Czinema & Radio


Before the motion picture was a popular form of entertainment, the sense of Culture was in a stagnant state of intellectual elitism. The doctrine of Culture was to be grasped and taught only by understanding the classic texts, the best recorded thought of what has come before. What we refer to as popular culture today was viewed then “as a distracting and baneful influence” (35).

Old thought surrounding Culture was slowly disrupted and redefined by thinkers who advocated for a set of principles that was more inclusive and class leveling, valuing separate social divisions rather than a top-down didacticism. Emerson, for one, preached “trusting one’s own experience” (35) as more important to the doctrine of Culture than an intellectual elitism provided by the “classics” pedigree. Randolph Bourne and Walt Whitman followed by providing revisions to the tenets of Culture that likewise favored insular taste and discrimination as well as a thermometer for the “grand, common stock” (37).

Facilitating a popular culture for the common stock was the arrival of cinema. Movies used “familiar idioms of photography and narratives” yet was detached from the ilk of classic texts. As Czitrom states, “the arrival of movies meant a serious confrontation with a strange phenomenon that did not fit neatly into any of the old categories” (37). Unsurprisingly, this caused tension between the patrons and the “nation’s cultural traditionalists” who thought mere amusement was trivial, and further, a “grave cultural threat” (43).  Czitrom provides the following 1914 quote from traditionalist Franklin C. Howe: “leisure must be controlled by the community, if it is to become an agency of civilization rather than the reverse” (44). Now, such claims sound like the arbitrary moral high ground that favors the familiar over the unfamiliar.

In last week’s readings, Martin mentioned the initial, and eventually dubious, health concerns that came with the domestication of the telephone.  It was considered a harbor for germs and users were urged to use disinfectant before talking on it to avoid infection. Martin mentions, “[t]his perception vanished as suddenly as it had appeared, without any apparent change in the telephone apparatus” (69). This echoes Baym’s articulation of moral panic: the phenomenon of an adoption of new media bringing up a knee-jerk reaction of moral decline, thus bringing to the surface worries about children, health, and an overall corruption of society. Some of the moral panic that was met with the popularity of the cinema focused on “poor sanitation,” “inadequate protection from fire or panic,” and “[t]he darkness of the nickelodeon theatre” which could prove to be a hotbed for prostitution, teen lust, and “eye strain” among other considerations (44). These grain-of-salt considerations are still constant and have recently come up with unfound claims of iPods ruining hearing and cellphones causing cancer. Even within the last week I have read concerns of e-cigs being a gateway to real cigarettes (Popular Electronics) and selfies causing lice infestations (!?).

Czitrom is interested in the cultural integration of movie amusements as a new medium, from nickelodeons providing a respite for the blue collar worker, to the industry trying to “leave the slums behind” (50), to creating a subcultural gathering for children in the public. It was the children’s mainstream acceptance that led to what Peters refers to as the third step in the integration of new media: legal regulation. Just as there was caution about the cinema’s environment, “various social agencies” (51) felt the need to protect the nation’s youth from the films’ occasionally blue content by implementing censorship. However, no matter how concerned the social agencies and cultural traditionalists’ policing attempts seemed, Czitrom states, “[r]egulation of the films themselves thus remained the focal point for social control” (53). Beneath legal regulation, there is, at the bureaucratic level, both an uncertainty and an opportunity for control.

Eventually, movies’ penetration of Culture as a respected medium is significant for how it “altered patterns of leisure and created a new art form,” but most remarkable about the trajectory of this new medium is the constant stream of arbitrary restriction met by cultural gatekeepers, a process not particular to just cinema.

Whereas movies redefined social leisure time through visual presentations in public, the radio did the reverse. It brought “the outside world into the individual home” (60). And if movies surfaced immediate caution, radio, and the possibilities of electromagnetic waves, aroused a techno-utopian optimism. Radio can be seen as an extension of the telegraph in that its central focus was “conquering water,” (62) or as Wheeler called it, “the end of the tyranny of place” (2). The utopian discourse surrounding electromagnetic waves, which made wireless technologies and communication possible, referenced the budding of a new world that “somehow put men on the threshold of the innermost secrets of nature” (65).

However, the wireless receiver government services treasured for its most rationale uses, was adopted by amateurs. Czitrom states it was specifically adopted and mastered by “schoolboys” who, in turn, “vitally affected the evolution of radio” (67-8). As we also saw with the social construction of the phone, new media often take on unforeseen trajectories based on a multitude of different user interpretations. When radio sets became public demand, it was also not for reasons originally foreseen. Early programs consisted primarily of various types of promotion and advertising as well as religious and educational services.

Importantly, a popular subject of both advertisement and educational programs was the radio, itself. And like the traditionalist gatekeeping that surrounded the rise of popular movies, there were radio purists who “looked condescendingly on…new radio fans interested only in the content of the broadcasts and not in other aspects of the radio” (73). These purists, like McLuhan, placed the radio’s cultural significance on the medium itself, and thought of broadcasted entertainment as trivial.

Eventually, the listeners who valued entertaining broadcasts overshadowed those who considered these programs “merely the tedium between call letters” (74), just as the appeal of nickelodeons became more persuasive than classic texts of yesteryear. But as popular as radio shows were, the medium went on to be shaped by advertising men, who “recognized radio’s extraordinary power to carry them into the intimate circle of family life at home” (77). While the popular programs, news coverage, and advertisements that dominated domestic receivers were important to American culture, these functions were clearly incongruous with purported uses that receiver pioneers initially envisioned.

The juxtaposition of two media (movies and radio), which were contrastingly framed in culture, offers us clarity about knee-jerk apprehensions of a medium in its earliest stages. Whether a medium is met apprehensively, attempted to be tamed and culturally maligned, or with a revolutionary potential, these reactions symbolize an uncertainty and unfamiliarity about how new media will mold into our already existing cultural codes and behaviors.