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Air America: Radio in the Methods Course

Yesterday when I was driving home from campus I heard a radio piece on the global show “The World” about researchers in Antarctica who are taking ice cores and melting them to release the air bubbles so that they can study the “ancient air.” Listening to radio is like that for me, it’s like popping the cork on the ambient sound of some long-ago studio, theater, or outdoor location and hearing the ancient air. Even the wheezes and static are part of the charm of an analog age.

It presents some interesting wrinkles in the methods course, because radio and sound recordings are not like other texts. They cannot be “skimmed” or highlighted like transcripts of documents; you “read” and “translate” them differently from visual texts; they rely on a sense that in many “digital natives” is not particularly well-honed. But the advantages are tremendous: they provide a window onto the past of powerful immediacy, they invite careful listening because you experience them in real time as did their original listeners, they are quite unlike the video, photographic and documentary evidence that are the common ingredients of methods courses, and they serve as a reminder of the ubiquity of radio in the early-to-mid 20th century and the profound transformation in aural media since that era. People tend to forget about radio, or to not know much about it to begin with, unless they’re old-timey-radio junkies (and there’s a very vibrant collector/amateur subculture when it comes to old-time radio, or OTR “otter” for short), but once they hear a little, they realize this was a whole world, which is itself a window onto the world that produced it. It engages students in a way that few other sources can, but it does take some unpacking, framing, and some methodological discussion.

Here’s my post introducing the week of radio, listing some of the free/cheap online sources of old-time radio juicy goodness. We read one of the chapters from Susan Douglas’s book Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination to show how radio scholars make use of broadcast recordings – in this case, the chapter about verbal comedy and masculinity during the Depression, because it introduces some of radio’s great comedians in a way that invites appreciation even if you have never heard Charles Gosden, Jack Benny, or Eddie Cantor.

The students’ assignment was to listen to at least an hour of old-time radio on their own before the second class and we were going to play clips in class. I had a variety of CDs (and audiotapes! –but no one took any of those) of old radio programs, so the options were a little bit random and skewed towards what was commercially available. Some students had format troubles, expecting that everything would open and play in iTunes which they don’t. There’s not really a standard format for audio programs on the web, some are MP3s, some are RMVs, some are WAV files, etc and that can be a little frustrating. When I went to play the “Day on Radio” programming from the UVA site on the classroom workstation/projector, it didn’t allow Quicktime. Drat.

We had a really lively discussion anyway, they found what they had listened to very eye-opening. Or ear-opening, as it were. I ended up showing two clips: the “Li’l Orphan Annie” decoder pin scene from the film A Christmas Story to introduce the idea that commercialism underlay the very structure of radio’s golden age; and the audio documentary about Border Radio in nearly its entirety from NPR’s On the Media program because it’s well made and has lots of sound clips, and is nearly always brand-new (and shocking!) material to my students. We also listened (on a battery-operated Crosley retro/reproduction radio) to the 7-minute NPR newsfeed at the top of the hour, and then to about 10 minutes of a local live call-in AM radio sports show. That started the conversation about differences (and different histories) between AM and FM, and how live radio is an ephemeral source unless it happens to get recorded and archived (which is taken for granted with NPR, but AM? Not so much).

Had I another week, we would have delved more into the Recorded Sound Division of the Library of Congress, and looked at how to investigate the history of a radio station including its FCC license documents and its business history, or the history of a program through reference books, archives, and scripts. A tasting is all we get during these short “methods” weeks.

The results were productive, though – one of my students used radio archived broadcasts from 9/11 for his paper, and another compared sound & content from NPR by comparing the first broadcast of “All Things Considered” (1971) to a more recent one, and I think everyone gained an appreciation for the cultural impact of radio in mid-20th century.

Update: welcome folks arriving from the 4/8/11 ProfHacker’s weekend reading post!

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Header Image: Adapted from Niki Feijens

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