It’s an all too familiar movie trope. A bug hidden in a flower jar. A figure in shadows crouched listening at a door. The tape recording that no one knew existed, revealed at the most decisive of moments. Even the abrupt disconnection of a phone call manages to arouse the suspicion that we are never as alone as we may think. And although surveillance derives its meaning the latin “vigilare” (to watch) and French “sur-“ (over), its deep connotations of listening have all but obliterated that distinction.
Rounding out our series on surveillance, Kathleen Battles offers a historical perspective that shows how early twentieth century crime drama naturalized practices of citizen surveillance. A million eyes were activated as millions of listeners learned that the immediacy of radio and telephone allowed for an unprecedented level of participation in law enforcement. Calling all cars…Calling all cars… -AT
Police Headquarters, a 1932 radio crime drama, was produced in the infancy of narrative radio. Containing barely 12 minutes of narrative content, the program opened each episode with a repeating segment of call, connection, and dispatch to quickly establish both the crime committed and how the police responded to it. For example, in the “Payroll Robbery” episode it takes just over a minute and a half to hear a phone call to the titular headquarters, its connection to the proper unit, a radio call to a specific police car, and the responding officers arriving at the assigned location. Compared with the graphically and visually intense images of modern surveillance in contemporary popular culture, this brief exchange no doubt sounds quaint, simplistic, and even banal. After all, radios, cars, and telephones have served as the routine backdrop of most police dramas for some 70 years. But in 1932 the interlinking of these technologies was factually, as well as imaginatively, novel. This essay shows how radio, as “new media,” was central to imagining surveillance in sonic terms, prefiguring many features of contemporary surveillance practices.
The introduction of radio and cars into police work took place in the first decades of the twentieth century, especially during the years between the two world wars that Richard Popp (2011) calls “the machine age”. He argues that this period witnessed vast transformations brought on by cars and radios, which, when combined with existing technologies like the telephone, forged new communication networks that transformed both work and leisure. These changes were central to the narratives of criminality and policing that emerged during the interwar years. Police were the focus of radio dramas, including Police Headquarters and Calling All Cars. These dramas played with the intermingling of automobility, telephony, and radio in ways that spoke to the main problems police forces saw themselves facing: organized, professional, mobile, machine-age criminals. Cars, telephones, and automobiles were not just tools to criminals, but they were also the building blocks for a machine age surveillance made possible by the sonic power of radio.
Recently, Robin James (2014) has suggested that the acousmatic is a useful metaphor for understanding the emerging practices of data based surveillance. Acousmatic surveillance listens for patterns in “ambient data environments” instead of profiling individuals in the panoptic sense. At the turn of the twentieth century, radio allowed for a panacoustic mastery of spaces that bridged both panoptic and acousmatic surveillance. Radio also speaks to another key feature of information age surveillance, what Mark Andrejevic (2011) describes as the “redoubling of tools for communication and leisure as technologies for surveillance and security.” (165-66) The technical capabilities and imaginative potentials of radio help us to consider it both as a police technology and entertainment medium. The sonic power of radio was often figured as an “Invisible Man Hunter,” whose realignment of spatial and temporal arrangements rendered criminal escape impossible. As an entertainment medium, radio’s aurality was key to understanding its imaginative potential as highly intimate and mobile: invasive and expansive.
In Police Headquarters we hear how radio’s sonic and aural qualities come together. Radio acts as the link between the telephone and car, allowing for a swift response to a citizen request. The tactical use of sound effects and narrative compression in the broadcast situate the listener inside a machine like apparatus that presents the police as always available. At their broadest level, radio crime dramas aurally situate communication and transportation technologies, like radio, as key to both the narrative organization of the story and as a plot element. In the opening to the “Stop That Car” episode of Calling All Cars, a dispatcher advises for cars to be on the lookout for a specific car involved in a hit and run, including the address of the crime and possible location of the vehicle. Overlaid with sound effects made to signify a car, these openings situate listeners as riders eavesdropping on the adventures of mobile police officers. As the program’s title suggests, each episode opened with a police radio call, often voiced by real life LAPD dispatcher, Jessie Rosenquist. The program’s sponsor was the gasoline company that supplied the fuel for LAPD patrol cars – further linking cars and radio as a key theme. In the opening to the “Two Man Crime Wave Episode,” the very ad for the product is performed as a police radio call.
The conceit of eavesdropping on a police adventure did much to link private life and the police. This theme runs tandem to radio’s sonic immediacy, which allowed listeners to imagine a seemingly instantaneous response to citizen phone calls.. For example, the “July 4th in a Radio Car” episode of Calling All Cars situates radio listeners as sonic participants, able to ride along with police from the comfort of their own living rooms. Here, cars respond to a number of calls made by private citizens that bring the policing function into daily life. There is even one call that involves domestic violence, in particular. Throughout the episode, police are situated as an available force – thanks to the telephone, radio, and automobile – to adjudicate all manner of private disputes. In these particular instances the intimacy of radio as a machine age technology is “redoubled” with radio as a police technology. Radio’s intimate address allowed the voices of police officers to enter the private space of the home. At the same time, the machinery of crime fighting required citizen participation, most often figured through the phone call from within the space of the home to the police.
If the intimacy of radio served to cross the divide between public and private, the spatial-temporal collapse achieved by radio made it ideal for sonically monitoring great swaths of space. Intimately linked with cars, radio was understood as especially mobile. Radio’s ability to compress the relationship between space and time is frequently dramatized. For example, in the “Crime vs. Time” episode of Calling All Cars, the host explains how radio has rendered the average response time to a police call for help only two minutes and forty seconds. The episode then proceeds to show how radio was used by the police to track and apprehend two men who robbed a movie theater. Representing phone and radio calls, while specifically referencing geographic locations, radio dramatists used radio’s aural dimensions to render radio’s sonic power of surveillance. Capable of reaching everywhere, police radio, when linked with the telephone and automobile, could be used to sonically pinpoint any somewhere that a criminal might try to escape to.
In our era of high-tech and sophisticated technologies, visually rich narratives, and algorithmically driven methods of tracking, there is certainly something simple, comforting, and even nostalgic in these tales of low-tech machine age criminal apprehension. Depression era true crime dramas certainly do not offer the kind of sophistication as information age narratives, such as The Wire. The medium’s sonic qualities were key to linking together its use as both a police instrument and as a domestic entertainment technology. With sonic forces invisibly and silently crossing the into intimate domestic spaces and covering large swaths of territory, radio became key to imagining many features that we take for granted as “new” about the information age: the control of movement across space, the constant availability of communicative connection, the promise of perfect coordination across a field of institutional actors, the marshaling of citizen participation in surveillance efforts, and the construction of increasingly intimate links between domestic life and law enforcement procedures. In serving as central node in refiguring shifting notions of space and time that existing institutions were not prepared to handle, radio’s sonic qualities remapped the meaning of police work and helped to establish a relationship between the police and citizen body that still resonates today. While not as technologically sophisticated, machine age policing and police narratives took advantage of radio’s double function as both a machine of coordination and medium of entertainment to extend the policing function into more areas of life. This reflects a sonic mode of power that allows neither the interior space of the home nor the exterior world of the road relief from police presence. This moment of technological interconnection, however, evoked the excitement and anxiety that made sonic surveillance at once thrilling and calming; a salve to soothe the woes of a world that now seemed intensely close and impossibly far flung. Is it any wonder that while some fret over the power of corporate and state dataveillance today, that some continue to find comfort in the possibility of being recognized as someone in a world of ever more intense interconnection?
Featured image “Radio for Backup” by Jonathan Flinchbaugh CC BY-NC-SA.
Kathleen Battles is Associate Professor and Graduate Director in the Department of Communication and Journalism at Oakland University. Her research focuses on radio history, especially as it relates to issues of policing, sound and surveillance, questions concerning technology and culture, and sexuality and the media. She is the author of Calling All Cars: Radio Dragnets and the Technology of Policing (University of Minnesota Press, 2010); co-editor (with Joy Hayes and Wendy Hilton-Morrow) of War of the Worlds to Social Media: Mediated Communication in Times of Crisis (Peter Lang, 2013); and co-author (with Wendy Hilton-Morrow) of Sexual Identities and the Media: An Introduction (Routledge, 2015). In addition, her work has appeared in Critical Studies in Media Communication, The Radio Journal, and the Journal of Homosexuality.
REWIND!…If you liked this post, check out:
Acousmatic Surveillance and Big Data-Robin James
Welcome back to From Mercury to Mars, our series of posts (in conjunction with Antenna) that reflect on Orson Welles’s radio career, and the upcoming anniversary of its highlight, “The War of the Worlds.”
When scholars discuss the effect of that play on people, they often fall into reveries about its most serious dimensions — what the Martian Panic says about human susceptibility, about the power of the media, about sound and the unknown. But it’s important to realize that, besides being terribly humorless, this approach also isn’t historically just. Although Welles was — like some of his listeners — spooked the night of the event, in the days that followed he and many others came to recognize some humor in the the whole thing, too. Later in life, Welles focused on that dimension of his memory, repeatedly recalling with laughter that when the actor John Barrymore (something of a “grand old man” of the American stage in 1938), heard the Martian invasion broadcast he tearfully decided to free his beloved dogs, so they could taste freedom before meeting the inexorable doom.
Such tall tales aren’t trivial. Actually, we misunderstand the WOTW escapade if we don’t recognize that immediately adjacent to modern America’s propensity for panic stood its equally fascinating capacity to laugh at itself. Both tendencies do cultural work, often in concert with one another. With that in mind, this week our Mercury to Mars series moves from the macabre (see Debra Rae Cohen’s piece on Welles and Dracula) to the ridiculous, focusing on the relationship between Welles’s puffed-up fame and how it was lampooned by Fred Allen, one of the great absurdist comics in modern entertainment, and perhaps the most creative radio comedian of his era.
To introduce this crucial entertainer and to explain why his relationship to Welles matters so much, we are lucky to have one of the most important voices in radio studies today: Kathleen Battles, Associate Professor of Communication at Oakland University, author of a paradigm-shifting study of the relationship between radio and policing, Calling All Cars: Radio Dragnets and the Technology of Policing (Minnesota, 2010). Battles is also one of the co-editors of a book you should all be reading, assigning, and handing out like Halloween candy — War of the Worlds to Social Media: Mediated Communication in Times of Crisis (Peter Lang, 2013).
Here’s a taste, just to get you started.
Contemporary public memory of Orson Welles seems bent on remembering him as mercurial, imperious, haughty genius, driven in equal parts by ambition and artistic vision. It is hard to remember that this image of the auteur – not Welles but “Welles” – was one crafted not by the man alone, but by a host of actors and other performers, all with their own interest in attaching themselves to such a “genius.” As Welles’s reputation grew in the wake of the “War of the Worlds” broadcast, furthering his transformation into “Welles,” it was simply a matter of time before he became a fodder for another kind of auteur, the radio comedian. One of the most popular was Fred Allen, who made a career archly satirizing the cultural conventions of the day, with the radio industry itself being one of his favorite targets. “Welles” was too rich a subject to forego.
This post explores two key moments of Allen’s satire. The first came on November 9, 1939, when Allen’s show featured a comic skit, entitled “The Soundman’s Revenge, or, He Only Pulled the Trigger a Little, Because the Leading Man was Half Shot Anyway,” a radio skit that deftly mimes the Mercury/Campbell style to comic effect. The second is from three years later, October 18, 1942, when Welles himself appeared on Allen’s show, joining in the fun as the pair rehearse Les Miserables, with Welles gamely mocking “Welles.” In these two short skits, Allen and his team of writers and performers quickly dismantle what had become the more recognizable elements of the Mercury/Campbell style–as exemplified in Welles’s version of A Tale of Two Cities–including the elevation of Welles to the genius “author” of the plays, its narrative and performance techniques, and the use of sound effects.
Mercury Theater was strongly marked with the authorial imprint of the real Welles, but the legend of “Orson Welles” was also crafted quite deliberately by CBS, and then later by show sponsor Campbell’s Soup, for their own aims at cultural legitimacy. As Michele Hilmes argued, such moves were key to legitimizing the medium as operating in the “public interest” (183-88). Here is a clip from just after Campbell Soup began sponsoring the Welles program:
As other writers have pointed out, such as Debra Rae Cohen in her entry to this series, Neil Verma, and Paul Heyer, the show was among the best in emphasizing the sonic properties of radio to maximum effect in storytelling. The quality acting of members of the Mercury Theater, the music of Bernard Herrmann, the ambitious use of sound effects, and some stellar examples of adapting literary tales make the show worthy of praise.
The emotional and narrative power of Welles himself is evident in the Mercury Theater dramatization of A Tale of Two Cities. Taking on Dickens’ sprawling classic in one hour certainly demanded some creative choices. One was to open with Dr. Mannette’s letter from the Bastille prison, with Welles as Mannette emotionally dictating the words that would later serve to betray his own family.
This is contrasted against the later reading of the same letter in a courtroom scene, where the emotional poignancy of Welles’s performance is counterpointed against its dry reading as a piece of evidence.
Dynamic use of sound effects was another key element of the Mercury/Campbell style. From his work in March of Time and The Shadow, which both used sound effects to enact key narrative devices (Time varied times and locations, the Shadow’s invisibility), Welles used his own radio program to push the boundaries of what such effects could achieve. In A Tale of Two Cities, sound effects are used to punctuate key moments, none to greater effect than the final scene in which the sound of the guillotine serves as the morbid backdrop to Carton’s final, famous speech of self sacrifice:
All of these tendencies are key to Allen’s “Soundman’s Revenge,” in which Orson Welles and the Campbell’s Playhouse become “Dorson Belles” and “Finnegan’s Playhouse,” with the evening’s entertainment an adaptation of Jack and Jill fetching a pail of water.
Belles, acted by Fred Allen, tells his listeners that “My program is famous, and rightly so, for my sound effects, conceived in solitude by me.” The skit reaches ridiculous heights during a dramatization of “Jack’s” first meeting with “Jill.” As Jack and Jill wax enthusiastically at each other merely by repeating each others’ names, the host breaks in to tell listeners that “This dialogue, ladies and gentleman, is not to be found in the original Mother Goose version. It has been interprellated by Dorson Belles. We return you now to the play.”
The always potential high culture pretentiousness of Mercury/Campbell aesthetic choices are brought to the fore by the ridiculous choice of a Mother Goose nursery rhyme as the “play” within the skit. But other things do as well. The skit opens in typical Mercury first person narrative style, where Jack tells the tale from his own perspective in a ponderous, overwrought dramatic fashion. Jack does not live in postcard ready New England, he lives in a “land of penury and misery.” He does not merely make a mess while preparing his dinner, but “licks the albumen of owl’s egg off his fingers.”’
In its most pointed reference to Mercury style, the skit directly plays off a memorable moment in War of the Worlds when, as Professor Pierson narrates his travels in New Jersey, he states that “I saw something crouching in a doorway, and it rose up and became a man. A man armed with a large knife.” Here is the clip:
In similar dramatic style, Jack narrates his journey up the hill, hauling his “heavy oaken pail” and asks “What was that huddled form crouching in my path? Was it a girl? It was!”
The comic tour-de-force, however, comes with its satire of sound effects. Allen’s team goes for broke as listeners laugh along to the gradual undoing of the hapless Theodore Slade, Welles’s sound effects engineer in the skit, who is driven to madness by the excessive number of effects. Slade makes many mistakes throughout, but his errors really add up when Jack kills his father and he describes the “long arm of the law” reaching out, coming from the north on horseback, the east by train, the west by “aeroplane,” and the north by sleigh. Each description is punctuated by its appropriate sound; hooves, whistles, engines, and of course, sleigh bells.
It works the first time, but when Jack dramatically asks if he and Jill can escape each of these modes of capture, Slade plays the wrong effects. When Jack tells us he stabbed the Sherriff, Slade plays a gunshot. This time, when Belles chastises him, Slade lets loose, telling Belles that he is going “nuts,” then trying to rectify the mistake by killing the Sherriff again. Belles yells out that “this is confusing!” to which Slade retorts, “you’re telling me!” As Jill tries to continue the scene, telling us she is shooting herself, Slade plays the train whistle. Finally Jack narrates that Jill, the Sherriff, and his father are dead, and that “I alone live.” Slade replies, “yeah, but not for long,” and after listing off years worth of complaints, shoots Belles. Belles, in a pitch perfect rendition of Welles’s weekly closing of his radio show, says “This is Dorson Belles, signing off permanently. Pending rigor mortis, I remain, obediently yours.”
Perhaps Welles was offended, or perhaps he yearned to be in on the joke. He certainly seemed to relish the chance for that opportunity, when he appeared as a guest on Allen’s show, 3 years later on October 18, 1942. Here he plays along in the skewering of his own genius image, tied to his authorial control over all his projects. As the cast nervously awaits the arrival of the great “Welles,” Allen tries to calm them. Once “Welles” enters the studio, Allen himself comes in for his own ribbing. “Welles” tells him that they will be performing a new version of one of Welles’s early radio dramatizations, Les Miserables. Here Welles successfully mocks both “Welles” and Allen, insisting on sole authorship, giving an overwrought performance, using the first person singular mode of delivery, and most humorously by reducing Allen’s contribution to a few sound effects.
In those few moments where Welles himself cannot help from laughing along with the mockery, “Welles” becomes Welles, and we in the audience get to laugh with, not at, the man.
While CBS, Campbell Soup, and the press turned Welles into “Welles,” Allen undermined that move, puncturing the grandiose myth, a project in which Welles himself was only too willing to participate. By breaking it down to its constituent elements, the “Soundman” and Les Miserables skits celebrate the unique style of the Mercury/Campbell radio productions. Yet, they also pierce its cultured veneer by pointing to the unsung efforts of the always-necessary team to make radio performances work, and skewering the pretentiousness of the program’s extra-textual discourses. In the process Welles and Allen mutually constructed and deflated each other’s reputation as radio geniuses.
Featured Image: Orson Welles and Anthony Perkins sharing a laugh on the set of The Trial.
Kathleen Battles is Associate Professor and Graduate Director in the Department of Communication and Journalism at Oakland University (MI not CA). She is recently co-editor (with Joy Hayes and Wendy Hilton-Morrow) of War of the Worlds to Social Media: Mediated Communication in Times of Crisis (Peter Lang, 2013), a volume that seeks to draw connections between the War of the Worlds broadcast event and contemporary issues surrounding new media. She is also the author Calling All Cars: Radio Dragnets and the Technology of Policing (University of Minnesota Press, 2010). Her research interests include Depression era radio cultures, the interrelationship between radio, telephones, and automobiles, media and space/time, the historical continuities between “old” and “new” media, and contemporary issues surrounding sexuality and the media.
Want to catch up on the Mercury to Mars series?
Click here to read Tom McEnaney’s thoughts on the place of Latin America in Welles’s radio work.
Click here to read Eleanor Patterson’s reflections on recorded re-releases of the “War of the Worlds” broadcast.
Click here to read Debra Rae Cohen’s thoughts on vampire media in Orson Welles’s “Dracula.”
And click here to read Cynthia B. Meyers on the challenges and rewards of teaching WOTW in the classroom.
While I’ve still got you here … be sure to join our WOTW anniversary Facebook group. Next month we’re planning exciting events around the anniversary of the Martian Panic on October 30, 2013 from 7-10 EST, and hoping to get as many of you as we can to liveTweet the Invasion broadcast. Sign up to join in!