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.  


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.


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?


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.


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.


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? 


The Archive

I had the best time this week going to the University of Maryland special collections. I spent about three days there and that was a good amount of time. However I feel like I could just look at old stuff in the archives forever and not get bored. Seems like there’s a lot of it there. 



This is just a small part of the media archive which one of the archivists took me around to see. Most of this is history of broadcasting stuff - old TV broadcasts, films, transcripts and the like. I thought that the library might have a collection of transcripts or some recordings of the National Student Federation weekly broadcasts they did during the 1930s - often on the subject of the role of the university student in politics or the depression. My assumption is once the war came these broadcasts probably stopped. The NSF was very interested in being anti-military, anti-war, pacifist, and helping students build communes in order to make university affordable. I can’t think of a more relevant political platform for 2018 for students.

Archival material doesn’t have much value on its own no matter how it was acquired. It gets value through a process of rhetorical invention which is more hermeneutic than anything else. The researcher goes to the archive for sources for her arguments. She looks at the material with a sense of “what it is” in her head. The result is the genesis of persuasive rhetoric that explains the past to the present. This does not mean the archive has been used up. On the contrary, it should be preserved for a re-visit by another scholar over some time.

These materials are valuable because of their inventional capacity. The idea is they help us create a world based on what came before. This can happen by mimetic property: “They faced these same issues and did X,” or it can come through an identification: “They thought like we do, we think like they did, they recognized things about politics or the world that we feel are very modern, etc.” It can also come through recognition of a scene or a slate of possibilities as familiar to us today, as I did just above in my thinking about the NSF.


What helps us avoid a charge of revisionism here? I think this question is only relevant if you are doing a particular kind or type of history, a modality of history that even historians would consider to be oversimplistic and a bit rediculous. That modality is one where we recover the past to know what happened. We determine the facts and then we know about that time. No historian, I hope, does this sort of work. If they do, they are not really that interested in the critical application of history for today - it’s more of a sort of preservation of really nice dishes that are never used. That sort of preservation has value I suppose, but it’s a lot more dangerous to believe one has accessed or acquired the past rather than one has objects and texts from the past that need interpretation for us here and now. It is that operation that gives the archive value.

I had a great time talking to the archivist about some of the political issues involved in archiving. One is a shift in mindset by archives to be a lot more about product not process. A horrifying statement to anyone who works in composition or rhetoric to be sure. What he means is that there’s a trend for archivists to consider themselves creators of knowledge instead of just the custodians of a set of materials who investigate, sort, and make labels for that set. This seems like a good change as they can articulate what the archive itself means. In fact, there are people who do work on the history of the archive - meta to be sure, but meta interesting.

Finally there’s the archivist question of value. There’s limited space and limited labor to classify everything, but then there’s also limited understanding of what might be important in the future. How many rediculous coffee cups or jackets should be preserved in a collection? What if you toss the one set of forks that really matters for future research? This sort of thing seems very pressing and interesting and there’s no good answer. A question of situational reasoning to be sure, and worth some study.

It was a great visit, and I got a lot out of it. I made some vlogs about it, but the hotel internet and my hotspot were way too underpowered to upload what I made. I’ve been using Lumia Fusion on the iPad and I love it. It’s the perfect video editor for me - very basic and to the point. However my little iPad barely has the memory to hold the rendered files, so it would be good to be able to upload them right away. Once I’m home this afternoon it should be no problem. It was pretty annoying not to be able to post those videos every day. They’ll be up here soon.

A Very Special Collection


Started my work in the special collections at the University of Maryland this week and I have to say, it’s incredible what I’ve already discovered in these documents. It was well worth the trip. There are a lot of documents missing that would make things a bit clearer, but I’m already sitting at 1000% more information about this stuff than I was last week.

The project is tracing down who, and why, German university debaters came on a debate tour of the United States in 1930. I found a transcript in those old books that I love that are collections of debate speeches from across the country. If you have read this blog you know about the Edith Phelps Debater’s Annuals. So far I have found two transcripts of German debates against American debaters on the question of military readiness.

There’s a passing mention by Phelps as to who was behind hosting these debates, so I went down that path and found it to be a rabbit hole. There are three, possibly more, organizations that rose out of World War 1 that have the express purpose to generate international understanding and goodwill among young people, often high school and university aged students, and they all have similar names. They all also have offices in New York City. So most of today was sorting out who was in charge of what and what they thought they were doing.  

The weirdest thing so far is the obsession these organizations have with hygiene and self-help. I’m not sure what the latter term means, I think it means getting the money or support together yourself to go to university. The first term is pretty clear. Although to the credit of one organization that was having a large, international conference on student self-help, one of the organizers wrote to a government official (not really sure who he was as his response letter doesn’t appear in the archive) asking him to make sure the students pass through Ellis Island 2nd class passengers not the steerage rate, as they are university students who are only traveling that way as that’s what the money could provide. Such a shame if their welcome was to go through that “process.” Not sure what it entailed, but I could imagine a pretty invasive and embarrassing examination of the body. Times haven’t changed that much. 

Tomorrow I’ll go in more detail though the boxes. Today was cut short - only a couple of hours of research - because Uber drivers here in Maryland (or the DC area) are incompetent. I have had the worst trips I’ve had in a while today. I even think one driver racially profiled me: When I got into the car he was playing some great hip-hop stuff, then it suddenly changed to old country. Do I look like an old country fan? I am a middle aged guy. I’m not sure I like this racial profiling thing.  

I hope to connect more dots tomorrow. Today I got a lot of great information but sadly it only opens the case further. More research to be done. Now there are a number of debate tours I have to track down. So far there’s an Oxford tour, an English Universities tour (would love to get the difference there!), Scottish (although in the secretary’s hand in the margin there is a note “Nothing mentions Scotland in the files, did he misspeak?” In talking about a typed dictation from the President of the organization), a Dutch tour, and a Turkish one. Tracking these down is going to be pretty time consuming but might be a really great piece of debate and higher education history. And here we are, thinking that international experiences are still kind of unusual for undergraduates.