NEW AMERICAN RADIO
The works created by the artists who participated in New Radio and Performing Arts’ (NRPA) New American Radio series during the 1980s and 90s characterize a uniquely American sensibility, culture and landscape, and their diverse voices and visions represent a cross-section of our individual and collective histories and experiences.
In commissioning, producing and distributing contemporary American radio art during that time, New American Radio nurtured the art form through its most innovative period. Without New American Radio many of these works would never have been made, let alone broadcast. By documenting and continuing to distribute radio art, NRPA is both illuminating and preserving a vital body of work that serves as a crucial cultural autobiography and oral history of our times, a body of work that might otherwise be lost between the pages of art and media history.
The very phrase ‘radio art’ seems like an ironic contradiction, an oxymoron even, given the nature of the mainstream broadcast landscape. But it is in actuality a paradigm for our time in which ancient traditions of aural culture collide with instant information access and retrieval in the global village of mass media telecommunications systems. From the artist’s point of view radio is an environment to be entered into and acted upon, a site for various cultural voices to meet, converse, and merge in.
Radio holds a unique place in American cultural history, and in the shaping of popular culture in particular. It is the bridge between the two halves of the 20th century, the memory trace from one generation to the next, traversed by world leaders, sportscasters, crooners, comedians, cowboys, private eyes, and space travelers, voices imprinted into the American psyche resonating across time and space. For three decades radio held a central place in our living rooms. Then it was superceded by television. Still, for another two decades it was a primary conduit for youth culture and its music-rock n’ roll. For a great number of Americans who were in their teens and twenties in the 1950s and 60s, radio and automobiles are inseparable. Not surprisingly radio continued to hold a special fascination for a generation of American artists for whom it had been an indelible part of their life experience and imagination, and between 1980 and 1994 a number of them reconceived radio for their own time as a bridge between art and popular culture.
Although avant-garde artists have experimented with radio since its inception, it was the advent in the 1970s of non-commercial, listener-sponsored public radio on the FM band, including college and local community stations that opened up the possibilities of art on the airwaves, not simply as an isolated incident but as a viable alternative to rigidly formatted commercial radio dominated by advertising interests. This new opportunity was augmented by the revolution in both recording and broadcast technology and easy consumer access to sophisticated equipment and processes that rapidly changed the nature of production and distribution. Thus in the 1980s radio and audio artworks-sound art, experimental narratives, sonic geographies, pseudo documentaries, radio cinema, conceptual and multimedia performances-a whole panoply of broadcast interventions that confronted the politics of culture, subverted mass media news and entertainment, and challenged aural perceptions, infiltrated the broadcast landscape and acquired an audience.
Although these works encompass a diversity of aesthetics and styles, the artists share a sensibility radically different from that of their predecessors whose roots are in the European avant-garde tradition. It is a distinctly postmodern American sensibility of blurred boundaries between realities-a convergence of art concepts and forms and media culture, of history, memory, fantasy, and fiction, of public and private space. Unlike the Dada/Fluxus-based sound poetry, musique concrete, and audio/radio art explorations of John Cage’s disciples, contemporary American radio art of the 80s and 90s, from the most complex hi-tech studio productions to the raw energy of live and interactive broadcasts, is predominantly engaged with employing new narrative strategies and subverting media conventions. The result is a montage of performance art, poetry, politics, worldwide music, urban noise, manipulated nature, popular entertainment and advertising, vernacular speech, fractured language, all modes of talk and an array of cultural voices from the mainstream to the marginal. These artists cross disciplines, raid all genres and recontextualize them into new hybrids.
The majority have sustained bodies of work in the visual and performing arts, and they have brought that formal vocabulary to the works they have created for radio. Each has experimented with ways to tell a “story,” introducing unconventional structures to traditional broadcast formats. This holds true in both textual and non-textual works. Some have approached radio as an architectural space to be constructed sonically and linguistically; or as the site of an event, an arena, or stage. Some used it as a gathering place, or a conduit, a means to create community. Other artists have employed the media landscape itself as the narrative, while others looked into the body as the site and the source; the voicebox, the larynx become medium and metaphor. Still others gathered the sounds of the world as evidence and constructed maps of imaginary geographies. The tape recorder and microphone replace the camera, capture moments in time, the life of a place in process; a journey is recalled and reconstructed, overlaid with new insights. Some transposed a cinematic syntax-a montage of dissolves, quick cuts instead of fades, a series of close-ups, long shots, reverse angles. Others appropriated media genres and turned them inside out giving an appearance of veracity to interviews with false personae, and documentary authority to invented data; or the reverse, creating musically structured works from authentic field interviews. The diversity of ideas and forms of their work reflects the socio-cultural complexities and contradictions of life in late twentieth century America, as it grapples with the problem of art as a mode of communicating ideas in a media dominated environment.
Like the process-based visual art of the 1970s, radio art sought to wrench itself free from the commodities marketplace of media entertainment, and the elitist prestige of the arts institutions in order to inhabit public space and public consciousness. It presented itself as information and experience, a participatory transaction between artist and viewer/listener, as opposed to goods.
Radio art has operated on the aesthetic, perceptual, and conceptual frontier, marginalized not only within all the art disciplines it encompasses, but inside the system of distribution it has infiltrated. Like astronauts defying the gravitational laws of time and space, contemporary practitioners crossed the borders from artland to mass medialand throwing into question definitions of art based on context, while attempting to redefine the nature of the site of their activities and position their “product” in relation to its non-art counterpart. Arty journalism is NOT radio art, though journalistic devises may be employed by radio artists. Likewise, it is not traditional radio drama, though it may use dramatic conventions. It is not, strictly speaking, music, though it may be composed entirely of non-textual sound. In addition, radio art investigates the nature of language itself-speech as culture, and sound as language-in an era when language has been corrupted by euphemism, double-speak, jargon, and propaganda. As an aural art form it reaffirms that it’s not just what we say, but the way we say it. Given all these characteristics the entire enterprise is inherently political outside of the specific content of any individual work.
Initially it was relatively easy for artists to simply walk in the back door and onto the airwaves of public radio unobstructed. For a brief time they traversed unmonitored airwaves like guerillas in the night, beaming into automobiles across the urban sprawl. And they developed an audience, an odd cross-section of the populace scanning the broadcast band for a signal amongst the babble in Babel.
Since the late 80s, however, public radio more than any other medium has been subject to extreme censorship both outside and inside the system, with audio and performance artists and writers caught at the center of the controversy over civil liberties, freedom of speech and cultural diversity, public access to public broadcasting, and who controls communications technology. From the point of view of those who own and control mass media, radio art may be perceived as anarchistic, unpredictable, uncategorizable, and therefore politically undesirable. The goal of the media artist is after all to communicate a different version of reality to a vast number of people, many of whom might not otherwise be exposed to it. Since the fluid composition of this audience does not adhere to marketing research demographics, the most effective way of suppressing this work is to declare that such an audience does not in fact exist, or that its numbers are too small to be of significance. In other words, to manipulate statistical data and apply marketplace prerogatives to so-called non-commercial public radio.
Given the collapse of arts funding, the vagaries of cultural politics, and the seductions of cyberspace, radio art as such has become an endangered species. In the 21st century radio as we have known it may disappear altogether, swallowed up by multimedia cyberspace. Or, as an obsolete technology relegated to the subculture fringes, it may exist only in pirate form, a weapon of the world’s under classes, a tool for artists, revolutionaries, shamans, and other questioning voices in our brave new tech world. Art and the artist have already been virtually banished from the airwaves, and most public radio programming, which is now either nationally syndicated, or thematically formatted can be revisited on-line; thus the purely aural mobile listening experience has been shifted to a frequently desk-bound audio-visual one.
New American Radio has done its utmost to sustain the art form in its original context. But its producers also had the foresight to both archive it and make it accessible through a variety of media, including on-line. Never have many of these works seemed more relevant than at this crucial time in our cultural and political life, and fortunately they are still available to a new generation of listeners thanks to the continuing efforts and interest of what survives of independent and community radio, and New Radio and Performing Arts’ dedication to radio art.
Jacki Apple is a visual, performance and media artist, audio composer, writer, director, and producer whose diverse artistic career has encompassed a wide range of media and forms-interdisciplinary performance, multimedia installations, audio, radio, video, film, photography, artist books, drawings, conceptual works, and commissioned public art works. Her works have been performed, exhibited, and broadcast in art spaces, galleries, museums, theaters, festivals, on radio and cable TV throughout the United States and Canada, and in Europe, Australia, and New Zealand.