SANS BORDER RADIO
Paul Vernon considers historical cause and effect on the global airwaves.
Dear Sirs. I've just finished testing the McMichael's All Mains Three band receiver, and am glad to say not only did it function instantly on connecting up, but gave 25 European stations on normal .broadcast range alone. -'GR', Bombay, January 31 1930, quoted in the Wireless Export Trade Journal.
Marconi probably had no real concept of what he was giving birth to when he probed the mysteries of radio wavelengths. Like other scientists of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, his agenda was tuned to technical exploration rather than the invention of a mass medium with vast potential to change the way people thought.
Essentially, though, that's what he achieved. Between 1914 and 1918, Marconi conducted experiments that culminated in the opening of the first commercial radio stations in New York during 1919. Three years later '2LO' commenced broadcasting in London; by 1925 the new invention had spread to Latin America, India and Japan, and before the third decade of the 20th Century transmitters were operating in almost every country in the world.
Most of the equipment used worldwide was either American or European - principally British, Dutch and German - in origin. The closing decades of European Colonial power were marked by an 'export or die' ideology that, in 1930 alone, meant British radio manufacturers sold over 4 million worth of broadcast hardware overseas.
From India, where enthusiastic listeners were moved to write letters in praise of the range and sturdiness of the latest model, to Siam, where a four-band all- range model was "personally installed in the King's private drawing room by Mr. Low Kwang Song, Portadyne's Siamese agent" (in that same trade journal), radio programmes were connecting isolated cultures to their neighbours. The global village had another voice and the gramophone had, for the first time, a serious rival.
The role of radio within most communities is to disseminate news, entertainment, propaganda and, sometimes by accident as much as design, crossculturalism.
What forms, exactly, did this wireless cross-culturalism take and how did it affect communities? With so much direct evidence lost in the original ether it's perhaps impossible to ever fully recover the history, but we may gain some insight by taking a deeper look at examples for which history does provide evidence.
Argentina, an economically and culturally vibrant society in the first half of the 20th Century, presents an interesting case to study. Until the early 1930s the Tango's popularity was unassailable. Records were widely advertised on a weekly basis by several retail companies and, judging by the steady issue of new titles, business was brisk. However, despite what might have been available, most published adverts featured the Tango, with a smattering of American dance bands or classical music. Radio growth was slow and steady at first but by 1935 there were ten commercial stations based in Buenos Aires, the sale of lowpriced portable receivers was increasing and the Argentine public found itself at the receiving end of a wide variety of entertainment for a very reasonable price. Indeed, with sets available for a sum similar to gramophones, and without the need to purchase any shellac software, radio quickly became the preferred home entertainment for many Argentines.
During the 1930s advertising in popular weekly journals switched dramatically from records to radio, so that by 1935 one retail outlet, Casa America, was announcing the wholesale liquidation of its record stock.
What was the public hearing when it tuned in to Radio Belgrano or Radio Municipal? Certainly it got the steady diet of tangos it demanded but a lot more besides. Between them, the Buenos Aires stations offered the likes of "Blackie, La jouven y popular interprete del Jazz Negro"; Conjunto Ruso Stenka Rassin, a Russian balalaika orchestra; George Hines, a good-looking young crooner from North America; the Jazz Dixie Pals [sic]; Hilda y Margarita, described as "folkloristas" and, bizarrely, Minnie "el imitador del Betty Boop"! With wireless sets placed in bars and restaurants as well as private homes, a wide selection of music suddenly went very public.
There was also the added advantage of tuning into foreign stations. The weekly newspapers carried a log of wavelengths and timetables that allowed the average Buenos African to tune into Brazil, Chile, Japan, North America, Paraguay, Mexico, China and even Australia. This was no sales gimmick. With a decent receiver and a stout aerial on the roof, many Argentine residents got their first direct taste of foreign culture.
In essence, radio in Argentina did no harm to the beloved Tango, indeed it actively fostered it, and it also widened the public's access to variety in music. It did, however, decimate a previously healthy gramophone trade.
Further north, in the Caribbean, radio was having a significant impact upon the development of music in Cuba. Diaz Ayala, in his book Musica Cubana, has clearly and succinctly indicated that the growth of Sones was greatly aided by Havana-based broadcasts of local, often little known, groups as early as 1922. Quite simply, these groups provided greater variety and were cheaper than maintaining a large library of discs. Further, they significantly reshaped the sound of the music itself. At a time when records were still made acoustically, it was not necessary to use brass- dominated bands when a sensitive electric microphone could detect and transmit string instruments with an acceptable degree of fidelity. Further, the voice itself could now whisper and insinuate instead of bellowing into an acoustic horn. The nature of the Cuban Orquesta Tipica changed because of these factors, and by the time the gramophone had caught upwith electrical processing, in 1925, the new style was gelling. In short, technology altered the character of the music.
North America, provably the cradle of public broadcasting, quickly adopted a free- for-all system that ran untrammelled for the first eight years of radio's life. Not until 1927 did the Federal Radio Commission pass stringent regulations for American broadcasting. By that time, certain basic frameworks in American broadcasting had been firmly set. Local stations proliferated, and while the history of English-language radio in America has been deeply researched and published, 'ethnic', or foreign language broadcasting has not. Yet it existed, anywhere that there was a sufficient immigrant population to support it. In the 1920s and '30s especially, when first wave immigrants into America went through the often bumpy assimilation process, a local radio station talking to them in their home language provided reassurance, practical advice, nostalgia and community spirit. It was often the only reality-check that the more isolated immigrants got. Poles and Ukranians in Chicago and Detroit, Portuguese in Boston and Northern California, Germans in Wisconsin, Russian Jews in New York and Mexicans in Texas all tuned in to hear voices like theirs discuss topics of the day and play music they recognised. The songs were not just nostalgic echoes of the homeland often, employing the familiar vernacular style, singers would share the humour and the pain of the new life in America. The likelihood of hearing the immigrants' view of America on vernacular radio was high.
Across the Atlantic, the Iberian Peninsula was also feeling the impact, but differing economic circumstances slowed the growth. A 1930 report, commissioned by a British radio company preparing to sell into the territory, noted that Spain, while it supported six radio stations nationwide, had a listening population of only 75,000, a meagre .36 percent of the overall population.
Further, it noted that the total sale of all radios and replacement parts in the previous year had amounted to a mere 262! There were also complaints in the report about poor broadcast standards, both technically and artistically, and the generally low standard of reception. Within three years however, the position had radically altered and growth was steady. Spain's political upheaval, the ensuing civil war and Franco's ultimate victory meant that all Spanish radio was government controlled from 1936 until after Franco's death, but aside from political aspects, Spanish radio actively actively promoted 'national' music in all its delicious regional variations. For those who either lived outside the large urban areas, or for those urbanites unable to afford the regular purchase of records, Redera, the National Radio Service routinely served a mixed diet of traditional music, carefully filtered news and propagandist culture. Again, a significant underlying pattern repeats itself; the preservation and promotion of 'national' music.
Spain's geographic, but not cultural, neighbour Portugal also employed the new medium to promote its indigenous music. Since 1926, Portugal had been led by Dr. Salazar, an intense patriot with an essentially Fascist doctrine, but one largely more benign than Franco's variety and certainly less threatening than Mussolini's or Hitler's. Salazar practised cultural isolationism but cannily married it to free economic trade. This largely successful policy meant that a relatively poor country was able to avail itself of modern technology by using the wine trade to pay for it. This mainly benefitted the urban middle class rather than the proletariat, but it did mean that Portuguese music was recorded and preserved on disc as early as 1905. By 1930 the country was clamouring for radio also, and in the shape of four government controlled stations it got it. A wonderful example of early enthusiasm for the new medium is contained in a letter from Grande Bazaar Do Porto, a large department store in Oporto which held the HMV concession for the sale of gramophones, records and, now, radio. On July 23rd 1930 they told the HMV Export department;
"The interest for wireless is increasing rapidly in our territory. Sometime ago we hardly had any broadcasting stations but now we have several. Four of them principally, two in Lisbon and two in Oporto, have taken a leading position and are every day improving. We have made arrangements with these stations so that they will at least once a week broadcast our records. This is very interesting for us as they advertise our record and our products; after this policy was adopted we have noted an increase in our sales of those records that are broadcasted.
"When we issue a fresh lot of records we have them broadcasted with very successful results. The, perhaps best of these stations, C.T. 1-B.O. in Lisboa, is regularly broadcasting our records, and has a programme made out with their concerts [sic].
"Our Maestro organised in this broadcasting station, absolutely free, a concert with some of our artists that recorded for us during the last recording period. This concert was a great success and nearly every number of the programme had to be repeated, as hundreds of persons telephoned to the station asking enthusiastically for several numbers to be sung again. Our Maestro's idea met with such good acceptance that he intends repeating these concerts every month without, of course, bringing us any expense.
"In consequence, this concert brought us hundreds of orders for records that were done in the recent session. We profit the occasion to congratulate you and also ourselves for the splendid man you have as musical director in Portugal."
Clearly, such a golden opportunity could not go unexploited.
The major record companies, like RCA and EMI, had little to fear from the technological revolution per se, for they were in the forefront of it themselves. However, something else was starting to occur to them; if, as well as live acts, radio stations were broadcasting records then there had to be a measure of control to ensure that the record companies got a slice of the new cake.
From a position in 1924, when HMV was dismissively happy enough to agree to Spanish radio broadcasting HMV records (provided the company name was announced after each item), to 1951, when essentially the same infrastructure, under the control of the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI), demanded the signing of a seven-clause bagreement by Nigerian radio before it would consider supplying any records, the attitude had clearly changed.
Viewed from the perspective of the closing days of 20th Century history, with complex clearance and performing rights systems channelling large quantities of money, these early reactions seem almost wilfully naive. However, radio then was the novelty invention that caught the world's attention just as the gramophone had a generation before it. The history of most media-centric home entertainment displays an early period of free and wild development, experimentation and loosely governed activity. The same would be true of television a few years later.
In Britain, some form of international control was felt to be necessary simply because, throughout the period under discussion, so many records were specifically manufactured in Britain for various export markets. Vested interests had to be maintained.
Selections of correspondence that I passed between affiliated members of the IFPI, a body erected to protect gramophone industry interests, shows how attitudes developed. In 1934 an agreement was reached between ' the IFPI and Argentine broadcasting companies not to levy any charges on the public performance of records providing the radio stations agreed to limit air time to three hours maximum a day. This, of course, goes some way to explaining why there was so much live music on radio. Four years later, turning their attention to Portugal, the IFPI complained, "Portugal is one of those countries in which the record business has suffered very severely from the unrestricted use of records for broadcasting, but it appears now that as a result of the efforts which have been made, there is a reasonable chance that the necessary protection will be incorporated into the new law". A year or so later, apparently, that "necessary protection" was ratified. The following year, archive correspondence informs us that records were suppliedto Radio Maurice in Mauritius at a wholesale rate ex-factory provided it signed an IFPI agreement that recorded music would be broadcast only one hour every day.
By 1950 the grip was tightening. Radio Clube Da Huila of Angola was sent the same seven-clause agreement as the previously mentioned Nigerian station; now, the IFPI was also asking for a £15.00 membership fee per annum and requiring detailed quarterly statements of all records broadcast.
This fuss was not just because overseas countries wanted to play local music. Between them, the gramophone and the radio had spread popular music around the world in many complex layers. By the outbreak of the 1939-45 war, the traveller was as likely to hear a Tango or a Beguine in the airwaves of Paris or Santiago as they were in New York or Barcelona. It was this that really concerned the IFPI. A glance at the 1947 readers poll of the top fifteen artists in Radio Mundial magazine, the Portuguese equivalent of Radio Times is enlightening:
1 Amalia Rodrigues
2. Maria Clara
3. Bing Crosby
4. Aberto Ribeiro
5. Maria Da Graca
6. Jean Sablon
7. Frank Sinatra
8. Dick Haymes
9. Francisco Canaro
10. Rosita Serrano
11. Maria Gabriela
12. Herminia Silva
13. Charles Trenet
14. Imperio Argentina
15 George Boulanger
Six Portuguese fadistas, three Americans, three French, two Spanish and a tango orchestra! At the time this poll was conducted there were seven active radio stations in Portugal, each featuring an average of nine shows a day. Since Portugal was both bound by the IFPI agreement and still without its own record manufacturing industry, it continued to rely heavily on live studio sessions by local artists.
Despite the launch of television in America and Europe, radio growth continued steadily throughout the 1950s and '60s. By 1967 Albania had seventeen stations (broadcasting much folk music), Brazil supported an incredible 944, Madagascar could muster 95, Uruguay had 72 whilst the Philippines, with a population of 27 million spread over thousands of islands maintained an astonishing network of over 5,000 stations, two-thirds of them privately owned.
Is it possible still to travel the world with your AM/FM portable and expect to hear folkrooted music? My own experience tells me yes. Paris's FM band can yield a most engaging mixture of Tunisian, Moroccan, Algerian, and Portuguese music; across America, in most major cities, Public Radio often reflects the local culture accurately. Now, too, there is much African and Caribbean music to be heard on American FM stations. Spain still supports its traditional music via the airwaves, and a Portuguese Fado is an integral part of Lisbon radio programming. London now supports the multicultural Spectrum Radio, and the newly-launched Radio Asia adds another window of opportunity to peek through. Away to your lofts with screwdriver and bell wire: radio is still a useful and affordable way to hear good music.
With thanks to:
British Library, Keith Chandler, EMI Archives, Pekka Gronow, National Sound Archive.
This article was originally published in the magazine FolkROOTS.
Copyright belongs to the author.
Electronic edition by Lars Fredriksson, April 17, 1997