The following is from the Introduction to the upcoming book:

Radio Art 1980-1994

American Artists making images and telling stories
with sound and language

Co-edited by Helen Thorington and Jacki Apple.

Into The Air Junior Birdmen
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 consumer capitalism.

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 Radio.

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 work.

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 expression almost
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 be unexcludable.

--- 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 and challenging.

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


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.