Ex Omnibus Linguis Reviews of
The Radiophonic Imaginary in Literature and Cinema
Review in RPM#26 (Summer 1998)
My first serious obsession with Popular Music occurred in my early teenage years in New Zealand in the early sixties, where I would spend my evenings sitting hunched over a table twiddling the knobs of a huge mahogany short wave radio, the dial of which was littered with the names of a host of exotic cities, some of which I had never heard of. I would whiz past stations broadcasting music and talk in weird foreign tongues, before settling into the latest British Invasion hits on Australian radio stations 2UE and 2UW, where they got played weeks, sometimes months before they ever got to New Zealand. It was there I heard for the first time, with unparalleled excitement, the now cliched arpeggios and electric organ riffs of The Animals' version of "The House of the Rising Sun", which was the first single I ever bought.
I was reminded of this by the opening section of Franco Minganti's Frequency Modulations, where he describes similar childhood knob-twiddling experiences at his aunt's house in Italy in the 1950s: "It was better than a map of the world, especially when at night the room was animated by the projected shadows of this plaintive reddish-yellow spy and the voices of the world that I intercepted with my ear glued to the speaker, so that I would not wake anybody up and be interrupted." (p. 10, my translation) Minganti goes on to segue through the radio-related music of John Cage, Chris Cutler and John Zorn, before analysing some of the "lost" US radio shows of the 1930s like "Amos'n'Andy", 'The Lone Ranger", "The Shadow" and many others. Radio in the USA in the 1930s, Minganti argues, revealed for the first time "the power and the sense of a radiophonic time which was the same for everyone: an entire nation was synchronised, 'tuned in' to the waves of a flow of radio signals interrupted only by the changeover between programs."
"Tuned in" is the closest I can come to translating the Italian "in sintonia" which Manganti uses often in this book - the English "syntony" doesn't seem to capture the appropriate mixture of synchrony and symbiosis. The imaginary worlds evoked by the wireless were an important vehicle in constructing a sense of national identity (as Hitler proved only too well) and an imaginary sense of community more potent than that the cooler and more indifferent power of television. I became aware of this when I was living in a medieval stone dome in the country in the south of Italy in 1977 with no electricity or running water: the BBC World Service became almost my only link to an Anglophone world (and John Peel's weekly half-hour show almost my only link to what was happening in Anglophone pop music).
Minganti, who teaches Anglo-American literature at the University of Bologna and is an expert on US popular culture, goes on to look at the different genres and formats of radio, before contrasting radio and cinema, and focusing on the career of Orson Welles, who spanned both like a Colossus, and whose War of the Worlds made radio history. He then looks at the treatment of radio in US fiction, focusing on Stanley Elkin's 1971 novel The Dick Gibson Show, and in the cinema, with passing reference to Eric Bogosian's Talk Radio, and the portrayal of the media in recent Hollywood movies. A pity he wasn't able to include Jack O'Connell's wonderful crime thriller about radio jammers, Wireless, but this is still an evocative and absorbing book.
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Last update 24-January-1999 Heinz-Peter Katlewski