- Radio Lessons for the Internet
For the first time in history, the media are making possible mass participation in a social and socialized productive process, the practical means of which are in the hands of the masses themselves. Such a use of them would bring the communications media, which up to now have not deserved the name, into their own. In its present form, equipment like television or film does not serve communication but prevents it. It allows no reciprocal action between transmitter and receiver; technically speaking it reduces feedback to the lowest point compatible with the system.1
These words were not written in celebration of the Internet, as one might expect, but were were written about radio decades ago by German broadcaster and poet, Hans Magnus Enzensberger.2 Enzensberger critiques mono-directional media and argues for a democratizing and empowering media rife with promise for the masses in a language that has recently found new currency with the net’s rise in popularity.
The ease with which Enzensberger’s radio essay could be mistaken for a contemporary tract about the Internet attests to the similarities between the utopian rhetoric once used to promote radio and the rhetoric now being used to promote the Internet. This essay is a study of the promises made for two emergent media: radio and the Internet. Three common aspects arise in a close examination of the independent popularization of radio and the Internet: (1) the emergent medium is instilled with hopes of initiating utopian democracy, providing for universal and equal education, and bringing a sense of belonging to a community; (2) cultural investment in these hopes is encouraged by people in power and exploited for commercial gain; and (3) the rhetoric of these promises obfuscates any real understanding of the material place of the emergent medium in society (such as who has knowledge of its use, how is it used, how is it produced, how is it consumed, how it addresses both basic and inessential needs) and ultimately defuses any potential for social change the emergent medium might have had. After an analysis of the emergent media of radio and the Internet, and their utopian rhetoric, I want to suggest a less naive, more responsible rendition of the net and a way of describing the net that conceives of citizens as genuine producers, not consumers.
That it operate in the “public interest, convenience or necessity” was the mandate handed down to radio in the Communications Act of 1934. But from its infancy as a laboratory experiment, through its advent on the market, radio was conceived by its creators not as a public service but as a consumer product. David Sarnoff, the future president of National Broadcasting Company, is often given credit for being the visionary employee of the Marconi Company who first imagined popular radio. In 1916, in a letter to the company’s general manager, he described the “Radio Music Box” which would “make radio a ‘household utility’ in the same sense as the piano or phonograph.”3 This letter, notably empty of ideas of public service, concludes with a generally overlooked table of projected radio sales which figures that $75 million can be made selling radio sets in the first three years they are put on the market.4 This document of the seminal moment in American radio shows only a profit motive driving the production of radio.
Originally the companies that manufactured radio sets were the same companies that produced broadcast programs. As the federal government fumbled to insure standards and regulate the industry, programming was used to motivate people to consume radio sets.5 By the end of the 1920s, with network broadcasts beginning to cover the most populated areas of the U.S., radio began to enter the minds of social thinkers. Writers, politicians and educators began to characterize radio as the fertile ground where the seeds of a better life would take root and mature.
“[A]nything man can imagine,”6 was how Martin Codel, a newspaper editor and later a radio theorist, described the promise of radio in 1930, nearly a decade after the first radio ad quoted Nathaniel Hawthorne to sell suburban homes...