Since the height of modernism, radio has been a negotiated site of both racial hegemony and political resistance, an amorphous cultural text whose historical record offers a nuanced dialogue between American capitalism, technological determinism, politics of colorblind white liberalism and mass communication. With so-called Golden Age programs like The Amos and Andy Show (1928-1960) and The Lone Ranger (1933-1954), blockbuster radio programs didn’t just rearrange social behaviors of media consumption, they also transformed how racial identity was inscribed within American culture writ large. By the time America had entered WWII, the power of the radio could not only reinforce the ideology that lusted for minstrelsy, but it could also breath unprecedented texture to racist mythology, aestheticizing the racial Other through music, sound effects, Foley and advertising. However, the technological evolution of radio equipment also enabled communities of color to utilize radio’s societal power for combatting white supremacy as well: radio is solely responsible for the popularization of jazz, doo-wop and R&B, many credit the radio for mobilizing hundreds of youth during the Civil Rights Movement and today popular podcasts like Code Switch use the medium to deconstruct the intricacies of America’s history of racism.
For this project I will be studying how radio, as America’s first broadcast media and a technologically rich canon of innovation, inscribes racial identity as a function of representation through sound. Though this track will be heavily invested in plotting the evolution of radio broadcast technology through the 20th century and early 21st century, it is important to also highlight its antecedents in Antebellum American culture. The time between 1828-1829 are valuable entry points into this historical narrative; not only do we see the birth of minstrelsy with Thomas Rice’s nationally popular Jump Jim Crow, but we also have David Walker’s widely distributed “Appeal To the Coloured Citizens of the World,” a text that was secretly circulated among enslaved people to organize revolution. It is important that before we get to Marconi’s spark-gap transmitter or even Edison’s phonograph, we need to examine the critical relationship oral culture had for people of color in Antebellum America, a time when language was highly policed and the fetishization of non-white dialect formed the stereotypes of minstrelsy that directly informed the staples of 20th century culture from Mickey Mouse to Aunt Jemima. By starting the history of radio with Thomas Rice and David Walker, I am trying to ground our understanding of sound technology and mass communications within a pre-existing cultural paradigm that regulated, appropriated and politicized non-white speech aesthetics.
It is through this lens that I will frame the rest of my periodization: with the history of minstrelsy representing the bulk of the physical, and the electrical era utilizing the evolution of radio technologies as guideposts for outlining the progression of racial representation from Jim Crow segregation to the Civil Rights Movement to the pop dominance of Motown and the emergence of hip hop. From the popular crystal radio sets of the 20s to the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the electrical era of radio represents not only the colorblind liberalism of corporate media that sowed the seeds for lingering problems of lilywhite employment at radio stations, but it also introduced the decentralizing power of radio technology, with stations like Radio Free Dixie that broadcast “freedom jazz” alongside fiery black nationalist editorials. The digital era of radio took these extremes of corporate monopoly and grassroots utilization of these technologies and amplified them beyond recognition; RSS feeds, podcasts and social media have significantly transformed the technological atmosphere of radio broadcast and have built a unique cultural infrastructure for racial identity. From Gimlet’s Horrors of Dolores Roach and Stitcher’s Wolverine: The Lost Trail, aural representation of people of color has come a long way since Amos and Andy, and yet radio and podcasts are still often racially coded as white liberal institutions. In exploring this history through both a media studies lens and a critical race studies aperture, I hope to track the trajectory of racial identity through sound.