It was 1987 when I stumbled upon Joe Frank’s voiced artistry on a community station. “You can do that on the radio?” I whispered to myself.
I didn’t need a critic telling me I could.
In nearly 50 years of networked public radio; in podcasting’s rebellious surge and influence upon its ‘parents’; in radio’s ephemeral-blessed invitations to aural aesthetics; in brick-and-mortar spaces engendering new ways to listen to sound art—there can be intentional blurring among genres. Practitioners try to lay claims. Territories seem closed, but are evidently malleable, more porous than listeners and makers imagine.
Earlid opens a portal for the public to engage with some of the assumptions about what practitioners do, how we talk about it and how we find resonances among all the dispersed vibrations of radio and sound art. We open our ears to its public sounding, as storyteller Dragan Todorovic suggests we hear all forms derived from radio.
Ironically, we’re doing this online as Earlid has always existed here. We’re hoping that this is a useful gathering space to discern ideas in more inventive ways around media criticism that can sometimes be too exclusively positive, sometimes flippant. Radio artist Gregory Whitehead and I co-moderate. Ten written vantages unfurl via short ‘page-long’ essays from critics and podcasters and academics and experimenters of the air.
Towards an exacting ear
There’s a keen desire for a bridge—or maybe it’s more akin to a wheel with spokes towards a center—to connect legacies or expand out to other arts and media. No matter the analogy, this forum’s focus aims to raise voices in the din of contemporary radio, podcasts and sound art amidst the context of earlier critical discourse.
When reviewers silence a vibrant history, failing to mention the 20th century’s critics, how are 21st-century practitioners to understand where their medium was born? There’s a lively gamut of writers who crossed from theater and film genres over a threshold to radio in the late-1920s: Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Weill, Kurt Schwitters, Rudolf Arnheim, Walter Benjamin, Upton Sinclair; then later, Norman Corwin at mid-century and Studs Turkel in the ’60s. They invite us to listen, but also to funnel perspectives from many directions.
How are practitioners to discern what hue their medium’s poetics took without such context? Radio poetics is very different from podcasting. Perhaps it’s the longer tail of the broadcast medium compared with the shiny glitter of a little more than a decade of online transmission. But which kind of podcast? Is it the storytelling that tumbles out of years of public radio or theater aesthetics, or the kind that rises, seemingly anew, into a form that isn’t quite any one thing, but might be limiting itself without an ear towards these legacies that came before?
Like the cassette sound-art underground or museum installations, these territories borrowed from theater as much as they did from radio. But in those eras, as today, critics have been gnashing about it significantly more than simply offering a shrug of silence.
A suspension bridge, not a toll booth
Barry Lam and Cathy FitzGerald, Sherre DeLys and Neil Verma and Sarah Montague open the conversations towards other artistic criticism—fiction writing, theater, film, dance—forcing intersections between them and radio criticism. When Lam, host of Hi-Phi Nation podcast, collides 19th-century gothic fiction’s veiled and obscured hues with some of radio’s narrative traits, a critical discourse unexpectedly greets our ears. Other participants suggest that critical awareness is vital, no matter the source.
Listener-theorist-academic Daniel Gilfillan says in the very vibrancy of our contemporary radio and sound art culture, characterized by an old-fashioned set of industry standards as it is by DIY play, the critical language and practice deemed missing are readily apparent. And in use.
Today’s practitioners have penetrated their own styles forging and plowing through boundaries with their own languages, questioning poetics, even knowledge (dare we mention “theory”?). Why gate such inventions as hybrid documentaries, impressionist narratives, and audio fiction; sonic ethnography and oral history?
It’s prescient to read Jacki Apple’s “The Art of Radio” in my dog-eared anthology, Radiotext(e) from the early 1990s, though I don’t agree when she says practitioners have yet to establish a critical discourse (given my over-flowing bookshelves of writings from Gregory Whitehead and Allen Weiss; Dan Lander, Doug Kahn and Frances Dyson; and David Toop and Helen Thorington and Brandon LaBelle and Johnathan Sterne and Anna Friz and Seth Kim-Cohen).
Today, when I hear someone bemoaning a ‘lack’ as if someone making the work isn’t suitable to talk about it, I consider two realities.
First, we’re not blessed by The New Yorker opining on radio’s art every week (and as Cathy FitzGerald wonders, maybe that would harm more than help); and secondly, perspective is useful: only two percent of Americans’ ears in a recent Pew study are listening via podcasts. In our little landscape, it feels like everyone’s tuned in to storytelling and so there should be a staff critic for radio or podcast narratives, like we have for film, at every publication.
Talking about new forms of radio and sound art seems the thing we want to do more of; who is the right critical voice seems to be an unanswerable question.
Pre-internet, Jacki Apple is astutely speaking to the same issues around radio’s seductive medium that a listener can have in her drive-way as she can intentionally seeking an adventuresome sound-art program that only exists via an app or here online, that doesn’t bombard with ads and metrics and invitations to review (in this democratization, anyone with a set of ears becomes a critic).
Apple lasers her attention towards radio’s space-time territories. Its inherent poetic qualities as a medium are recognized 20 years later in the writings of Salomé Voegelin (her 2010 Listening to Noise & Silence immerses a reader in sound art and the everyday acoustic environment). Voegelin echoes her progenitors, R. Murray Schafer and LaMonte Young. Their examinations of sound and art and physical space and its relationship to a singular medium from which so much has billowed into our ears for a century is mind-boggling. John Cage at mid-century invites us to tune the radio and the body to different frequencies, drones, durations. Pauline Oliveros’s deep listening carries us into new territories as we navigate radiophonic voices on the air today as it did in the late 1980s when I first discovered Joe Frank, or just this year, when I stumbled upon the independent podcast, Mabel.
What does that suggest to the different kinds of creative makers toiling in story and experimenting with sound today, mostly on the radio or its mediated relatives such that Joe Frank’s 30-year oeuvre is still on terrestrial radio via KCRW’s UnFictional, but so too is the five-year-running podcast, Here Be Monsters? We seek more laterally the archives and dialogues built at the launch of popular virtual worlds (Ubuweb, Transom, Third Coast) or rising more recently: Radio Nouspace, Sounding Out!, Sonic Field. And, here, at Earlid.
What’s inaudible to Audible
This forum is especially curious about narrative and its incarnations. We reach out to consider experiments in both narrative and radio’s sound itself in such artists as veteran Christopher DeLaurenti and recently DJ’ing Olivia Bradley-Skill, as well as Karen Werner’s inquiry about the very politics of storytelling.
From its launch, Earlid has been grappling with critical context around how makers of sonic works appeal to our ears and brain’s desire for stories. I often point towards literature to bolster the earworms: writer Italo Calvino’s invisible cities coheres the work of radio artists Dragan Todorovic and Pip Stafford; social media as ‘storyteller’ platform aids comparisons of DeLaurenti’s protest symphony to Sontag’s ideas of complicity. In a wise essay by Em Strang about distant horror, there’s resonance to Gregory Whitehead’s recent Soundproof piece on Guantanamo torture and Scott Carrier’s refugee series on Home of the Brave.
It’s always in service to story and, no doubt, a question of style and content, something a producer will consider no matter the genus of radio or podcasting, sound artistry on the air on in a physical space.
Let’s have a conversation about how we approach our work (and our audiences) around these themes and what institutions we navigate or walls we bump our heads into. It’s not one linear path; rather there will be spurs and surely the legacies of writers and thinkers and critics prevail.
Maybe you work in radio or podcasting (or both) and want to invite in artistry or teach it more readily to new makers or surprise your listeners. Perhaps you are steeped in radio’s artistry or other spaces of sonic arts for decades: step around known inquiries and mind the gaps among maker and platform and consumer and share your knowledge with others eager to learn—even (especially) to those navigating new realms of podcasting and old radio formats.
The divisions of artistry are better when made more blurry. How we use constricting terms as radio and sound art even seem crippling. Maybe we can make these distinctions less rigid and more rounded. This forum and this platform have the potential to distill discourse into streams rather than a concretizing into hierarchical canons.
The radio clock
Regine Beyer, who co-founded New American Radio (1987-1998), and, since returning to Germany, continues to write about radio art’s history, suggests we broaden the concept of an ever-changing medium. Transmission artists and their ‘airwaves’ offer us new listening publics, such as those created and installed, networked and narrowcast at Wave Farm. This is a more expansive definition, says Beyer, than what we thought radio was in the 1980s and 1990s. But still, wise and generous advice prevails today:
Dear Folks … as I told Joan already, I am too busy at the moment to write something coherent and in depth for Earlid, but I happily agreed to make a few comments. My very practical advice for further procedures:
Read and listen as much as possible and know which tradition you’re coming from.
Be a part of or at least be aware of interdisciplinary efforts surrounding the various fields of sound.
Keep in mind that everyone, of course, has his or her own agenda: to protect turf, to bolster reputation (rampant in academia!), his or her own aesthetic perception and preferences, etc.
Find your own position and be ready to promote and defend it!
Above all: keep producing – and archiving.
Greetings, Regine …
Won’t you join us? Make a comment.
The open forum remains throughout the summer and, after September, is archived at Earlid. Its robust writings of participants and commenters will be available as PDF download for the many different kinds of students (self-taught, with open ears) and teacher-mentors to further study and share.
Explore the short written pieces of our ten contributors. Visit all three exhibit ‘rooms’: scroll up and select the vintage Victrola horns or link here—Agile Critics; Tulips & Radio History; Veils, Politics, Static.
Return to the ‘lobby’ to engage with your comments. Either select “Reply” to a comment already made (link is to the furthest right, atop the comment) or make a new one in the field below. We’d enjoy hearing your thoughts, questions, linked examples.
—Joan Schuman, Earlid