Wednesday, 11 July 2018

Dead Air (The Wire #414)

The Wire #414 - a Minimalism special - contains my short history of broadcast radio silence (precursors to John Cage's unrealised 1948 plan to broadcast silence over the Muzak cable network).  The piece does, however, contain an editorial distortion! Hopefully I can provide an errata here.

It's frustrating when meaning is lost during editorial trimming down of writing, but a paid outlet for new research (even if slightly maimed by editors) is preferable to the unpaid academic journals who often disparage submissions from non-institutional researchers like me.... so... mustn't grumble too much.

The BBC's ticking clock, c.1930.
For silent moments in programmes.
I'd written about the 'ghost in galoshes' - the nickname given to the BBC's ticking clock sound that reassured 1930s listeners during silent moments within radio programmes.  15-minutes of this ticking was broadcast in October 1932 when the script for J. B. Priestley's talk To a Highbrow was mislaid.  I'd originally written that this 'dead air' was rebroadcast via a transatlantic line to the US CBS network at a reported cost of £2-per-minute.  However, in the editing (without my knowledge), this crucial detail about the transatlantic relay was removed, leading readers to assume that merely broadcasting silence itself cost £2-per-minute (roughly £100-per-minute today).

Despite this failing, the piece may have interest for anyone curious about the origin of the radio term 'dead air'.  Modern glossaries date it to the 1940s, but my research indicates it originates in late-1920s New York radio circles.  One of its earliest appearances is in a rare little dictionary of radio slang printed in early 1931, compiled by New York-based CBS engineer Irving Reis: the entry reads "Dead Air - Absence of broadcasting" alongside "Dead Mike" (an unconnected microphone).  Technological progress has rendered most other featured terms obsolete: 'Soup' (current fed to the aerial), 'Woof' (signal to start a programme), or 'Motorboating' (a distinctive sound produced when powered microphones had insufficient volume) are all unfamiliar now.

'Dead air' also appears in a transcript of spoken testimony dated November 1st 1929 during an appeal by the imperilled station WMAK against the Federal Radio Commission, who were insistent that stations in New York's overcrowded ether use their wavelength to full capacity.  Here, newspaper reporter and employee of the station WGR for Buffalo, New York - William G. Cook - used the term at least twice weighing up instances of radio silence.  As the Wire piece states, the negative term originated in America where airtime was precious, yet broadcast silence was more valued in other countries (notably the UK and Japan).  The BBC's director-general John Reith stated in January 1930: "We need silence badly, and consciously or unconsciously long for it"...

William G. Cook (left) and Irving Reis (right) - responsible for early appearances of the term 'dead air' in print.
Read more in this month's The Wire #414 for more - 'When Less Is More'

No comments:

Post a Comment