basis for his entire history. Each chapter is organized thematically and cuts across multiple media, sites, and problematics. Wurtzler focuses on the 1920s through the 1940s in the United States, a crucial period for the formation of media industries that are still quite recognizable—broadcasting, sound recording, and film—and this brings us to the second major distinguishing feature of Electric Sounds. Wurtzler convincingly ties the rise of the corporate mass media to the shaping of aesthetic and [End Page 147] experiential dimensions of media. For instance, in Chapter 3, rather than considering discussions of sound fidelity in terms of the philosophical problem of originals and copies, Wurtzler takes a fresher approach and connects discourses of fidelity to efforts to actually sell media to consumers and to tie forms of mediated experience to an emergent consumerist nationalism.
American nationalism is one of the key themes of the book. Wurtzler clearly builds on the work of Michele Hilmes and others here, but he has his own useful take.3 At several key points, he notes a trope: new sound media are first introduced as revolutionary devices that conquer distance or time, but this revolutionary language is quickly overcome by a second discourse that treats the medium as an instrument of national unification. (Though this played out differently in other countries, the nationalism component is certainly central in most cases.) This nationalism goes hand-in-hand, in his examples, with industrial concentration and consolidation. The result is a kind of nationalist consumerism that either subsumed ethnic and political difference to make it somehow useful, as in the case of records, or sought to eradicate it, as when Radio Broadcast inveighed against giving radio space to “Labor groups, sectarian religious appeals, socialism, Mormonism, atheism, vegetarianism and spiritualism.”4
Although he is clearly aware of work on various forms of activism and resistance, Wurtzler pointedly does not offer a history of cultural struggle.5 This is a result, in part, of his choice of orientation and source material. He uses industry sources—read critically, mind you—along with press accounts. His orientation is synthetic and expansive: he brings many other authors’ work into his own and, as a result, offers new ways to combine, for instance, political, economic, and cultural histories of radio. Although Wurtzler offers some wonderful examples of “might have been” media forms, like common-carrier commercial broadcasting and advertising-supported cinema, he is more interested in explaining how the dominant system came into place and...