“Collective Listening From the 1920s to Today” by Sarah Loyer

           In assessing the impact of radio on contemporary culture, it is helpful to first examine the period when radio was a new medium.[1] Radio’s effects on the way audiences gathered together and self-identified in the early 1900s were profound as the dominant medium for much of the first half of the twentieth century.

The shift from public entertainment to home listening marked a transformation in the shape of collective reception.  Freed from the necessity of physically assembling together, audiences were spread far and wide, able to tune in from all sorts of places. During the 1920s, communal listening outside of stores and other public spaces was common due to the fact that radios with speakers were rare and expensive, and most home radios needed headphones.  Later in the decade, as more households gained access to radios with speakers, it became a common practice to host radio parties in the home.  Bringing entertainment that had only been available in public theaters into the private residences, listening to the radio quickly became predominantly a family activity, a shift that was apparent in the refinement of the apparatus as a domestic appliance.

           Radio Break is in part a call to exercise a different kind of listening than we employ in our everyday experience of contemporary radio – a return to the medium as if it were new again. The listening parties of the 1920s were an in-between stage of collective listening, straddling previous mass entertainments like theater and the individualization ushered in by radio, television and the Internet, among other entertainment and communication technologies.

The shift towards individual privatized space began in the 1930s with the appearance of radios in cars; marketing and advertising, previously focused on the family and the home, was now aimed at the individual. In Los Angeles today, commuting by car, I look around in the bumper-to-bumper traffic and note all of the other drivers alone in their vehicles. As we travel in our individual pods, many of us are listening to the radio. Radio Break provides an opportunity to return to the listening parties of the late 1920s by changing the type of listening experience we now typically encounter. It does so through low-power broadcasting in set locales at specific times, offering collective listening experiences and drawing attention to the medium’s spatial and physical qualities.

Radio has the ability to create a footprint, a geographical area that is capable of receiving a transmission. This impression is not physical, but constituted a transmission of information, which makes it challenging to discern. Radio Break creates small footprints by presenting works like Brandon LaBelle’s The Echo Project. Comprising audio recordings of conversations overheard on the streets of Santiago, Chile, broadcast in Boyle Heights, The Echo Project creates a distant reverberation from its place of origin. The work functions as a collage of conversations in Santiago, with each speaker emphasizing and remembering only portions of a whole soundscape of the city. In this sense, while the footprint is spatially small, its content is great in both its representation of a city and in its broadcast far from its origin.

Like LaBelle’s work, Alyce Santoro’s Between Stations maps the soundscape of one city onto another. Santoro combines street noise from New York with a composition for flute, carefully layering elements together in a single sound work to be broadcast in Los Angeles’s Union Station. In experiencing Santoro’s and LaBelle’s works, one becomes aware that they function much like our own individual listening processes. Both emphasize particular sounds, concepts, and moments while neglecting others, highlighting the act of listening as an important sense in experiencing a place. By siting each of these works in specific locations at particular times in Los Angeles, Radio Break asks listeners to travel to and experience these places. It also prompts listeners to notice the unique qualities of the medium in spaces that have diverse/different acoustics. Radio Break draws attention to radio’s use in spreading information as well as the role of the listener as an active agent in its dissemination.

Unlike the Internet, radio contains an inherent attachment to a location – its content can only travel as far as its broadcast can be received.  This allows radio to function on a micro level, promoting localism through low-power broadcasting that affords community stations the platform to create programming that addresses their own interests.  But radio can also function on a macro scale; the medium, like a memetic tidal wave, radiates content from its source outward, broadcasting it through space with the potential to travel vast distances via satellite technology or even by bouncing off of clouds.


[1]  For an in-depth discussion of the changing role of radio in the formation of audiences in the United States, see Richard Butsch, The Making of American Audiences: From Stage to Television, 1750–1990 (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2000).