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Hello, Below There: Signalmen and Nerve Centers in 1940's Radio Drama

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Abstract:

In recent years, Americanists have evinced new interest in the golden age of radio. Studies have turned to broadcasting to find a place where identities form, and writers have employed the radio play as a cultural artifact that definitively expresses mid-20th century values and beliefs. Yet these studies have by and large remained genre-specific, honing in on one type of program or format to the exclusion of others. This practice is somewhat artificial, and it often curtails the sorts of identities that fall within investigative compass, while also limiting the range of issues on which this undertheorized cultural artifact can most profitably yield historical testimony.

This paper aims to amend these deficits by integrating a number of generically diverse programs through a key myth that aired on many of them, ranging from the experimental playhouse The Columbia Workshop and the police procedural Dragnet to the thriller Lights Out! and serial melodrama The Mayor of the Town. I argue that beginning in World War II, each of these programs began to relate tales that hinge on a “signalman” who mans a switchboard or network node, men who become psychically defined by their intimate relationship with some kind of signal network, and who face moral or metaphysical quandaries related to it. The signalman and his conflicts were used to negotiate the new presence of the mass media in everyday airspace, but they also produced a new sort of location – the “nerve center,” an interstitial zone where reports, signals and messages flow in and out of the hands of professional information workers. Because of its reliance on sound effects, radio proved uniquely able to promulgate the sense that the world itself was linked by a contiguous web of transmissions, a concept that produced a precursor to the fantasy of the information-based society that became significant to later eras.

Tracking signalmen and nerve centers from the War to the Red Scare, I argue that these plays began as a way for radio to imagine its own mythic aspects, particularly its status as the infrastructure of the War’s far flung and highly mythologized communications circuitry. But this mandate changed in the late 1940’s. In just a few years, signal centers came to be associated with authority figures and deadpan officials, as nerve centers shed their mystery and became part of the machinery of the Cold War. Nerve centers ceased to be the object of reflective contemplation, and became a tool to effect ideological ends. My paper will chart out this change, while also modeling an approach to the medium that blends attentive close reading with a cultural historical agenda aimed at finding aspects of radio culture that have hitherto remained hidden beneath the din of manifest content.
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Name: American Studies Association Annual Meeting
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URL: http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p244391_index.html
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MLA Citation:

Verma, Neil. "Hello, Below There: Signalmen and Nerve Centers in 1940's Radio Drama" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association Annual Meeting, Hyatt Regency, Albuquerque, New Mexico, Oct 16, 2008 <Not Available>. 2014-11-30 <http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p244391_index.html>

APA Citation:

Verma, N. , 2008-10-16 "Hello, Below There: Signalmen and Nerve Centers in 1940's Radio Drama" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association Annual Meeting, Hyatt Regency, Albuquerque, New Mexico <Not Available>. 2014-11-30 from http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p244391_index.html

Publication Type: Conference Paper/Unpublished Manuscript
Abstract: In recent years, Americanists have evinced new interest in the golden age of radio. Studies have turned to broadcasting to find a place where identities form, and writers have employed the radio play as a cultural artifact that definitively expresses mid-20th century values and beliefs. Yet these studies have by and large remained genre-specific, honing in on one type of program or format to the exclusion of others. This practice is somewhat artificial, and it often curtails the sorts of identities that fall within investigative compass, while also limiting the range of issues on which this undertheorized cultural artifact can most profitably yield historical testimony.

This paper aims to amend these deficits by integrating a number of generically diverse programs through a key myth that aired on many of them, ranging from the experimental playhouse The Columbia Workshop and the police procedural Dragnet to the thriller Lights Out! and serial melodrama The Mayor of the Town. I argue that beginning in World War II, each of these programs began to relate tales that hinge on a “signalman” who mans a switchboard or network node, men who become psychically defined by their intimate relationship with some kind of signal network, and who face moral or metaphysical quandaries related to it. The signalman and his conflicts were used to negotiate the new presence of the mass media in everyday airspace, but they also produced a new sort of location – the “nerve center,” an interstitial zone where reports, signals and messages flow in and out of the hands of professional information workers. Because of its reliance on sound effects, radio proved uniquely able to promulgate the sense that the world itself was linked by a contiguous web of transmissions, a concept that produced a precursor to the fantasy of the information-based society that became significant to later eras.

Tracking signalmen and nerve centers from the War to the Red Scare, I argue that these plays began as a way for radio to imagine its own mythic aspects, particularly its status as the infrastructure of the War’s far flung and highly mythologized communications circuitry. But this mandate changed in the late 1940’s. In just a few years, signal centers came to be associated with authority figures and deadpan officials, as nerve centers shed their mystery and became part of the machinery of the Cold War. Nerve centers ceased to be the object of reflective contemplation, and became a tool to effect ideological ends. My paper will chart out this change, while also modeling an approach to the medium that blends attentive close reading with a cultural historical agenda aimed at finding aspects of radio culture that have hitherto remained hidden beneath the din of manifest content.


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