| Into The Air Junior
by Helen Thorington
My generation grew up without television. We were a radio generation
and our lives, by comparison with those who came after, were still relatively
free of the images and messages of the mass media. But not altogether.
Already thirty years into its development, radio had its messages for
us and it delivered them well. We knew Quaker Oats were shot from guns;
we wore Dick Tracy rings on our fingers; we coded and decoded endless
adolescent messages; we drank Ovaltine because of Little Orphan Annie.
We flew into the air, Junior Birdmen; we kept our heads up in the blue...
We waved flags for Hudson High, boys - we showed them where we stood.
Jack Armstrong, all-American boy was our boy... And as evening fell,
The Shadow, The Green Hornet, The Lone Ranger became our companions,
slipping easily, secretly between us and our homework. Later, as night
came on, I Love a Mystery reached out to grip our imaginations with
its terrifying bloody hand. We couldn't let go. We took our radios to
bed with us, some of us risking electrocution under the covers to go
on listening - until sleep or snooping parents caught us out.
Radio was our technology and it was -- the critics were absolutely right
-- revolutionizing our lives.
Into the air, Junior Birdmen,
Into the air, Birdmen true,
Into the air, Junior Birdmen
Keep your heads up in the blue...
It is interesting now to think about that technology, and to understand
that the question of how it would be used had already been decided in
the 26 years before my birth. No chance to change it. The technological
progress and systems building that were responsible for feeding my early
years with stirring narratives of danger and single-minded courage had
been made at the price of individual initiative and freedom in the ether.
Diversity and idiosyncracy had already been muted and screened out.
The stories (whose advertising I remember now far more clearly than
the adventures that riveted me to my seat then) were the output of corporations
and existed for commercial ends and to advance values consonant with
And when you hear the radio announcer,
you'll get your wings of tin.
So remember, Junior Birdmen,
and send your box tops in.
It was in the late 70s that I responded to the lure of that old technology
and began to play a part (a very strange part as it turned out) in that
wonderfully youthful and doomed experiment, public radio.
You wouldn't think we could be had twice in the same way. But there's
little that can live in an environment of advanced capitalism and survive
without at some point thinking large, robust markets and instant audience
gratification. And if you're public radio, founded to be an alternative
to that kind of thing, you don't set about enlarging your market without
a lot of overdubbing about diversity, creativity, and innovation, even
when the language is finally empty of all its meaning.
But that was still to come.
I was living in northwestern Pennsylvania, in a farming region, where
radio was news -- generally the morning newspaper read out loud -- music
(lots of it) and, for those of us venturing out of the cities for the
first time in heady experiments with the land and community life, a
kind of cultural reminder (thanks to the public stations): there were
people out there who thought and read books. Radio was something you
listened to pretty regularly and public radio was our network of choice.
Sometime after the thunderstorms and ghost-like utterances of my brief
life in theater, as I sat in my farmhouse with one of those now antique
synthesizers, an EML 101, and my typewriter, I began to create short
narrative/sound works that would for a time be aired by National Public
My entrance into radio preceded - but by only a very few years National
Public Radio's self-imposed mandate to double its audience. By the time
that announcement was made I was back in New York City, had started
a not-for-profit organization -- New Radio and Performing Arts, Inc.--
and a series -- NEW AMERICAN RADIO -- that would from 1985 on commission
and distribute the work of a growing number of artists interested in
inserting their material into the mass media and reaching audiences
larger than conventional arts audiences. At virtually the same time,
Julie Lazar at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles initiated
her series, THE TERRITORY OF ART. Gregory Whitehead became EAR MAGAZINE's
radio editor. Charles Amirkhanian was at KPFA, Jacki Apple at KPFK,
and across the country, in stations from Madison, Wisconsin (WORT) and
Boulder, Colorado (KGNU) to Philadelphia (WXPN), New York City (WNYC)
and Boston (WGBH), and back again to Portland, Oregon (KBOO) and Santa
Monica, California (KCRW), programmers still programmed new and experimental
From the start, NEW AMERICAN RADIO was an invitation to artists, in
whatever discipline they found themselves, to explore the radio medium,
to engage with it as an art context, and to develop work that given
the considerable constraints on the radio medium, would expand radio's
notion of aural thinking. Long before multi-culturalism became the buzz
word of the public system and the almost single-minded pursuit of arts
administrators, NEW AMERICAN RADIO extended its invitation to artists
from all cultural backgrounds, perspectives and aesthetic interests.
And it included younger artists, whose opportunities within the public
radio system were and continue to be tenuous and under-encouraged. A
number of these artists are represented here.
NEW AMERICAN RADIO has been in existence for ten years now -- a longevity
for American radio that could only have been achieved in a system as
loosely organized and mildly chaotic as public radio has been. It came
into existence in 1985 with a series of five works, including Gregory
Whitehead's Display Wounds. It reappeared two years later with thirteen
programs, among them Charles Amirkhanian's strikingly beautiful Walking
Tune and Earwax Productions' Audiographs: Songs of the Tenderloin.
And then, in 1987, it was favored by an amazing (in retrospect) accident.
For a brief moment a window of opportunity opened: the panel reviewing
applications to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting's newly established
Radio Fund comprised several who supported the idea of a national laboratory
series, where producers could explore and enlarge the concept of what
radio is and where new talent might be developed for the medium. NEW
AMERICAN RADIO's application for funding was considered and accepted,
and two years later, in 1989, a national weekly series of what we called
radio art made its first appearance. Looking back on the growing pressure
of commercial interests at that time it seems little less than a miracle!
That under the growing influence of audience research studies within
the public system, the door of opportunity slammed shut almost immediately,
denying NEW AMERICAN RADIO the opportunity ever to direct the attentions
and shape the perceptions of even a moderate number of American public
radio audiences, is a matter of history. Also a matter of history --
and a much prouder history -- is the fact that, supported by arts funding,
NEW AMERICAN RADIO continued none-the-less, and that its artists, using
radio's tools and radio's arena of distribution, have during the now
seven (soon to be eight) years of its existence as a national weekly
series, built a body of uniquely American work that is recognized and
acclaimed by audiences and programmers around the world.
When an artist enters a new medium, especially one with as long a history
as radio, it is not to recreate in that medium what others have been
doing successfully for years. It is not to demonstrate an ability in
existing forms. An artist does not enter a new medium to be a part of
its mainstream. He or she comes to explore the creative potential of
the medium and in so far as possible to create work that is not now
being created for that medium; work that may be perceived by gatekeepers
and by audiences as different, far-out, weird, perhaps even threatening.
It may be that the artist will create work that pushes at the limits
of the medium's forms, that reflects on them, criticizing and challenging
their unexamined assumptions. It may be that the artist will create
work that combines forms, that carefully crafts relationships or calls
attention to relationships that are not currently perceived as significant.
Or it may be that the artist's exploration will lead to the development
of a something -- a way of structuring, a way of perceiving -- that
is truly unique.
Whatever, the artist takes on the new medium to say and do something
in that medium that is individual, distinct. He brings to it a unique
version of reality. Which is where the trouble begins; and why accusations
of elitism, of self-indulgence, are so frequently made. And why gatekeepers
fear their audiences will tune out. What a helluva nerve to enter a
field in which others have labored long and well, where ways of doing
things are familiar and accepted, and pretend to do something else.
Who the hell do you think you are anyway?
But the identity question is the wrong question, as we know. It is not
who we are. And it is certainly not a question of whether we feel ourselves
superior to anyone else. If a study were made it would probably find
the same proportion of superior feelings among programmers and station
managers as among artists. (Ask the folks at NPR. They'll tell you how
good they are). Indeed if I remember my history correctly, it was the
brilliant observer of American ways, Alexis de Tocqueville, who pointed
out that in a democracy everyone will always find a way of feeling superior
to someone else.
It is not that. The question is one of difference, which carries no
value judgment at all, of alternative versions of reality, and whether
they will be allowed to challenge the medium's mainstream and the power
base upon which it is built. It is a question of difference. In a society
where "commodity listening" is encouraged -- ie., a way of
listening that encourages audiences to suspend all intellectual activity
and be content with consuming what they hear. . . In a society where
the national public sphere and the principle and practice of public
service broadcasting are eroded and the channels open to genuine individual
too narrow to navigate. . . In such a society, in this society, it seems
to me that the difference the artist's difference makes is all the difference
and the only difference.
In "Evolution of Sound Technology" Rick Altman speaks of the
early suspicion of sound in the then young art form, filmmaking. He
describes how as soon as the new art found the leisure to contemplate
its own position, it felt compelled to differentiate itself from its
renowned parent, the theater and the theatrical model dominated by sound
and particularly dialogue.
While we, who were responsible for NEW AMERICAN RADIO, never in the
early years found ourselves at leisure to contemplate much but the capitulation
of the public radio system to the dictates of a handful of audience
researchers and the difficulties this created for us in two very crucial
arenas: funding and audience development, we did make an effort to examine
our position, and to differentiate our output from the regular output
of the distribution system we were using. And we encouraged others to
help us find a language with which to deal intelligently with this new
work. Central to this initial undertaking were the contributions made
by Douglas Kahn, whose examination of early 20th Century sound arts
pointed to the stifling effect of musical presuppositions on other realms
of sound composition; and whose continuing interest in phonography made
him one of the few academics thinking and writing about radio; of Gregory
Whitehead whose prolific output both in radio and in print, argued for
an understanding of what the radio is in radio art; of Jackie Apple,
who perhaps better than any of us understood the radio art of this period
as an extension of postmodern interdisciplinary art into the mass media,
and who as a media critic found frequent opportunities to write about
it; and of my never to be suppressed colleague Regine Beyer, who again
and again dealt in a defining way with the negative atmosphere members
of the public system created around us in their efforts to relegate
the series' significant contributions to a specifically American form
of radio art to the never-never land of silence.
This book, certainly my contribution to it, is informed by the thinking
of all of the above. And it bears the marks of our struggles, separately
and together, to open and maintain a field. But it's focus is the practices
and the possibilities of American radio art. It is about the considerable
work American artists have done in the medium from 1980 to 1994; it
is about the particularly American character of the work -- the cross-section
of American history and individual experience the work presents -- and
it is about the possibilities it has opened or might have opened for
the medium. For in the end this book may simply be our tribute to a
time already past, to an energy now completely blocked by the institutional
environment in which it hoped to develop and flourish, but a confident
energy that can redirect itself, and with considerable experience in
the realm of the invisible, move on into cyberspace, where for another
short moment, a window of opportunity exists for the artist.
While the majority of the artists presented here contributed significantly
to the NEW AMERICAN RADIO series, others like Guillermo Gomez-Pena have
practiced their art in the medium without the help of a regularly distributed
art series; and still others like Sheila Davies have contributed only
a few works, but those of such significance in the extraordinary convergence
of materials within them and the alternative forms they develop as to
--- Helen Thorington, 1994
I am both proud and happy to be able to bring NEW AMERICAN RADIO and
its artists to a somewHERE free of radio's limitations and the constricting
concerns of its institutional bureaucracy. I am not unaware that the
space to which it comes is palpatating with dreams of profit and that
our time here is limited. But there is energy here and enthusiasm for
other things as well, and chaos enough for those of us who believe the
bottom-line a pathetically poor position from which to view the future,
to do our thing. It is my hope that you will find this work interesting
The status of art and artists will change in this new environment --
NEW AMERICAN RADIO will soon be thought old, even by myself -- but in
the meantime it can tell a nearly deaf world a lot about the possibilities
that exist in sound and how uniquely it resonates in the imagination.
I look forward to the time when the technology will allow you to hear
these works as they were created.
--- Helen Thorington, 1995
Footnotes to INTO THE AIR JUNIOR BIRDMEN
1. For a short history of public broadcasting, see Witherspoon, John
and Kovitz, Roselle, The History of Public Broadcasting
( Washington, D.C., Current newspaper, 1987).
"Public broadcasting's missions, mandates, and assumptions are
reflected in a few closely intertwined facts and themes:
Its roots are in education. This is more than an historical artifact;
it's a matter of law.
It has unique programming responsibilities. They go beyond conventional
education and are intended to provide Americans with programming not
feasible in a commercial system.
It has by law responsibilities to specific audience groups, producers,
and those traditionally unable to achieve equity in employment . . ."
Public service radio and television were a great idea!
2. The accusation of elitism, so often leveled at the series, used to
puzzle me. Because it seemed to me even then that one of the fundamental
features of NEW AMERICAN RADIO works-- a feature they share with all
postmodern art -- is their effacement of the older frontier between
high culture and so-called mass or commercial culture, and the emergence
in them of new kinds of texts infused with forms, categories and contents
that reflect, comment on and make use of the commercial culture industry.
Think of Don Joyce and Negativland, of Donald Swearingen, of Guillermo
Gomez-Pena and how they create their work directly from the materials
of mass culture. . . .
3. Weis, Elizabeth and Belton, John, editors, Film Sound: Theory
and Practice (New York, Columbia University Press, 1985). pp.44-53.