Grawlixes/Obscenicons – Unutterable Graphics and the Universal Interjection!

Literary & Linguistics, Media & Communications, Popular Culture

Grawlixes or Obscenicons

Grawlix: a spiral-shaped graphic used to indicate swearing in comic strips (comprising typographical symbols, non-letter graphic characters which are encased in a word-free balloon)

~ Wiktionary, http://wiktionary.org

Etymology of the Grawlix
The term Grawlix itself comes from veteran American cartoonist Addison Morton Walker. The sprightly nonagenarian better known to the world as Mort Walker has gleaned lifelong fame in the US (and elsewhere where his comics are treasured) from two of his creations, Beetle Bailey and a spin-off of sorts, Hi and Lois. Beetle Bailey is especially beloved of seriously rusted-on US comic aficionados. Beetle, a private (zero-class!) in an unnamed US Army military post, has been described as “a feckless, shirking, perpetual goof-off and straggler known for his chronic laziness and generally insubordinate attitude”. Debuting in September 1950 Beetle Bailey is among the oldest comic strips still being produced by the original creator [‘Beetle Bailey’, Wikipedia,http://en.m.wikipedia.org].

Copycat grawlixing!
Walker apparently coined the term ‘grawlix’ around 1964…it appears in a tongue-in-cheek article he penned called “Let’s Get Down to Grawlixes”. A nonsense word, grawlix is the descriptor that Walker came up with to depict a cartoonist’s standard device: to show that one of his or her’s characters was uttering a “four-letter” word or words in the strip without infringing any moral codes, the cartoonist would draw a combination of typographical symbols and insert them in the dialogue balloon in place of the actual profane words. Commonly but not uniformly, the symbols used are @#$%&! or slight variations on this (whichever typographics are used, the grawlix always ends with an exclamation mark [Nordquist]). And as a way of expressing powerful, earthy emotions without having to call in the censors, it caught on within the realm of popular graphic art!”❉

Mort Walker’s catalogue of neologisms
In his Lexicon of Comicana (1980) Walker in his jocular fashion elaborates on his personal vocabulary of neologisms from the world of the cartoonist (with mock grandness he called these his Symbolia)…so in addition to grawlix the Lexicon contains many of Walker’s trademark neologisms, words coined for his own amusement, some with strange-sounding onomatopoeic names – a few of which are listed below.

In addition to grawlix, Walker devised and named three other sets of symbols and squiggles representing graphic euphemisms for the unspeakable and very taboo swear words – Quimps, Jarns and Nittles (basically hard to distinguish from grawlixes but something very similar by another name!) [World Wide Words].

Moving away the topic of obscenities Mort came up with other words to describe some of the graphics representing the range of feelings and emotions experienced by his comic personae – such as squean – squeans are starbursts and little circles above the character’s head to indicate a state of intoxication, dizziness or unwellness¤.

Other logo-inventions in the idiosyncratic Walker Lexicon are variations on the same theme – such as:
Emanate – lines drawn around the head to show shock or surprise
Plewds – flying sweat droplets that appear around a character’s head to indicate working hard, stressed, etc.

An indotherm – as opposed to a wafteron!
Another neologism in Walker’s ‘cartoonucopia’ is Indotherm – wavy, rising lines used to represent steam or heat; when the same shape is used to denote smell, it is called a wafteron.

Before the grawlix was the unnamed ‘grawlix’
Mort Walker gave the world a recognisable name to identify what is today a standard cartoonist’s device for representing profanity in a non-verbal way, but the use of @#$%&! wrapped in a speech bubble far predates modern comic strip practitioners like Walker. Ben Zimmer has researched early US comic strip history to find that the device features in comics goes as far back as 1902 – the work of Rudolph Dirks employed the grawlix in his strip (he just didn’t it that, or anything!). In Dirk”s “Katzenjammer Kids” for the New York Journal… the pioneering cartoonist “initiat(ed) the use of both speech balloons and…symbolic swearing”. This was emulated by a contemporary cartoonist of Dirks, Gene Carr, at about the same time (1903). Zimmer himself eschews the random ‘Grawlix’, preferring the term Obscenicon💢[Zimmer].

Grawlixes and other such graphic devices are the indispensable tools of cartoonists and comic artists looking for a way to economise with words and convey an emotion succinctly. They are non-verbal and thus all about visual cues…they can convey obscenities without recourse to the offending words themselves, or they can summarise an action or reaction instantly with an image that obviates the need for words and a lengthy explanatory sentence.

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Interjections

Interjection: is a part of speech using words solely designed to convey (often strong) emotions (reinforcing meaning or feeling). It conveys the emotion, sentiment or feelings of its speaker [‘What is An Interjection?’, (Your Dictionary), www.grammar.yourdictionary.com].

Another way of characterising the interjection is through its syntactic position. It is “an exclamation inserted into an utterance without grammatical connection to it” [ibid.]. Interjections are the tools of casual or creative communication, they have an informality to them, and in many cases an outright ‘slanginess’ to them (eg, ‘Jeez’, ‘Holy cow!’ (or ‘mackerel’), ‘Fiddlesticks!’, ‘Baloney!’, ‘Bingo!’, ‘Mama-Mia!’).

All contemporary engagers in social media are (over)familiar with exclamations like ‘LOL’ and ‘OMG’ (case optional) or ‘Ha-ha’ which infest the online world of communications like locusts at harvest season⊛. Interjections are exhaustive in number and heterogeneous in nature. They can be used to communicate a broad spectrum of different feelings – from anger and frustration (Argh) to sadness or sentimentality (Aw) to confusion (Huh!) to disgust (Yuck!) to mockery (Whoop-de-doo⊡) to indifference (Meh) to surprise (Wow!) to excitement (Woo-hoo!) to triumph (Yay!) not to be confused with the affirmative ‘Yea!’ [Fleming].

Interjections are usually positioned at the start of the sentence, occasionally at the end (the purpose being to maximise the message’s impact or effect). And like the sound themselves, most interjections can be strengthened by elongating them [Vidarholen] – adding one or more extra w’s to Aw gives weight to the degree of empathy you want to convey to your interlocutor; similarly using more than one Ha-ha is interjector code for turning up the laughter gauge! Putting an exclamation mark after the interjection is not mandatory but is often employed in the spirit of the lack of restraint that characterises this part of speech. After all, interjections are at their core exclamations – the appended ! goes with the territory!

PostScript 1: “Onomatopoeic interjections”
Onomatopoeic words or phrases are ones that imitate the sound of a thing or action, splash! is therefore onomatopoeic, it is also an interjection. Interjections represent emotion and can usually be distinguished from onomatopoeia which represents sounds, although there is clearly some overlap between the two. Another point of difference is that an interjection is syntactically isolated, it has no grammatical connection with the rest of the sentence⌽.

PostScript 2: Batman – Holy interjections with graphics!
The cult 1960s television series Batman is a veritable feast of interjections…in just about every episode Boy Wonder Robin, with excruciating monotony, specialises in uttering interjections of the “Holy ……” kind. Robin would pick the opportune moment to breathlessly interject with “Holy Switch-a-Roo”, “Holy Superlatives”, “Holy Cliche” or whatever other topical word pertaining to the “Dynamic Duo’s” particular predicament de jour [Oxford Dictionaries Blog].

The sublimely ridiculous Bat Fight scenes in the TV show are replete with interjections…as Batman and the arch-villains land thunderous blows on each other, corny graphics flash up with words representing the pugilistic action (SOCK! AIMEE! BIFF! WHAMM! KAPOW! THUNK! BANG!). Interestingly Batman’s art department incorporated some comic strip style graphics into the flashing word cards (eg, stars within the word SOCK! signifying the effects of being ‘socked’, ie, dazed, dizzy – akin to a kind of squean? KAPOW! with a bulls-eye target inside the O)

←←←←←←←←←←←←←←←←←←→→→→→→→→→→→→→→→→→

❉ placed in dialogue boxes above the characters’ heads (Walker calls these “Maledicta balloons”)
¤ a character with both a squean and a spurl (a vertical upward-spiralling coil) above his or her head is more than a little drunk, they’ve had a ‘skinful’ in fact! [Brownlee]
⊛ its unquantifiable definitively, but an empirical survey of the various avenues of social media would confirm an upsurge in interjection usage in everyday communications
💢 Urban Dictionary describes ‘oscenicons’ as “like a emoticon, but for profane words”
⊡ especially mocking someone who is trying to impress
⌽ the Onomatopoeia Dictionary lists a number of words that can represent both forms of expression, eg, wham, phew, shoo, shush, ha-ha, geez

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References:
J Brownlee, ‘Quimps, Plewds, And Grawlixes: The Secret Language Of Comic Strips’, (Co. Design), 15-Jul-2013, www.fastcodesign.com
Grace Fleming, ‘Interjections’, Thought Co, 23-Apr-2015, www.thoughtco.com
Richard Nordquist, ‘What the @#$%&! Is a Grawlix?’ (Thought Co), 02-May-2017, www.thoughtco.com
B Zimmer, ‘How did @#$%&! come to represent profanity?’, Slate, 09-Oct-2013, www.slate.com
‘Grawlixes’, (World Wide Words), www.worldwidewords.org
The lexicon of comicana’, Wikipedia,http://en.m.wikipedia.org
‘Dictionary of Interjections’, www.vidarholen.net
‘From “Gadzooks” to “Cowabunga”: some episodes in the life of the interjection’, Oxford Dictionaries, www.blog.oxforddictionaries.com
Onomatopoeia Dictionary A-Z, (Written Sound), www.writtensound.com
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Cursed Movies II: The Conqueror Film’s Catastrophic Afterlife

Cinema, Media & Communications, Popular Culture

The Conqueror (1956) was a doomed film, both cinematically and in terms of its devastating human cost. Its reception critically was abysmal and its performance at the box office was less than mediocre. Reviews for the movie disaster have been consistent in assigning it an unenviable position as one of cinema’s worst ever pictures, one of Hollywood’s greatest “turkeys”¹.

Yahoo!Movies described The Conqueror as “the most toxic movie ever made”…tarnishing the careers of those who appeared in this egregious stinker, especially its star John Wayne, effectively bankrupting RKO Pictures (costing a blown-out $6 million) and contributing to the deaths of an inordinate number of its cast and crew².

John Wayne, faced with the need to fulfil the third and final picture of his contract with RKO, apparently fished the discarded script out of the rubbish bin and convinced the assigned director Dick Powell (who in turn convinced RKO’s owner Howard Hughes) to make the film with Wayne playing the role as Mongol warlord Genghis Khan (a role intended apparently for Marlon Brando). By all accounts Wayne was grossly miscast⋇, interpreting the great Mongol leader as a cowboy (probably an entirely natural notion for the Duke!). The script (by Oscar Millard) was terrible and vacuous as the following inane, awkward samples of the dialogue illustrate:

Temujin: I feel this Tartar wo-man is for me, and my blood says, take her. There are moments for wisdom and moments when I listen to my blood; my blood says, take this Tartar wo-man.
૱…………૱…………૱

Temujin: She is wo-man, Jamuga…MUCH wo-man!

૱…………૱…………૱

Snow Canyon NP
Radioactive set
The Conqueror was a patently absurd vehicle by any standard – as an attempt at film art or as a plausible historical reconstruction…but as disastrous as the movie was, it was to have far more serious and far-reaching tragic consequences. Most of the filming took place at Snow Canyon¤ near Saint George in Utah, 130 odd miles from a nuclear test site where the US Government detonated 11 above-ground nuclear explosions in 1953. By the time location filming took place, June-August 1954, winds had shifted the still highly radioactive soil downwind to Snow Canyon. The shooting of the action sequences (in an adventure movie this was most of the film!) necessitated that the performers wallowed in the carcinogenic dust day after day.

The film’s producers (Hughes and Powell) were aware of the proximity of the atomic testing before shooting started but had been assured by the government that the atomic tests posed no risks to public health, a gross deception (self-deception?). Compounding the dilemma, at the end of the location work Hughes ordered that 60 tons of the radioactive reddy-brown dirt from the Snow Canyon site in Utah be carted back to the RKO film set at Culver City for re-takes!

Human Fallout
Consequently, by about 1980 it could be shown that 91 of the 220 individuals who made up the film’s location staff had contracted cancer including its stars Wayne, Susan Haywood, Agnes Moorehead and Pedro Armendáriz (one of Wayne’s sons who had a small part in the movie later also died of cancer). There is no definitive way of proving that the contaminated soil was 100% to blame for the cancer deaths…Wayne had a heavy smoking habit (up to seven packs a day!), as did others in the cast, which could have been a contributing factor to the malignancies⍔. The harmful effects of the area’s radiation however is undeniably part of the explanation for such an aberrant outbreak of disease. Robert Pendleton, professor of biology at the University of Utah, concluded that the toxic fallout of Saint George was of epidemic proportions, that the toll was about three times what might be expected³. In addition it is well documented that health checks on ordinary residents of Saint George similarly revealed higher incidences of cancer than other comparable areas⁴.

PostScript: Howard Hughes’ own private purgatory
As is well-known, The Conqueror’s Producer Hughes lived as a recluse, (literally) hermetically sealed off from the rest of humanity, for his last years. It is believed that he deeply regretted his decision to go ahead with The Conqueror project. Hughes delayed the film’s theatrical release and attempted to purchase every single print to try to keep it out of the public eye. Part of his penance in his hermit mode of existence, it has been claimed, was to watch and re-watch the disastrous movie every day (along with Ice Station Zebra⁵).

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⋇ Wayne as a 13th century Asiatic warrior was a ludicrous choice, as the casting was overall – only two of the entire performers were of Asian descent. Many of the doomed extras were undisguised Navajo Indians
¤ Howard Hughes thought the rolling red hills would be similar in appearance to the steppes of Mongolia
⍔ although ‘Duke’ Wayne did not die from his lung cancer (which went into remission) but from the subsequent stomach cancer he contracted [Gaggiano, below]

¹ included in H & M Medved & R Dreyfuss’ 1978 The Fifty Worst Films of All Time
² ‘The Conqueror: The story of the most toxic movie in Hollywood history’, (Yahoo!Movies, 09-Nov-2016), www.uk.movies.yahoo.com
³ Pendleton: “…in a group this size you’d expect only 30-some cancers to develop. With 91, I think the tie-in to their exposure on the set of The Conqueror would hold up even in a court of law” – Karen G Jackovich & Mark Sennet, ‘The Children of John Wayne, Susan Hayward and Dick Powell Fear That Fallout Killed Their Parents’, People, originally posted 10-Nov-1980, www.people.com
⁴ Rory Carroll, ‘Hollywood and the downwinders still grapple with nuclear fallout’, The Guardian,, 06-Jun-2015, www.guardian.com
⁵ Greg Caggiano, ‘The Conqueror (1956): The Film That Killed John Wayne … Literally’, Reel to Real, 26-Jul-2010, https://gcaggiano.wordpress.com/2010/07/26/the-conqueror-1956-the-film-that-killed-john-wayne-literally/

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Cursed Movies I: Health Hazards of Oz

Cinema, Media & Communications, Popular Culture

The 1939 cinema classic The Wizard of Oz, the movie that launched teenage singer/actress Judy Garland into stardom, has long had a reputation as one of Hollywood’s most ‘cursed’ films.

Many, many things did go wrong on the set, including costs…the MGM musical/fantasy came in over budget at a cost of $2.8 million. This in part reflects The Wizard of Oz’s disjointed trajectory – going through five directors including King Vidor, George Cukor and Richard Thorpe and 14 screenwriters in the course of the production. The movie’s ultimate director Victor Fleming (who also directed the other great Hollywood film of 1939 Gone With The Wind) was widely suspected of Nazi sympathies.

Judy as Dot in Oz
The staggeringly appalling treatment of 17-year-old Judy Garland (Dorothy) would today be seen as out-and-out child abuse, irrespective of whether it was within or without the celebrity world. The film-makers half-starved Judy, limiting her to only one square meal per day, fed her on barbiturates and got her fixed on an 80-a-day cigarette habit. Garland eventually spiralled into a tragic pattern of drug dependency and suicide attempts. [E Power, ‘The Wizard of Oz – Dark side of the rainbow’, Irish Examiner, 15-Sept-2014, www.irishexaminer.com].

Equally alarmingly was the casual disregard of the health and well-being of other cast members as well. Buddy Ebsen (later famous as Jed Clampett in TV’s Beverly Hillbillies), to achieve the silver make-up of his character “The Tinman” was coated in aluminium powder which gave him an allergy and got into his lungs, after two weeks he became seriously unwell and was hospitalised and out of the film✳. His replacement Jack Haley was less exposed to deadly toxins but still contracted a troublesome eye-infection.

Fitting out supporting actress Margaret Hamilton for the role as the “The Wicked Witch of the West” meant painting her skin with green copper, exposing her to a clear carcinogenic risk. Even more perilous, in one hazardous scene Hamilton was nearly burned to death when a pyrotechnics feature went horribly wrong…requiring the actress to be hospitalised for a couple of weeks.

The film’s jinx extended to minor players like the munchkins (small colourfully-garmented characters portrayed predominantly by people with the condition dwarfism). The vertically challenged actors were grossly underpaid (‘Toto’, Dorothy’s dog in the movie was paid more than them!) and consequently they got drunk every night and reportedly ran riot on the set. Even Toto didn’t escape a mishap – one of the supporting actors accidentally stepped on him in a scene breaking the mutt’s paw and necessitating a canine replacement.

In the celebrated poppy field scene Dorothy and other characters get saturated in snow flakes, the only problem was the substitute snow comprised sheets of lethal asbestos![Power] Hollywood regularly used 100 percent industrial-grade chrysotile (white asbestos) in films, in White Christmas (1954) Bing Crosby got it poured all over him! Ray Bolger’s “Scarecrow” straw-filled costume was also lined in asbestos in order to be flame-proof [S Kazan, ‘The Wizard of Oz or The Wizard of Lethal Asbestos Exposure?’, (Kazan, McLaine, Satterley &’Greenwood], www.kazanlaw.com].

The curse for a time seemed to continue post-release. Although The Wizard of Oz is universally celebrated today as a classic of the cinema, it did not meet with immediate acclaim from either the public or critics. These reservations did not start to turn around until the CBS television network reintroduced the movie to the wider public in 1956. In 1989 the US Library of Congress nominated The Wizard of Oz as “the most-viewed motion picture on television syndication” [‘The Wizard of Oz (1939 film)’, Wikipedia, http://en.m.wikipedia.org]. Countless scores of viewers of the joyous spectacle of ‘Oz’ over the years would have been blissfully unaware of the unhappy, off-screen events that relentlessly dogged the production.

PostScript: Judy a victim of MGM’s mogul monster
MGM’s systematic abuse and exploitation of Judy Garland emanated from the very top of the studio – MGM head Louis B Mayer. To get the absolute most out of the studio’s new star Garland, Mayer maintained tyrannical control over all aspects of the Wizard of Oz star’s life.

Mayer hooked Garland on a cocktail of drugs, having her fed alternating courses of amphetamines, adrenaline shots and downers like Seconal. And Mayer, to ensure that Judy, away from the studio, kept to the strict diet of coffee, chicken soup and cigs, had a battery of spies reporting back to him on the beleaguered actress’s behaviour [Neil Norman, ‘Dark side of Oz: The exploitation of Judy Garland’, Express, 05-Apr-2010, www.express.co.uk]]

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✳ Ebsen as a result of exposure to the deleterious materials was required to use a respirator for the remainder of his life (he lived to 95)
a mistreatment aided and abetted by Judy’s own mother Ethel who mercilessly drove the early show business career of Garland and her sisters, thinking nothing of feeding the three sisters pep pills to cope with the brutal workload she had burdened them with! [Norman]

A 1960s Juvenile Reader: Classic British Comic Strips and ‘Just William’

Literary & Linguistics, Media & Communications, Popular Culture

As a counterweight to the surfeit of 1960s American television that comprised a large slice of my diet of home entertainment, my juvenile literary tastes back then were decidedly more Anglophile. Plunging into the graphic art world of the 1960s comic book I digested everything I came across catering for adrenalin-pumping, red-blooded British boys.

Desperate Dan, ‘The Dandy’
Among these beacons of popular culture were The Beano (which starred Dennis the Menace and Gnasher), The Dandy❈ (featuring Korky the Cat and Desperate Dan), Knockout (Billy Bunter), The Hotspur, The Rover (these two papers were prime examples of the “Boys’ Own Adventure” style of stories) and Eagle with its centrepiece inter-galactic hero ‘Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future’, not to forget Tiger which catered for British schoolboy football mania with the stellar-booted striker ‘Roy of the Rovers’. The individual comics were grouse fun but what I most enjoyed was the comic book annuals of The Beano, etc., where I could indulge myself in reading a whole end-of-year book comprising a cross-section of the comic’s different strips⚀.

At primary school in the sixties the punitive powers-that-be weren’t all that rapt in comic books as reading material…my confiscated copy of ‘Dennis the Menace Bumper Comic’ (before I had a chance to read hardly any of it!) bore witness to that. From what was on offer in the school library, the one children’s book I did take a shine to was Just William, I should say series of books because there 38 (some sources say 39) ‘William’ books in all! All of the books were collections of short stories, with the exception of one in novel form.

Richmal Crompton
Just William was the creation of female English author Richmal Crompton (Lamburn). As a child feverishly devouring all the William books I shared with the overwhelming bulk of readers the uncritical assumption that Richmal was a man. How wrong were we all!!! Miss Lamburn was a school mistress (ironically – in an all-girls school!) who contracted polio and spent the rest of her life writing the William series of books as well as 41 adult novels❦.

The character of William (surname: Brown) was apparently based on Richmal’s young nephew Tommy…in the books William is scruffy and untidy in appearance, and given to directness, rebellion and straight talking – which sometimes lands him in strife. He is the leader of his own small gang of school friends who go by the name of “The Outlaws” (comprising his best friend Ginger as well as two other boys, Henry and Douglas). William is 11, an age he stays at, despite the series of books stretching over a period of nearly 50 years! [‘Just William’, Wikipedia entry]

‘William the Dictator’
Most of the books follow the ordinary run of events of William and the Outlaws entangling themselves in minor mischiefs, usually involving nothing worse than the ill-conceived idea of painting a terrier blue! But occasionally William strayed into more edgy and outright polemical territory. In the short story ‘William and the Nasties’¤ William’s band emulate Hitler and his fellow National Socialists in order to terrorise a local Jewish sweet-shop owner (featuring in the 1935 collection William the Detective [‘Five Fascinating Facts about Just William’, www.interestingliterature.com].

Just William’s topicality
A good number of the Just William books regularly reflected current events of their day. William the Conqueror (published in 1926) was resonant of European colonial power imperialism leading up to WWI. William The Dictator (1938) reflected the world’s concern with fascism and National Socialism. Similarly, William and the Evacuees (appearing in 1940) was set against the backdrop of WWII. In the post-war period, the superpowers’ preoccupation with the space race inspired new books like William and the Moon Rocket (1954) and William and the Space Animal (1956) [‘Just William’, Wikipedia entry].

Just William book spin-offs
With such popularity that the Just William books attained (12 million sales in the UK alone), they inevitably flowed through to adaptation to other forms – cinema (three films in the 1940s), two television series (one in the mid-1950s and the other in the early 1960s), radio and even theatre. As well, the schoolboy hero spawned a host of Just William merchandise…from jigsaws and board games to cigarette cards, magic painting books and figurines of William [‘Richmal Crompton’s Just William Society’, www.justwilliam.co.uk]

Celebrity fandom: Lennon as William
Some time after the Beatles visited Australasia in 1964 at the height of “Mop-top mania”, I remember hearing that John Lennon had been a fan of the fictional William in his boyhood. Lennon’s devotion to the books prompted him to form his own, real-life version of the Outlaws, moulding his friends Ivy, Nigel and Pete into a Liverpudlian boy foursome. With John of course as leader, the boys engaged in “small acts of defiance and daring” on their local turf [J Edmondson, John Lennon: A Biography (2010)]. The revelation that I had been propelled into the stratospheric company of such a youth icon as Beatle John, only served to magnify my primary school days zeal for all things William Brown!

PostScript: Continental comic book legends
My childhood taste in comics were not exclusively confined to the gold standard of British comics. Like millions of other children I was also captivated by those ancient Gallic tormentors of Roman legionnaires, Asterix and Obelix (Astérix le Gaulois by Goscinny and Uderzo). In equal measure I was in the thrall of Tintin, Hergé’s creation of a globe-roaming Belgian boy-reporter. Each comic album of The Adventures of Tintin was a lesson in political geography embroiling Tintin in high-stakes adventures in a new and exotic land. But as rewarding as the respective adventures of Asterix and Tintin were, in my book nothing quite scaled the same exalted heights of anticipation as did the prospect of dipping into the treasure trove of Just William’s world.

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❈ The originals The Beano and The Dandy were of course far superior to the highly derivative and latter imitations like The Topper and Beezerand Cor!!
⚀ not to be overshadowed, schoolgirls had their own comics and annuals such as Bunty and School Friend Annual
❦ the most accomplished of which was Leadon Hill. The tone of the adult novels was more pessimistic than the Just William series, dealing with themes of divorce and infidelity [Danuta Keen, ‘Not Just William: Richmal Crompton’s adult fiction republished’, The Guardian, 21-Apr-2017]
¤ the name ‘Nasties’ is the result of William’s mishearing of the word ‘Nazis’

“Breaking through” against Terrorism?: The Government’s Counter-Narrative and a Matter of Transparency

International Relations, Media & Communications, National politics, Society & Culture

Last week I received, among the usual array of unsolicited online communications, something from a researcher from the London-based social communications company, Breakthrough Media. The pro forma email said that BM (my abbreviation, not theirs) was casting a new online TV series and were on the lookout for people aged over 50 (that’s me!) to be in the show…apparently they were particularly interested in folk in that demographic “who love to chat, have a laugh and would like to know how to Email, Skype, Facebook, Online Shop, Online Bank, or use the Internet” (capitalisation all hers!).

The message went on to say that they were “also looking for tech savvy friends, family members, or colleagues, who could team up with the Over 50 candidates to be their teaching buddy, during filming” (in August). What they specifically wanted from me was leads on “great potential candidates” for the program. Now, taken on face value, this all sounded innocent, admirable even, very community minded.

Elizabeth House: BM’s ‘anonymous’ London location
I had never heard of “Breakthrough Media”…just another of the new media start-ups in the ever mushrooming world of social networking I supposed, and usually I ignore such online pitches. But somewhat intrigued I decided to try to find out a bit about them. Their website would be a good place to start, I thought❈. It was however unsurprisingly jargon-laden and disappointingly short on substance…the website’s description of what BM was about, went “we design and build award-winning campaigns that tackle some of the world’s toughest social issues, helping our clients counter misinformation, prevent violent extremism, promote democracy and protect the environment”. Full of jargony generalities such as “our strategic thinking and our creativity are joined-up and informed by real-time audience engagement…(and) inspiring positive social change” (www.breakthroughmedia.org). In its job advertisements the company describes itself thus: “Breakthrough is a communications agency and production company. We specialise in conflict resolution, society building and countering violent extremism”. Again, the message resonates with progressive, international goals and desirable outcomes.

I turned to other, independent, commentators and observers of Breakthrough Media…frankly there wasn’t much on the web about the media company, but one fairly thorough dissection of BM’s role and its background was contained in a 2016 report by The Guardian on Britain’s RICU (the Research Information and Communications Unit) [‘Inside Ricu, the shadowy propaganda unit inspired by the cold war’, The Guardian, 03-May-2016, (Ian Cobain, Alice Ross, Rob Evans & Mona Mahmood)]. RICU was created in 2007 as an arm of the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism (OCST) and funded by the Home Office. The Institute for Strategic Dialogue defines RICU’s function as “coordinating government-wide communication activities to counter the appeal of violent extremism while promoting stronger grass-roots inter-community relations [www.counter-extremism.com]. RICU’s work is a key part of Westminster’s anti-radicalisation program, ‘Prevent’.

The relationship between RICU and Breakthrough Media
Where does BM fit into the picture of RICU and its fight against extreme fundamentalism, terrorism and ISIS? The two have a contractual arrangement: RICU pays BM to produce digital materials, films, Twitter feeds, Facebook profiles, YouTube clips, and the like, which promote the UK government’s anti-terrorism policies. The propaganda, emanating from BM on behalf of the Home Office (BM unsurprisingly prefers the term “strategic communications”) is aimed at Muslim communities, the desired outcome being “a reconciled British Muslim identity”. As The Guardian report revealed, BM’s stratagem is to “influence online conversations by being embedded within target communities via a network of moderate organisations that are supportive of its [sic] goals”.

An uncomfortable and problematic relationship?
BM is well remunerated by OCST for its counter-terrorism work (earning a reported £11.8M during 2012-2016), but its role as a conduit for RICU has some disquieting aspects. BM’s contacts with Islamic communities, either directly or through its PR team Horizon Public Relations, is not transparent. BM represents its work to the public without disclosure of its connection to the British government. At least one former government minister has conceded (to The Guardian) that deception in the dissemination of the messages could damage trust between the government and Muslim citizens. Other outspoken critics of this practice include human rights lawyer Imran Khan and the vice-chair of the Institute of Race Relations Frances Webber who saw it as giving an appearance that Muslim groups had been co-opted to a government agenda [‘Revealed: UK’s covert propaganda bid to stop Muslims joining Isis’, The Guardian, 03-May-2016, (Ian Cobain et al)].

Advocacy groups and critics of the Home Office policy have complained that RICU/OCST uses the Muslim Civil Society Organisations (MCSO) as mouthpieces for their government counter-narratives, irrespective of whether the MSCO are aware of it or not [‘The Home Office is Creating Mistrust within Muslim Civil Society’, (CAGE, 16-May-2016), www.cage.ngo

The Guardian also showed how RICU (as the paymasters) have an editing role in the finished work of Breakthrough…RICU’s head Richard Chalk is an occasional visitor to BM’s Lambeth office – Chalk can be found at times sitting in the edit suites and monitoring the BM productions. One source of the newspaper indicated whilst Breakthrough projects are not strictly scripted by RICU, they’ll “make it clear that they want a particular form of words to be used at a particular point in a film”⚀.

RICU and BM are also linked in a veil of secrecy in regard to the media, as The Guardian discovered. Neither parties allow their staff to talk to the newspapers about their roles in counter-terrorism. BM cited reasons of ‘confidentiality’ and ‘NFP’ to the The Guardian for its reticence. The paper’s investigative team did unearth the fact that even some of the freelancers employed by Breakthrough to do RICU’s clandestine bidding were unaware of BM’s (covert) connection with the British government.

Given the scale of the threat posed, the majority of Britons would have few qualms about the Home Office using its agencies to engage in “industrial scale propaganda” in a bid to counter ISIS’s propaganda machine and its success in poisoning the minds of some young Muslim Britons [B Hayes & A Qureshi, ‘Going global: the UK’s government’s “CVE” agenda, counter-radicalisation and covert propaganda’, (Open Democracy UK, 04-May-2016), www.opendemocracy.net]. BM have undeniably produced some good work in getting the message across, but where it becomes ethically questionable is when contractors like Breakthrough Media and co-opted NGOs present their counter propaganda whilst in the guise of being “independent, community-based campaigns”, when the reality is that the information they are disseminating to schools, university ‘freshers’ and the like is backed (and guided in most cases) by the government.
______________________________________________________________
❈ a number of the links on the website menu were broken at the time I accessed it…that internet know-how training they were talking about might have come in handy in the BM IT department!
OCST itself was the successor to IRD (Information Research Department), a top-secret body set up by Britain’s Foreign Office in 1948, during the early dawn of the Cold War, and wound up the same year Elvis died (1977).The Independent has drawn attention to IRD’s questionable record during its existence of disseminating anti-Communist propaganda routinely exaggerating stories of Soviet atrocities and anti-British plots, S Lucas, ‘REAR WINDOW : COLD WAR :The British Ministry of Propaganda’, The Independent, 26-Feb-1995, www.theindependent.co.uk
The Guardian also disclosed that BM’s founding directors have pre-existing links to the governing Conservative Party

The Emergence of Modern Mass Culture in the 1920s: (II) ‘Silents’ to ‘Talkies’, a Transition in Lento Time

Cinema, Media & Communications, Popular Culture

The 1920s was a decade for innovations in communications, as we saw in the earlier related blog “Modern Mass Culture in the 1920s I” which dealt with public radio, the emergence and popularisation of the medium in the US and world-wide. The 1920s also ushered in another form of mass media which would become the most momentous innovation in communications and public entertainment of the century – ‘talking’ motion pictures.

For the last 80 years sound has been integral to world cinema, giving the hitherto silent film an added dimension, building depth into the structure of the storyline. As for its filmic predecessor the silent movie, where are we most likely to see it these days?❈ Commercial screenings of silent era films are rare birds indeed … if we seek them out, we might find them if we’re lucky in an old, suburban Art Deco picture theatre, the initiative of a handful of specialised film societies dedicated to preserving the memory of the lost art form. Or we might catch grainy, monotone snatches of an old silent pix as archaic footage on TV docos. When we do manage to view a silent movie we are often struck by how unrealistic, how stylised they appear today, how over-the-top and melodramatic the acting seems. In the decade-and-a-half up to the late 20s the truth however is that silent films and the star actors of the day had an appeal to their doting audiences that was real and totally captivating.

The Jazz Singer
The advent of talking motion pictures did not come about because of a growing dissatisfaction with silent pictures on the part of film-goers. On the contrary patrons of cinemas were completely happy with the ‘product’, the experience, as it was already. Actually, ‘silent’ movies were not really silent, they had accompanying mood or background music provided by an orchestra or a piano to set the tone of particular scenes. As well, title cards (sometimes called “inter-titles”) were interspersed between shots to advance the story, or to clarify what was happening for the audience. Screen-transfixed audiences would engross themselves in the story action, the emphasis on body language and facial expression by actors to convey strong emotion (emoting ‘feelings’) and meaning. Prior to The Jazz Singer (1927), audiences hadn’t wanted to hear actors talk (or at least they hadn’t expressed such a wish)[1].

The coming of sound
Specific technological challenges needed to be overcome to realise the successful application of sound to film. Amplification had been addressed with developments in the phonograph and the viability of radio transmission facilitating public radio. The hub of the problem was synchronising the action, the visual image, with the sound recordings of spoken dialogue, music and sound effects.

Duelling sound systems
Enter Vitaphone … Vitaphone was an analogue sound-on-disc system developed by Western Electric (a subsidiary of IT & T) in competition with an alternate system devised by RCA/General Electric, which used a sound-on-film method. A number of companies experimented with sound-on-film methods (Fox Movietone, the German company Tri-Ergon, DeForest Phonofilm, RCA Photophone), this ultimately led to the development of a superior and more versatile analogue system to that of the more haphazard dual-processing Vitaphone[2].

Warner Brothers however were committed to the Vitaphone system and utilised it first on the 1926 film Don Juan which had synchronised music and sound effects, but wasn’t a ‘talkie’ (as it contained no spoken dialogue). The followed year they took it a step further with The Jazz Singer , the first (partly) talking movie, which audiences took an instant liking to, especially the presentation of Al Jonson’s songs¤.

Sound movies in, silent films out: an “overnight sensation” which took several years to happen
The Jazz Singer was a calculated gamble by Warner Bros which was in a financially precarious position at the time, but it turned out to be a ‘game-changer’ for the then minnow studio Warners and for cinema’s future as a whole … its positive reception signalled that audiences wanted sound. But this transformation from one type of feature film to another was no sudden event, the process away from profitable silents was a gradual process. First to emulate Warners was 20th Century Fox with its Movietone system, soon the other major studios followed the trail-blazers into sound. The big Hollywood companies tended to play it both ways at first, none of them stopped making silent films straight away. After all, how profitable talkies would become was still to be seen. In the two years following The Jazz Singer ‘s release, the major companies made a mixture of productions – some all-silent, some all-sound and some part-sound movies[3].

The major film companies’ decision to convert to sound, according to Donald Crafton, had mainly to do with power politics in the industry. Paramount and MGM held an oligarchic hold over the industry in the mid 20s, controlling not only the production of its films but the distribution and exhibition of them as well (vertical integration which was what Warners aspired to as well). Warners’ and Fox’s unilateral venture into the talkies was seen as a threat to the big boys’ hegemony and necessitated the majors’ eventual venture into talkies. The other minor studios including RCA and UA which didn’t immediately opt for sound pictures still survived as silent film-makers[4].

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FN: The “Big Five” and the “Little Three”
By the 1930s the Hollywood hierarchy, after a series of expansions, mergers and takeovers, had settled into an (unofficial) two-tier industry power structure:

⁍ The Big Five: MGM, Paramount, Fox, Warner Bros, RKO
⁍ The Little Three: Columbia, Universal, UA (United Artists)

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Sound at a price
Various factors acted as a speed bump in the transition to sound movies. There were new financial costs for the industry to take account of. Cinema theatres had to be wired for sound, the cost of which was almost prohibitive – in 1927 only 400 theatres in the US of the multiple thousands were thus connected … by the end of the decade over 40% of the country’s movie theatres had sound systems installed in them[5]. A background factor occurring concurrently with the studios’ efforts to sort out the wrinkles involved in sound pictures was that public radio in the US was still in the process of trying to establish a foothold of its own.

The international language of silent films
The silent cinema had a linguistic universality to it, exporting an American film to a non English-speaking country merely required translating of the credits and title cards. But with sound films this restricted markets for American and English films, and dubbing into the local language was an added expense[6].

Clara Bow
The ‘sound’ of silent stars
From the perspective of the actors, especially those who had established their niche in the silent era, there were formidable challenges to transitioning to the new, sound medium. Acting in sound movies and the whole dynamic was different, they discovered, sometimes to their cost. Actors now had to memorise their lines beforehand, and on set they had to not stray far from the microphones, basically stand still and recite their lines clearly. The voice became THE issue for many established silent stars … a number of Hollywood actors could not make the transition❉. Some with heavy foreign accents like Emil Jannings, Vilma Banky and Pola Negri had voices that sounded harsh, unmelodious and muffled on-screen. Other top silent stars were similarly hamstrung by their voices – John Gilbert sounded weak and squeaky on screen✾, and Clara Bow and Norma Talmadge had flat Brooklyn accents – which didn’t suit their romantic lead personas[7].

Other silent film heavyweights had an instant aversion to the idea of sound films and avoided them, eg, leading silent actress Mary Pickford simply retired from acting rather than change over to sound; Charlie Chaplin, whose craft relied heavily on mime, never really embraced talkies and proceeded to make films only irregularly into the sound era (his Modern Times in 1936 was a film without spoken dialogue). Myrna Loy, an actress who successfully made the transition to sound, has recollected how much silent movies were loved. Fans felt as though that they possessed an ‘intimacy’ with their favourite Hollywood stars. Like many contemporaries Loy believed that the art of pantomime was perfected in the silent film[8].

The new medium hamstrung by technological limitations
The new sound technology transformed how movies were made, the ambience on the set completely shifted in a manner directors found inhibiting. Directors, accustomed to shouting directions to actors whilst scenes were being filmed, were hushed up by sound technicians who now in effect called the shots, demanding silence on the set so that incidental noises didn’t interfere with the recording of dialogue❦. Not only did directors feel that sound imposed a break on their free rein over the set, but the movie studio heads felt a similar loss of the financial control of their pictures … sound film production required a huge capital outlay of studios which meant that producers and moguls couldn’t keep the same tight budgetary holds on film expenditure as they previously had[9].

Directors weren’t the only movie personnel affected by sound. Projectionists at the back of the theatre had their work doubled, now having also to operate phonographs as well as projectors during screenings … the projectionist needed to be ever alert as the equipment had a tendency to jump around and result in a loss of synchronicity between image and sound. Again technological breakthroughs eventually came to the rescue after a new type of film was invented allowing for the sound to be recorded directly onto the film itself[10].

Paramount Studios
The take-up of sound films spelled bad news for a myriad of theatre musicians … the silent era had been a fruitful source of employment for them, but once movie houses had installed sound systems their services were no longer needed. On the other side of the coin, talking pictures required fully fleshed-out screenplays and the coming of sound was a boon for scriptwriters![11]

The early sound equipment was an impediment to the filming of action scenes. To avoid the camera noise being picked up by the sound recorder, the cameraman had to be ‘quarantined’ off in a stationary box to the side. Bereft of the freedom of movement enjoyed in silent movie-making, talkies became just that, static scenes in which characters stood round talking to each other (derisively referred to by some as “tea cup dramas”). The lost spectacle of the silents’ scenes of fast-action adventure caused disquiet among the audiences of early talkies. Within a few years this problem was overcome with the creation of new, quiet cameras[12].

For a section of the viewing audience who had enjoyed silent movies, the coming of sound to the cinemas created a new, consequential problem. Talking films per se excluded movie-goers who were deaf or had hearing issues. Some theatres tried to compensate for this by providing special headphones, but these were not fully effective and were of no help to those people who were completely deaf[13].

In time all of the problems and obstacles that came with the emergence of talkies were more or less ironed out … by 1930 the film-going public had voted resoundingly in favour of sound movies at the box-office – audiences at US picture theatres by 1929 had hit 90 million per week, up from an average of 50 million per week in 1920[14].

PostScript 1: Silent film stars – the ‘superstar’ sui generis thesis
The prestige and kudos of Hollywood movie stars circa 1920 was at an unparalleled high in American society. The personas of silent movie stars often came to take on a “godlike” status. As Jeanine Bassinger describes it, the film star of the early 1920s had a “level of adulation that simply had not existed before movies were invented”[15]. The leading silent stars like Douglas Fairbanks, Buster Keaton, Chaplin and Pickford, were uniquely celebrated and adored by the public to a level not achieved by later film stars even in the “Golden Age of Hollywood”. The silent stars of the screen were modern society’s first superstars, they did not have to compete for the public’s affections as the later sound film actors did. They were no pop or rock stars in the 1920s to share the limelight with … similarly, stars of spectator sports in America were very much still a phenomenon in the making[16].

And yes there were celebrities and high achievers in the performing arts prior to the advent of motion pictures – standout performers from theatre, vaudeville, opera and burlesque – but these stars were never remotely on anything like the (global) scale of silent film stars, who engendered mass adulation in their fans felt that they had an intimacy with their favourite screen stars.

Hitchcock’s ‘Blackmail’ (1929): Britain’s 1st talkie

PostScript 2: The international drift to a cinema of talkies
This blog has concentrated on the story of the evolution of sound pictures in America – elsewhere things took longer to evolve. Cinemas in Europe were not fully wired for talking pictures till the 1930s, and the USSR and Japan were still making silent films into the mid thirties. Once sound (belatedly) consolidated itself in these overseas film industries, it sparked a surge in the international production of talking pictures in native languages[17].

╼─━┄┅┈┉─━┄┅┈┉─━┄┅┈┉─━┄┅┈┉─━┄┅┈┉─━┄┅┈┉╾
❈ in the sound era only a very select few film-makers have maintained fidelity with the spirit of the silent movie, Jacques Tati is one such throwback whose cinema harks back nostalgically to the silent days of Chaplin and Keaton with its reliance on visual gags interspersed with a modicum of incidental and incoherent dialogue
¤ Warner Brothers’ 1927 sound picture triumph has been attributed to a greatly improved quality of sound in the Vitaphone system, (‘Bob Allen asks… Why the Jazz Singer? … and puts forward a personal theory’, www.web.archive.org)
❉ there were of course a number of established silent movie actors who did successfully make the switch to talkies, including Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford and Laurel and Hardy
✾ in Gilbert’s case technology did him no favours – his high-pitched voice on film was perhaps made worse by sound adjusters giving his voice too much treble. A suspicion at the time was that the studio deliberately sabotaged the actor because his salary (highest in Hollywood) was costing them too much, (‘Talkie Terror’)
❦ the 1952 film Singing in the Rain accurately captures the shambolic disruption to the profession of film-making brought about by the advent of the talkies … the recent French film The Artist also concerns itself with this subject

[1] E Thompson, ‘A Very Short History of the Transition from Silent to Sound Movies’, (Wonderstruck), (2011), www.wonderstruckthebook.com; ‘Silent Film’, Wikipedia, http://Wikipedia.org. Two years after the first sound film there was still much negativity about talking pictures, even the premier industry magazine, Variety, opined in 1929 that “movie stars should be screened, not heard”, M Donnelly, ‘The Birth of the “talkies” sounded the death knell for many silent stars’, Daily Telegraph (Syd.), 02-Jul-2016, www.dailytelegraph.com.au
[2] D Hanson, ‘The History of Sound in the Cinema’, (1997), www.cinematechnologymagazine.com
[3] C Gallagher ‘Introduction’ in C Gallagher et al, ‘The Silence After Sound: Hollywood’s Last Silent Movies’, 08-Feb-2009, www.notcoming.com. It became standard practice at this time for production companies to make the same movie in both talking and silent versions
[4] a number of theatres in America did close after the changeover to talkies but Crafton attributes this more to other economic factors, such as increased radio listening and automobile driving, D Crafton, The Talkies: American Cinema’s Transition to Sound, 1926-1931
[5] ‘The History of Film’ (The 1920s – Part 4) (Tim Dirks), (AMC Filmsite), www.filmsite.org
[6] ibid.
[7] the studios employed diction and voice coaches to aid those contract performers struggling with their voices and elocution, although some contemporaries opined that they could have done more to help the actors adjust, J Doyle, ‘Talkie Terror, 1928-1930’, (The Popular History), 19-Oct-2010, www.pophistorydig.com; Thompson, op.cit.
[8] cited in G Flatley interview, 1977, ibid.
[9] ‘Talkie Terror’, loc.cit.
[10] Thompson, op.cit.
[11] ibid.; ‘The Advent of Sound: 1927-1930’, www.cinecollage.net
[12] Thompson, ibid.
[13] ibid.
[14] ‘The Formation of Modern American Mass Culture’, (Digital History), www.digitalhistory.uh.edu
[15] Excerpt from ‘Silent Stars’ (by J Basinger), New York Times (1999), www.nytimes.com
[16] although the 1920s did witness the beginnings of newspaper-‘created’ sports stars, eg, Jack Dempsey and Babe Ruth, ‘Digital History’, loc.cit.
[17] ‘The Advent of Sound: 1927-1930’, loc.cit.

The Emergence of Modern Mass Culture in the 1920s: (I) Public Radio

Cinema, Media & Communications, Popular Culture

In 1920 the American public was enraptured with the still relatively new medium of film and with the growing phenomenon of movie stars – silent films were all the rage with people from all strata of society. But technological breakthroughs were already opening up new choices for consumers of mainstream entertainment in the US and the wider world.

Early radio days
That same year, 1920, following on the pioneering breakthroughs in Marconi and Tesla and a host of other contributors to the development of radio[1], the first federal licence was granted in the US to radio station KDKA (owned by the Westinghouse Company) in Pittsburgh, Pa. KDKA started with sport, broadcasting prize fights and Major League Baseball.

Early radio activities in the US were intended as a public service, not-for-profit, RCA (Radio Corporation of America) was formed as a government-sanctioned radio monopoly. RCA with David Sarnoff the instrumental figure in the company But with big business (including newspapers) making an investment in the novel form of communication with the singular purpose of making a financial ‘killing’ from it, this was destined eventually to ride roughshod over the altruistic public service function.

AD for Atwater Kent Receiver
The Corporatisation of radio
Big business interests in the US was taking account of the brand new medium. Corporate America wanted in on the action and was looking for ways to make radio pay¤ … advertising was the key. Radio broadcasting had moved from the pre-1920s phase of inventor/entrepreneurs like de Forest (see below) and Aubrey Fessenden⌻ and amateur operators to profit-conscious organisations in the vanguard. The first radio ad appeared in 1923 on station WEAF in New York. In a familiar pattern of oligarchic business expansion, many of the existing stations coalesced into networks, big players like RCA (later morphing into giant NBC – National Broadcasting) and its rival network, CBS (Columbia Broadcasting System), who were able to secure the top advertising revenue returns on their commercial stations. By 1930 nine out of ten US radio stations were selling advertising time[2].

Table 1 (below) illustrates how the number of US radio stations rose exponentially from a very low base in 1921:

Year№ of Stations
1921 5
1923556
1927681
1940765
Source: CH Sterling & JM Kittross, Stay Tuned: A History of American Broadcasting (1978)

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Table 2 (below) illustrates a similar growth in the revenue dollar from US radio:

YearAdvertising Revenue of radio stations
1927$4.8million
1930$40.5million
1940$215.6million
Source: CH Sterling & JM Kittross, Stay Tuned: A History of American Broadcasting (1978)

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Federal Communications Commission (emblem)
Chaotic airwaves rule OK!
In the early days reception wasn’t great with the majority of listeners relying on very basic, home-made crystal sets (the eventual advent of amplifying receivers addressed some of the shortcomings). But the listeners were blighted by recurring problems with the on air broadcasts … the stations’ frequencies were continually being interrupted by other radio transmitters who would suddenly cut in on them in the middle of a program[3]. Stations regularly ran experimental programs which were a mishmash of hits and misses. The airwaves were a haphazard free-for-all until measures were taken to regulate the industry in 1927 with the Radio Act. The Act empowered the Federal Radio Commission to reallocate radio frequencies into a geographical zonal system with licenses, time of operation, station power and wavelength to be equally allocated. This system however worked less than perfectly[4].

A revolution in home entertainment
Within a few short years the stations got their acts together and with improved technology and more receivers available, the American population embraced the mass media of radio. People would hold invite friends over for “radio parties” in their homes. Teenage and adolescent listeners would tune in and dance to jazz programs (the music de jour of the 20s). Radio quickly became a central part of American lives. From fairly limited offerings at first, eg, music, reading the latest news items✥, sporting broadcasts, stations started to offer quality and variety … radio shows had become the go-to form of entertainment – detective serials, westerns, comedies, romances, children’s shows, were all very popularly received. The soap opera✾ (drama serials containing multiple characters with intertwined, often emotionally fraught lives), the one significant invention of radio, became the staple cultural diet of many listeners[5].

By 1929 radio was reaching 10,000,000 American households. One of the most popular programs was Amos ‘n Andy, a form of audio entertainment which unfortunately also served to disseminate racial and cultural stereotypes (in this case reinforcing a derogatory view of African-Americans). When the phonogram invented earlier by Thomas Edison, was commercialised, the proliferation of record players in homes alongside radio sets gave Americans a “new world” of home entertainment[6].

Other countries in the western world rapidly followed America’s lead in the spread of the AM radio phenomena[7], one that would grip and enthrall listeners world-wide until the commercial introduction of public television in the 50s would eventually assume that mantle of shaping or reshaping mass communications.

“Welles-storm”

PostScript: Radio ‘pyrotechnics’ – The ‘invasion’ of America
There has been no better illustration of the sheer, mind-bending power of radio than enfant terrible and soon-to-be Hollywood directorial luminary Orson Welles’s 1938 broadcast on national radio. Welles’s performance of The War of the Worlds (by Sc-Fi pioneer writer HG Wells) spooked the nation (or at least the one-fifth of the over one million listeners to the program who were thrown into a panic by the calamitous ‘news’!) … the radio audience were fooled into believing that they were hearing a live report of an actual invasion of Earth by spaceship-transported Martians[8].

╼╾╼╾╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾
❈ the involvement of leading newspapers in the new medium was interesting considering that radio early on was promoted as “the newspapers that come through your walls”
¤ the development pattern was different in Europe – in Britain the government agency, BBC (established in 1922) was the guiding light for public radio’s progress
⌻ undertook pioneering work in laying the foundations of AM (amplitude modulation) radio
✥ the delivery of ‘instant’ news through the air waves was a transformation for “Joe and Joan Public” who no longer had to wait to the next day to read about the latest events in their daily newspapers
✾ so named because it was the norm for soap companies to sponsor this type of day and popular evening radio programs (Scott, ‘History of the Radio Industry’)

[1] it would be remiss here not to single out the pioneering contribution of Lee de Forest whose invention of the Audion vacuum tube most possible live radio broadcasting, an amplifier and transmitter which was the “key component of all radio, telephone, radar, film, television and computer systems before the invention of the transistor in 1947” (‘Lee de Forest American Inventor’, Encylopedia Brittannica (RE Fielding), www.brittannica.com
[2] CE Scott, ‘The History of the Radio Industry in the United States to 1940’, www.eh.com
‘History: 1920s’, Advertising Age, 15-Sep-2003, www.adage.com
[3] ‘The growth of radio in the 1920s’, (Mortal Journey), (08-Apr-2011), www.mortaljourney.com; ‘Emergence of Radio in the 1920s and its Cultural Significance’, www.xroads.virginia.org
[4] ‘Federal Radio Commission’, Wikipedia, http://en.m.wikipedia.org
[5] Mortal Journey, loc.cit.; ‘The Formation of Modern American Mass Culture’, Digital History, www.digitalhistory.ut.edu; ‘Soap opera’, Wikipedia, http://en.m.wikipedia.org
[6] Mortal Journey, op.cit.. Edison’s phonograph paved the way for the eventual development of sound technology for films
[7] later, in the 1930s, advances spearheaded by Edward H Armstrong led to the invention of FM (frequency modulation) radio – which prompted a backlash by Sarnoff and RCA and the breakout of an “AM Vs FM war”, ‘FM broadcasting in the United States’,
Wikipedia, http://en.m.wikipedia.org
[8] B Lenthall, Radio’s America: the Great Depression and the Rise of Modern Mass Culture. The Story of the Century, (2007), www.press.uchicago.edu