Broadcasting Rhetoric

Still thinking about the time I spent in the media archive at the University of Maryland. They have a lot of documentation - transcripts and recordings and the like - but most exciting is their collection of the technology of broadcasting. They have a remarkably well-preserved inventory of early televisions and old console-style radios.  

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I like this microphone a lot even though it’s busted. The principles are the same now - keeping it suspended and shock-absorbent helps make a better sound. I always wondered why they put the call letters on the mics even though there was no picture being transmitted. The archivist explained that they take a lot of photos of radio shows in those times and it was good for that. Also these mics were expensive and would just be moved from the studio to the event that was covered live, and the press would get photos there of it, hopefully. It’s all about good publicity.

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I think shortwave radio is really cool, and I know I’m pretty alone in that idea, but all the home console radios of the 1930s had shortwave tuners so you could hear the news from Europe anytime you wanted. They also included the police band and sometimes aircraft frequencies as well (much later on than 1930s). The other great thing to read about was the lack of regulation in broadcast signal strength, so there were a lot of stories of station owners pumping out 500,000 watt AM stations and being heard across the country or even on the other side of the world. Hillarious I think, what a great way to get rid of the other stations. 

This unit had the back panel off so we could look at the antenna, which was pretty substantial. No wonder they could pick up everything clearly via shortwave or whatever. FM signals are about 20 years away for this unit, but the design of it really makes you wonder - this is a unit that is meant to be on full display in a family room, to fit in with the furniture, and be something you are not ashamed to see. Radio design today says little more than, “I’m a very advanced stereo system.” I wonder what this design said to people in the 1930s and 1940s? Does it say “furniture” or does it say “technologically advanced?” What’s the message in the design here?

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You see these issues being addressed a lot clearer in the early televisions, which tried a lot to look like console radios like the one above. This unit is a great example of trying to bridge the TV/radio divide in a way that we can safely assume is speaking to the audience of the late 40s early 50s. 

This one also is trying to look like furniture but the presence of the screen and the attention that the screen compels is really an interruption here. Later models would come with cabinet doors to close off the screen when not in use. Even in the photo, your eyes want to go to the screen as the center of this unit’s design. Is that trained? Where does this compulsion come from? There is something about TV that compels attention even if you are not actively watching a show. You find yourself “looking up” at it without even thinking about it to see what’s going on. Also at this time 24 hour programming was unheard of, perhaps even something that would be undesired, so there was no point in having the TV available all the time. Having it in a cabinet makes the furniture appearance really easy - it’s just another hutch or cabinet in the living room.

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With this one, the attempt to resemble a radio is gone, and the screen has taken over the focus of the unit. But the doors indicate that this is still meant not to disrupt the organization of the living room at all, and can be removed from the scene by shutting the doors. This fascinates me as the contemporary living room is arranged around the television. This design indicates that the television interrupted the living room design, and needed to be incorporated into the room in a way that made sense. Just sitting out there as a big screen wasn’t going to cut it.

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This is the best photo and the one I wanted to close on. This is a custom made RCA black and white TV that was built for a bar owner who wanted a big screen everyone could see when they came into the bar to watch sports and other events. So this is evidence that there has always been this desire to have big, loud TVs in the bar. This unit, from the dawn of TV, shows that TV has always been obnoxious. I bet 1950s bar patrons also complained about how you can’t just have a drink without some TV blaring in the background. 

What a great collection, and I’m so glad to have seen it. Who preserved all this stuff? Who kept it in such good condition over the decades? It makes me think about how easily we throw things away and how cheaply they are made. I wonder what, if anything of our broadcast technology, will survive for future archives?