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Inventing Global Broadcasting, Rebecca Scales

Nelson Ribeiro discusses the circulation of information in Portuguese-controlled Angloa.

Carolyn Birdsall opens her talk on radio archives with a clip from the 1957 film Desk Set, in which Kathryn Hepburn’s character is based on the CBS archivist Agnes Law.

16 February 2018

When radio broadcasting debuted in the early twentieth century, politicians, journalists, and listeners alike were quick to hail radio’s potential to become a truly global mass media, as radio signals defied national borders and geographical barriers to reach potentially vast audiences around the world. But exploiting broadcasting on a global scale—whether for political or commercial ends—turned out to be far more challenging than many radio enthusiasts imagined.

In August 2017, the Connecting the Wireless World research team gathered at the University of Amsterdam for a workshop exploring the origins of global broadcasting initiatives, hosted by our colleague Vincent Kuitenbrower. Over the course of two days, team members and guest scholars presented work exploring three major themes: 

  • the role of individuals, corporations, nation-states, and international agencies in developing global and/or transnational broadcasting initiatives
  • the challenges of cultivating international or multilingual audiences and assessing audience reception   
  • the performative dimensions of global broadcasting

Several workshop papers examined the early decades of international broadcasting and the challenges faced by governments and diplomats in developing the emerging mass media.  Simon Potter (Bristol) introduced us to the efforts of the League of Nations to harness the airwaves for international understanding, to popularize the activities of the League, and to limit the pernicious effects of fascist radio propaganda through a 1930s initiative termed “The Uses of Broadcasting in the Cause of Peace.” Although many European politicians mocked the naïve and pious aspirations of the league, Potter suggests that the League’s failure to exploit or control the airwaves is instructive for understanding early broadcasting policy. Indeed, Stephanie Seul’s (Bremen) research on BBC broadcasting into Nazi Germany similarly suggested that failure – rather than triumph – undergirded the first Allied efforts to reach German listeners at the start of the Second World War. As a result, British broadcasters focused more on obtaining proof of German audiences’ reception of broadcasts than the content of the propaganda messages they put on the airwaves.

The difficulty of cultivating a multilingual and multicultural audience for broadcasts featured prominently in three papers exploring the early history of colonial broadcasting initiatives. Arturo Marzano (Pisa) examined the efforts of the Italian fascist station Radio-Bari to reach audiences across the Middle East from the late 1930s through the Second World War, highlighting the bi-directional creation of the station’s cultural programs by Italian and Syrian staff. While Radio-Bari’s cultural programs proved popular with Middle Eastern audiences, the station struggled to attract audiences for the political broadcasts produced in Italy, revealing important cultural differences in radio reception. David Clayton (York) considered British efforts to exploit broadcasting in Central Africa in the post-World War II era. Colonial authorities hoped radio would teach Africans civility and allow them to control the population, but failed to create broadcasts that did not reek of imperial propaganda, despite their use of indigenous languages. Challenging the common metropole/dynamic of colonial broadcasting histories, Nelson Ribiero (Lisbon) uncovered how Portuguese settlers in Mozambique and Angola built their own transmitters when the Lisbon government failed to do so, producing broadcasts in English and Afrikaans that reached white settler audiences across southern Africa during the era of decolonization.

Two papers highlighted the largely understudied performative dimensions of international radio and the importance of individuals to broadcasting history. Alec Badenoch (Utrecht) presented the history of the Dutch short-wave “Happy Station” and its star presenter, Eddie Starz, whose show ran continuously from 1928 to 1960. Constructed by the Philips corporation in the 1920s to promote radio sales in the Dutch empire, the “Happy Station” rejected “heavy” news broadcasts in favor of popular music. The station’s success, however, relied primarily on Startz’s distinctive polyglot performances, which attracted audiences of varied nationalities by presenting an image of a cosmopolitan “Little Holland.” Hans-Ulrich Wagner (Hamburg) introduced us to the complex technical and performative labor underpinning the popular Weihnachtsrinsendungen—the Nazi Christmas Eve radio programs in which a central station called reporters and their guests around the world for live exchanges, such as those that permitted mothers to “talk” to their sons serving the army on distant fronts. These broadcasts emphasized the “liveness” of radio and the juxtaposition of two very different types of voices (the professional radio announcer and the ordinary citizen), but the Weihnachtsrinsendungen ultimately relied upon carefully prepared scripts and pre-recorded sounds.

The 1942 Weihnachtsrinsendungen can be heard here:

Carolyn Birdsall (Amseterdam) drew attention to the largely understudied subject of radio archives and the transnational development of archival collecting practices. The circulation and use of radio sound archives has often been framed in terms of national prestige and heritage, yet Birdsall uncovered how many “national” sound collections began through early twentieth-century attempts to preserve “famous voices” from around the world. Sound archivists also developed their best practices for recording sound through international professional meetings, leading to the collection of many international radio examples, even as the circulation and reuse of those examples has inevitably been affected by national heritage dynamics. Both subjects, the workshop attendees agreed, merit more attention from scholars, as does Birdsall’s important contribution to the study of “hidden professions” within the broadcasting industry, such as the work of many pioneering women archivists.

Finally, Stephen Lovell (King’s College London) presented a fascinating keynote that analyzed the historiography of transnational and global broadcasting, challenging us to think more carefully about our use of the terms “transnational” and “global.” As Lovell reminded us, the recent “transnational” turn in history has often emphasized the rhetoric of transnationalism while failing to acknowledge national priorities of many international broadcasting initiatives, which were shaped by national technological prerogatives and ultimately reinforced the power of nation-states. Indeed, transnational broadcasting initiatives typically projected sounds from center to periphery or metropole to colony. Does using the term “transnational” to describe these global or international broadcasting projects risk portraying radio as a benign cultural influence rather than a weapon frequently deployed in the service of empire or war? To what extent does the term “transnational” remain useful when it is applied to uni-directional processes or exchanges?

We hope to revisit many of these questions through a different lens when we reconvene in June 2018 in Denver, Colorado for our next workshop.


Rebecca Scales, Rochester Institute of Technology

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