Acoustic Properties: Radio, Narrative, and the New Neighborhood of the Americas

Acoustic Properties: Radio, Narrative, and the New Neighborhood of the Americas

by Tom McEnaney


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Acoustic Properties: Radio, Narrative, and the New Neighborhood of the Americas discovers the prehistory of wireless culture. It examines both the coevolution of radio and the novel in Argentina, Cuba, and the United States from the early 1930s to the late 1960s, and the various populist political climates in which the emerging medium of radio became the chosen means to produce the voice of the people.
Based on original archival research in Buenos Aires, Havana, Paris, and the United States, the book develops a literary media theory that understands sound as a transmedial phenomenon and radio as a transnational medium. Analyzing the construction of new social and political relations in the wake of the United States’ 1930s Good Neighbor Policy, Acoustic Properties challenges standard narratives of hemispheric influence through new readings of Richard Wright’s cinematic work in Argentina, Severo Sarduy’s radio plays in France, and novels by John Dos Passos, Manuel Puig, Raymond Chandler, and Carson McCullers. Alongside these writers, the book also explores Che Guevara and Fidel Castro’s Radio Rebelde, FDR’s fireside chats, Félix Caignet’s invention of the radionovela in Cuba, Evita Perón’s populist melodramas in Argentina, Orson Welles’s experimental New Deal radio, Cuban and U.S. “radio wars,” and the 1960s African American activist Robert F. Williams’s proto–black power Radio Free Dixie.
From the doldrums of the Great Depression to the tumult of the Cuban Revolution, Acoustic Properties illuminates how novelists in the radio age converted writing into a practice of listening, transforming realism as they struggled to channel and shape popular power.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780810135383
Publisher: Northwestern University Press
Publication date: 06/15/2017
Series: FlashPoints Series , #26
Pages: 328
Sales rank: 913,835
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

TOM McENANEY is an assistant professor of comparative literature at Cornell University.

Read an Excerpt

Acoustic Properties

Radio, Narrative, and the New Neighborhood of the Americas

By Tom McEnaney

Northwestern University Press

Copyright © 2017 Northwestern University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8101-3538-3


"On the National Hookup"

Radio, Character Networks, and U.S.A.

In a section titled "On the National Hookup" in his travelogue In All Countries (1934), John Dos Passos details the social and acoustic engineering that electrified Chicago Stadium at the 1932 Democratic National Convention. Describing the scene that remained invisible to radio listeners, Dos Passos observes NBC pages "coaxing the speakers into poses from which they could be heard," maneuvering "the two big white disks above the speakers' platform (the ears of the radio audience)," which "delicately caught every intonation of the oratory." Careful to catch how the whole event sounds, even after the amplified orchestration has ended, Dos Passos listens on to "the proud suave voice of the National Broadcasting Company ... filling ... jaded ears from every loudspeaker, enumerating the technical agencies that had worked together to obtain the superb hookup through which they broadcast the proceedings of the Democratic Convention of 1932." Confronted with the pageantry of the political convention — the wired and wireless sound — Dos Passos's satirical tone, noted in the "proud suave voice" and the "jaded ears" that receive it, tunes readers in to the role of acoustics in national politics and social life.

Listening to Franklin Delano Roosevelt deliver his promise of a "new deal" to U.S. citizens in Chicago that year, Dos Passos imagines listeners attuned not to the politicians' content, which goes largely unmentioned in his reportage, but rather to the overall tone of "the national hookup" and the newly entrenched forms of listening that knitted together the audience in front of the loudspeakers in Chicago and on the radio "in all countries." What Dos Passos seizes on here, at the dawn of the New Deal era and the Golden Age of Radio in the United States, is the transformative intersection between structural changes in acoustics and politics. Over the course of the decade he would transmit these changes through innovations in literary style that would affect U.S. novelists writing at the end of the New Deal — including Carson McCullers and Richard Wright — but also the political theory and fiction writing of Jean-Paul Sartre, the novels of Luis Rafael Sánchez, and others. Standing beneath the loudspeakers in Chicago Stadium, Dos Passos amplifies how radio, along with a number of changes in engineering and building materials dubbed the "New Acoustics," had already begun to alter the tone of U.S. and world culture.

Apparently minor pieces of reportage, the articles Dos Passos published about the political conventions of 1932 and Roosevelt's later radio oratory condense the major structural, sensory, aesthetic, and political concerns that drive the New Deal's most significant literary event: the 1938 publication of his trilogy of novels in a single bound book he named U.S.A. That book, a thousand-plus-page epic he called "a radio network," not only uses the radio to reimagine what a novel could be but serves as a corrective to practices of a mass listening public throughout the Americas. Like the Estridentistas' poetic experiments to reorganize listeners' understanding of radio during the Mexican Revolution in the 1920s (Dos Passos had translated Manuel Maples Arce's Urbe as Metropolis in 1929), or Alejo Carpentier's incorporation of his radio work of the 1930s into novels that obliquely challenged the U.S.-backed dictatorships in a Cuba Dos Passos knew well from his travels throughout the Caribbean and Latin America, Dos Passos's writing underscored the transnational relations that structured radio networks. Part of his long novel's challenge to those readers who were listeners was to recognize that a "national hookup" depended on many nations and that the micropolitics of a speaker's tone in Chicago Stadium links up with, and perhaps offers the best access into, the knotted network of relations between speakers, listeners, and national territories that Dos Passos depicts in U.S.A. If we pay attention to the technical changes and lessons he learned and tries to teach his readers in 1932, and if we trace the differences between those articles and his novel, we can begin to hear how "the speech of the people" in U.S.A. arises from the entanglement of specific innovations in acoustic design and theory, and the cultural production that helped shape how these changes were heard. In the following pages I examine the acoustic engineering at the beginning of the New Deal and then read Dos Passos's work with listening during this period in order to demonstrate that the critical writing practice he derived from his careful listening led to the production of a novelistic style impossible to hear but capable of making readers listen to what radio could be. Ultimately, I will argue that the muted tone of the people's speech in U.S.A. paradoxically critiques the new homogenization of sound design under the New Deal through the adoption and adaptation of that very same sound. The novel, and the reportage that precedes it, are exhibit A in how we can understand the ways writers responded to and consequentially intervened in the new social experiences of sound that radio made possible.


Halfway across the country from Chicago Stadium, the connection between the wired room and the wireless audience found its paradigm in the architecture, acoustics, and name of New York City's Radio City Music Hall. Opening on December 27, 1932, Radio City marked the apogee of an engineering era in the United States dedicated to the electrification of sound. The historian Emily Thompson observes that "by 1930, new tools, new techniques, and a new language for describing sound had fundamentally transformed the field of acoustics. 'The New Acoustics' was proclaimed." Radio City, located on the ground floor of 30 Rockefeller Center, became the electric cathedral for this new form of sound. In addition to the loudspeakers outside the hall that brought the evening's entertainment out into the street, inside the hall engineers had "learned to create electrically a spatialized sound" to the effect that "the sound of space was now a quality that could be added electrically to any sound signal in any proportion; it no longer had any relationship to the physical spaces of architectural construction." The New Acoustics' "clear and focused" sound offered "little opportunity to reflect and reverberate off the surfaces of the room in which it was generated." Without reverberation, "the sound of space was effectively eliminated from the new modern sound." Whereas the "old" acoustics relied on the particular architectural form and shape of the walls, ceilings, and other available surfaces, the New Acoustics used microphones, insulation, and loudspeakers that rendered the hall's unique nooks and crannies acoustically insignificant. Thus, even adding an echo effect removed the sound of a particular built space. Confronted with these changes, the engineers required a new mathematical equation, as the acoustic formula developed by Wallace Sabine for the reverberations of Boston's Symphony Hall in 1900 no longer made acoustic sense inside the walls of Radio City by 1932.

Those "two big white disks above the speakers' platform," which Dos Passos identifies as "the ears of the radio audience," typify the acoustic engineering manufactured to remove the difference of built forms and suppress their interaction with the human voice and ear. Along with the New Acousticians who sought to homogenize sound in buildings by removing space from their equations, radio engineers and aesthetic theorists valued the same shift in listening and production. Rudolf Arnheim's simply titled treatise Radio: The Art of Sound (1936) insists that in broadcasting "resonance is eliminated, out of a very proper feeling that the existence of the studio is not essential to the transmission and therefore has no place in the listener's consciousness ... The listener rather restricts himself to the reception of pure sound, which comes to him through the loudspeaker." As I will explain throughout this chapter, this type of technical and aesthetic engineering, which critics have pointed out went against radio's impressive ability to capture higher-definition sound than the preelectric phonograph, coincided with radio's adoption in the United States as a domestic appliance and a device made for intimate gatherings. Eliminating space at the site of production, Arnheim's theory and the technological changes in Radio City reveal a cultural turn that embraced an acoustic world unencumbered by spatial difference and manufactured to create a sense of proximity with political and aesthetic consequences.


Dos Passos's writings from the 1932 conventions work against the cultural and political ideology that emerged from these changes in sonic engineering. Drawing attention to the "proud suave voice of the National Broadcasting Company" in Chicago Stadium, he connects the sonic shape of those local utterances to their delivery across the national network. He thus intertwines the micropolitics of the sounds of social space, which I will discuss in greater detail in the following section, with the macropolitics of the erasure of territorial space that inheres in the national network.

Identifying how the New Acoustics and NBC depend on extranational affiliations might seem especially odd given that the headquarters for both of these transformations in sound were located across from each other on the single city block of Midtown Manhattan's West Fiftieth Street. Part of New York City's Rockefeller Center, Radio City Music Hall looks onto 30 Rockefeller Plaza, where the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), owner of NBC and the film studio RKO Pictures, would finish moving in by 1933. Radio City, the name for the new home of the six-year-old NBC, and its neighbor, Radio City Music Hall, the shrine to the New Acoustics, formed the seemingly hyperlocal infrastructure and engineering hub for what Dos Passos dubbed "the national hookup."

Yet, it was not without reason that Dos Passos included "the national hookup" in a collection titled In All Countries. The metropolitan site of national broadcasting's origins in a single city block in New York City consolidates and masks a number of multinational radio networks whose purchase led to the construction of the RCA building and the rise of a "national" network. RCA, and therefore NBC's early existence, depended on one of the candidates Dos Passos heard in 1932, and the companies of two men whose capsule biographies he would include in his first book from the U.S.A. trilogy: "The Emperor of the Caribbean," or Minor C. Keith, president of United Fruit; and "The Electrical Wizard," or Thomas Edison, the founder of General Electric.

In 1919, then assistant secretary to the navy Franklin Delano Roosevelt prevented Edison's company General Electric from selling to the British Marconi Corporation the rights to a radio wave–producing device known as the Anderson Alternator. Roosevelt, along with others in the navy — including Secretary of the Navy (and FDR's future ambassador to Mexico) Josephus Daniels, and then captain, electrical engineer, and later director of Naval Communications, admiral, and RCA board member William H. G. Bullard — feared that the United States would lose control over radio communications in the United States to companies from Germany and Britain. These worries arose as early as 1916, when Roosevelt urged the U.S. government to counter British and German telegraph companies' incursion into the Americas by expanding the U.S. sphere of influence over radio communications throughout Latin America. Just a few months earlier, Roosevelt and Bullard also recommended that the government subsidize the construction of United Fruit's Tropical Radio Company's station at San Juan Batista in Mexico in order to improve communications with ships traveling through the western Caribbean between Texas and the Panama Canal.

Although the plan to subsidize United Fruit's Tropical Radio Company was ultimately rejected, they would be one of four companies to make up the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) in 1920, when the U.S. government decided to formally subsidize a commercial corporation with radio interests. With Roosevelt's intervention, instead of GE leaving the radio business at its very dawn, it became the largest radio business in the United States. In exchange for giving up rights to radio in Europe, the U.S. government purchased the American Marconi Company and its subsidiary, the Pan-American Telegraph Company, which was itself on the verge of establishing the first trans-American radio broadcast from New York to Buenos Aires. (It would take another three years for the broadcast of the Firpo-Dempsey fight to draw listeners across the Americas.) A year later GE would be joined by Westinghouse, as well as AT&T and the United Fruit Corporation, to form RCA. AT&T and United Fruit sold their shares of the company back to RCA during the 1920s, and GE was forced to abandon its interests in RCA in 1930 due to an antitrust suit brought by the government, by which time RCA, with ownership over NBC and RKO Pictures, was already signing a lease at Rockefeller Center.

The "national hookup," in other words, was founded on a multinational network of radio stations that required governmental aid as well as multiple corporate agreements. The rise of NBC's radio network is due, at least in part, to the United States government's desire to gain commercial and military interests in Latin America. Thus, NBC's prehistory offers something of an international and infrastructural corollary to the sonic erasure of space across the street from 30 Rockefeller Plaza.

Dos Passos would take these affiliations into account in the composition of U.S.A. The trilogy's second book, 1919 (1932), a year that not only marks the Treaty of Versailles but also Roosevelt's intervention in GE, begins in Buenos Aires, the site of the first Pan-American radio connection, and follows a character named Joe Williams as he sets off up the Atlantic coast of South America and then through the Caribbean on a banana boat. The story of Joe Williams, brother of Janey Williams, a stenographer to the publicist J. Ward Moorehouse — a character to whom I will return — marks a turning point in the trilogy, redrawing the map of U.S.A., "a radio network," to includeBuenos Aires, Cuba, and the Caribbean, as well as Mexico and parts of Europe. These incursions into other national territories insist that the country's story cannot be told without an appreciation of its imperial ties through business and war, and the radio networks that helped facilitate and depended on both to create the fiction of a nation.


The larger spatial politics of the radio network are always implicit if rarely mentioned in the sounds of a given broadcast speaker's individual utterance. In his writings from 1932, Dos Passos complicates radio's apparent "elimination of resonance" and what later theorists have too quickly assumed to be the medium's "disembodiment," as he listens to the distinctly embodied radio address of that year's U.S. Communist Party's presidential candidate William Z. Foster. Recovering from a heart attack in Moscow, Foster speaks over the radio to an assembly in the New York CPUSA headquarters, and the medium helps amplify those two sonic aspects Arnheim claims it vanquishes: "His speech is going to be broadcast from his bedroom. The feeling of farawayness and emptiness is enormously intensified. Is it that we're ten thousand miles from Moscow? When his voice starts coming over, the accent and intonation of a native American workingman fills the hall for a moment with warmth. Hathaway has to finish reading it for him; his voice is American, too." Although unencumbered by the explicit image of the body, Foster's voice comes across the wireless freighted with the gravitas of bodily illness. His fragile bodily condition, in turn, accents "the feeling of farawayness and emptiness," precisely the distance and resonance meant to vanish with the New Acoustics and Arnheim's ideal announcer. When combined with Foster's tone, this radio voice, carrying the signals of its absence and the sounds of a body in decline, makes felt the room's necessary vacancies, "the wide empty platform" from which the broadcast is heard, and the negative space in which the voice resounds. In more theoretically familiar terms, affect arises out of a constitutive absence in the radio voice rather than a naïve extension of presence. The sudden "warmth" in the hall does not abolish the feeling of distance.


Excerpted from Acoustic Properties by Tom McEnaney. Copyright © 2017 Northwestern University Press. Excerpted by permission of Northwestern University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Preface: Wireless Cultures,
Introduction: Learning to Listen,
1. "On the National Hookup": Radio, Character Networks, and U.S.A.,
2. The Sound of the Good Neighbor: Radio, Realism, and Real Estate,
3. Struggling Words: Public Housing, Sound Technologies, and the Position of Speech,
4. Tears in the Ether: The Rise of the Radionovela,
5. Radio's Revolutions,
6. House Taken Over: Listening, Writing and the Politics of the Commonplace in Manuel Puig's Fiction,
7. The Ends of Radio: Tape, Property, and Popular Voice,
Works Cited,

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