Radio City: Sound, Space The City

What follows is a talk I gave today as part of the City Workshop series at The New School. It’s based on material I’m sorting through for my new book:


(I’m not sure why I used Helvetica on my slides; Garamond’s usually my jam.)

Radio City: Sound, Space, and the City

I proposed the title of this talk in August, well before this presentation had any hazily outlined form. Using a well-worn strategy, I proposed a title that was sufficiently polysemic to allow me plenty of wiggle room in determining my specific focus later on. But because that polysemy might have brought some of you here with widely disparate expectations, I think it’s only fair to start by addressing a handful of the myriad topics and concerns that fall within “sound, space, and the city” – some of which, you might be disappointed to hear, I won’t be addressing – but which I’d be very happy to talk about during the discussion period after my talk.

Many of these are ideas and practices we address in my undergrad “City + Sound” and graduate “Sound + Space” courses:

  • [SLIDE 2] Soundscapes
    • Sonic terroir of a location
    • Archaeoacoustics + sonic history
  • [SLIDE 3] Soundwalks and soundmaps
  • [SLIDE 4] Urban-centric sound art, like Max Neuhaus, Bill Fontana, Christina Kubisch, Scanner – some of whom I am writing a separate piece about for a collection on sound art
  • [SLIDE 5] Music scenes, performance spaces, dance halls, nightclubs, etc.
  • [SLIDE 6] Noise and sound politics (I’ve written about the sound politics of public libraries)
  • [SLIDE 7] Radio’s ability to create “public spaces,” “imagined communities” for various urban populations, including those defined by race, class, gender, ideology
  • [SLIDE 8] Mobile sound technologies – from cars with “booming” systems, to the boom box, to ipods – and the navigation of urban space

[SLIDE 9] What I’ve been working on recently – and what I’ll be focusing on today – is something more infrastructural and tied to material space. I think it would be useful if I first said a bit about the larger project within which today’s presentation fits.

[SLIDE 10] I’m currently working on my second book, titled Urban Media Archaeology, which addresses the relationships among historical media networks, or infrastructures, and the material spaces of cities. I examine the longue durée of urban mediation, focusing on media technologies – telegraphy and telephony, print, writing, and the voice – that emerged before the widespread availability of the mechanically reproduced image, yet which have had residual impact on the city through the present day. Each chapter of the book will move progressively farther backward in time, from the “radio city” and the early wired cities of the mid-19th century through the urban forms of the ancient (oral) world. Yet the book is not organized in a simple reverse chronological order; each chapter explains not only how these historical media have shaped urban space in the days when they were the dominant media forms, but also how they continue to do so in our time.

What follows is drawn from my prospectus:

[SLIDE 11] The book promises to make several substantial contributions to the fields of media and urban studies. First, unlike much existing research on the “media city,” which emphasizes the representation of cities in media, my project will make the case that there are fundamental material connections between the study of media and the study of cities, and looking at urban infrastructures will allow us to understand their mutually constitutive relationship.

[SLIDE 12] Second, in working backwards from early telecommunications to oral culture, the project redresses the limited historical scope and ocularcentrism of much existing media and urban studies work on the “media city,” nearly all of which focuses on photography, film, and digital media, and posits that this urban form emerged with the birth of photography. Examining earlier, and often understudied, technologies – most of which are not solely visual – will also enable me to present the city as something more than a visual entity, and the urban dweller as something other than a mere spectator.

[SLIDE 13] Third, drawing methodologies from media archaeology – a growing materialist strain of theory in media studies, heavily influenced by Friedrich Kittler – and archaeology proper, my project will demonstrate the co-presence of media from myriad media-historical “epochs,” and thereby depict cities past and present as spaces simultaneously aural, graphic, textual, sonic, visual, and digital. This historical approach allows me to explore the distinctive temporalities and evolutionary processes of different media technologies in different contexts, and the relationships between them. Through “excavation,” I assess the lifespans of various urban media and ascertain when old media “leak” into new-media landscapes, when media of different epochs are layered palimpsestically, or when new urban media “remediate” their predecessors.

[SLIDE 14] And finally, by looking beyond the global cities – New York, Paris, Berlin, Tokyo, Hong Kong – that dominate the existing research, this work promises to expand the geographic focus of urban media studies. This is where I could really use your input during the discussion section – to identify additional international examples.

Now, here’s what I laid out in my prospectus for the chapter I’ll be focusing on today:

[SLIDE 15] Each chapter will be structured around the search for a particular archaeological “object” (loosely defined) – a media historical artifact – that is representative of its respective epoch in media history.

[SLIDE 16] The first chapter, “Radio City,” searches for radio waves. It acknowledges many encouraging advancements within a rapidly growing subfield of media studies, “sound studies,” and promising work at the intersection of “sound studies” and media studies’ “spatial turn.” Although there is a relative lack of attention paid to the history of sound media in urban culture, compared to the (over)abundance of research on the visual culture of the city, there have in recent years been several promising studies of the “sonic city.” Rather than functioning simply as a literature review, this section uses this research to recast urban history with sound at its center, and to demonstrate how our understanding of the city as material space is enhanced by examining it through other senses.

In the second half of the chapter, I study contemporary design projects and practices that evidence the persistent impact of radio, as well as architects’, urban designers’, engineers’, and other publics’ increasing sensitivity to sound and acoustics – a sensitivity conditioned over the years by radio and related sound technologies.


[SLIDE 17] The first broadcast centers were in cities – which, ironically, presented many material barriers to a radio signal. Because signal strength and the location of stations’ transmitters maximized their broadcasting range, allowing them to either penetrate or circumvent tall buildings, many early broadcasts were transmitted from their cities’ highest points – the top floors of their tallest buildings, which were occasionally hotel rooms (Dennis, Hay). As James Hay notes, in 1922 WMAQ began broadcasting in Chicago from the La Salle Hotel, then the tallest downtown building, and WGN started up in the Wrigley Building. Meanwhile, radio stations in New York were broadcasting from the Metropolitan Life Building and making use of the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings’ antenna spires.

[SLIDE 18] Architectural historian Carlotta Daro acknowledges that new telecommunications technologies gave rise to new infrastructural elements – electricity poles, cables, antennas, transmission towers – “around which cities would be built.” She suggests that the “professional practice of telecommunications engineering was absorbed by modernist architects and urban planners and synthesized as a new kind of technological vision of both town and country.” Lewis Mumford represented one such group of planners – the Regional Planning Association of America. In 1937, he wrote in Architectural Record: [SLIDE 19] “The area of potential urban settlement has been vastly increased by the motor car and the airplane; but, the necessity for solid contiguous growth, for the purposes of the intercourse, has in turn been lessened by the telephone and the radio.” These new, liberating technologies – what he called neotechnics – have afforded planners an opportunity to consider alternatives to increasing urban concentration – and he, and the RPAA, of which he was a co-founder and spokesperson, advocated instead for planned decentralization. (Eventually, though, after having “witnessed some garden city principles being distorted by bureaucratic practice in creating ‘New Towns’ – which he regarded as “merely suburbs dressed up to look like cities” – his tempered his hope for neotechnics’ spatial liberation [Critchley 59].)

[SLIDE 20] Communication scholar James Hay finds evidence of radio’s impact on early twentieth-century city planning:

…the spatial and governmental rationality of the…city not only emphasized the beauty and scientific management of a civic center but also the unity and economy of the city radiating from that center, made possible through networks and grids for increasing the ease and efficiency of communication from one part of the city to another, and between the center all its parts. The “radio city” was born through this spatial arrangement and rationality for liberal government, welfare, and reform – through the earlier ideal of the radial city. By the 1920s radio had become a buzzword for electromagnetic waves that ‘radiated’ from a center-source outward. Over the 1920s and 1930s, radio became the invisible but audible and felt connectivity of the city as communicative space, and communicative space operated as an emerging space of citizenship and civic progress (131).

He suggests that radio – together with city newspapers and urban phone networks, which often operated cooperatively – “reorganized the US city as a communicative space” (132). As if it hadn’t been “communicative” before? As if the urban grid, or radiating urban spaces, didn’t exist before radio?

[SLIDE 21] Others claim to hear – or rather (and this is significant) see – radio in other urban and architectural forms of the early 20th century. Eric Gordon, author of The Urban Spectator (and, again, that final word in the title – spectator – is significant), find that [SLIDE 22] Hugh Ferriss’s drawings of New York adopt the “same formal logic as network radio” (105). Rather than depicting densely packed skyscrapers – or the radial “radio city” Hay describes – Ferriss’s charcoal drawings show “each great mass…surrounded by great spaciousness,” [SLIDE 23] affording citizens “ample vistas,” rendering the city “visible and possessable” (102). Thus radio logic manifests as a visual form. “In his drawings of the ‘Metropolis of Tomorrow,’” Gordon writes, “the city is divided into multiple centers. These ‘centers’ function as broadcasting stations, each emanating out to its proximate cluster of buildings, and each connected through a singular network.” (95). “Empty space,” ether, has been assimilated into the “structural mass of the city” (101).

[SLIDE 24] Sam Jacob, writer, critic, and co-founder of FAT architects, presented a similar argument in a recent issue of Perspecta. He contextualizes his discussion of urban form and architecture by explaining how the rise of radio effected a reconceptualization of geography, and that geographic spatial models were in turn used to make sense of the ether. Radio, as many historians and theorists have argued, seemed to represent a “new cosmology of space, time and information” – perhaps not simply a “collapse in geography,” as many a radio theory posits, but, rather, “an amplification of geographic qualities,…a topography with its own form of spatial logic” – one that oscillates “between the physical and invisible, between media and architecture” (140, 143, 144). This ethereal atmosphere could still be colonized, owned, auctioned, and controlled through regulation; “the electromagnetic spectrum is transformed from Hertzian free space into something resembling…an urban development” (140).

[SLIDE 25] Continuing the metaphor, Jacob finds in the “open plan and the glazed curtain wall…signs of an architecture seeking to respond to the new experiences of wireless communication. Connecting spaces that were once separate, dissolving physical boundaries…in ways that echo the electronic dissolution of space” (137). [SLIDE 26] As the radio spectrum became more and more crowded, architects developed new spatial responses, like the “plug-and-play” projects of Archigram, Superstudio, and Ant Farm. “These architectural responses of postbroadcast space are characterized by a sense of liberty, of detachment from place of the dissolving of architecture into landscapes” (140). [SLIDE 27] The experience of sites like OMA’s proposal for Parc de la Vilette, consisting of “diverse iconography and program,” are analogous to flipping through the radio dial (despite the fact that Parc de la Vilette emerged well into the age of television, which is perhaps a more fitting metaphor; 144). This space of “multiplicity,” of oscillating conditions and experiences – which, Jacob says, characterize “radio space.”

[SLIDE 28] I wonder if so much of what Gordon and Jacob identify as distinguishing “radio space” – its multiple connected centers, open plans, and ample vistas; its diversity and multiplicity – might not, in some cases, precede radio, and in other cases, be equally representative of other media or cultural logics and aesthetics. [SLIDE 29] Yet even if there is some “radio” in these spaces, I find it odd that the conditions and experiences that distinguish “radio architectures” and “radio cities” are all defined in visual terms. What about radio as a sounding medium? Is there no way to “hear” radio’s influence in new spatial forms?

[SLIDE 30] Anthropologist Brian Larkin, in his fabulous book Signal and Noise: Media, Infrastructure and Urban Culture in Nigeria, writes about the sonic consequences of radio’s arrival in Nigeria in the 40s:

In 1944, engineers in Kano began to erect loudspeakers on the walls outside the emirate council office, the public library, the post office, and other prominent public places. The words and music coming from these speakers were radio broadcasts, mainly from England, which were captured by a central receiver and amplifier, relayed by wire to individual households and public loudspeakers, and then discharged into urban space for any in earshot to hear. Radio [thus]…began its life in Nigeria as a public technology (48).

Urban streets and houses were filled with new, foreign sounds – typically propagandistic messages, uttered in funny accents, intended to win Nigerians over to the “power and promise of modern life” offered by their colonizers (50). “Loudspeakers thus formed part of the tactile, everyday world of colonial urban life and created channels of radio waves, cables, receiving sets, and sound waves that connected that world to a larger network” (49). Eventually the arrival of wireless moved radio indoors, but then, in the 1960s, the availability of cheap transistor radios – and, equally significantly, batteries – brought it back outdoors again, in portable form.

[SLIDE 31] Many new sonic techniques and technologies that arrived alongside radio during the early 20th century also informed the sonic shaping of urban space. Acoustic zoning has a long history that, Karin Bijsterveld says, we can trace back to the separation of the “hammering trades from the learned professions” and attempts to muffle “the din of traffic in the proximity of the sick” (68). And when it became possible to measure sound, cities began to define acoustic zones by maximum noise levels. That noise could be created by traffic, airplanes – or even, in the early 20th century, as Bijsterveld explains, pianos, gramophones, and radios.  [SLIDE 32] A 1930 survey initiated by the New York Noise Abatement Commission identified the radio as the third most frequently cited annoyance (cited in Bijsterveld 115). (Interestingly, the Commission also asked the city’s radio stations – a part of the problem – to become part of the solution: to aid in a “campaign to educate radio listeners in noise etiquette” by broadcasting, at 10:30 each night, a reminder to listeners to turn down their loudspeakers “as an act of good sportsmanship” [quoted in Bijsterveld 162).  [SLIDE 33] Mayor Fiorello La Guardia declared a “war on noise” in the mid-1930s, which led to the city’s first noise ordinance; and in the 60s and 70s, Mayor John Lindsey helped to pass the city’s first comprehensive noise code (Radovac Dissertation).

It’s telling that Gordon doesn’t cite any relevant sound studies literature, [SLIDE 34] and in particular Emily Thompson’s book, The Soundscape of Modernity – a book that emerged three years before his Ferriss article appeared in publication and eight years before The Urban Spectator was published, and which has received wide, cross-disciplinary acclaim. Thompson speaks at length about the design of Rockefeller Center, one of Gordon’s central concerns. Yet she addresses it as both a spectatorial and, primarily, given her focus, a sounding space. The lack of dialogue between Gordon and Thompson exemplifies a disconnect, which characterizes much “media city” research, between the “spectatorial city” scholars and the city-as-anything-other-or-more-than-visual scholars.

Thompson’s book sets the stage for Rockefeller Center and Radio City Music Hall by addressing various shifts and developments that helped to shape the “soundscape” of the modern city: [SLIDE 35] developments including the emergence of new sound recording and broadcast technologies, of acoustical engineering, and of new acoustical architectural materials; the cultivation of new techniques and tastes in the “culture of listening” ([SLIDE 36] including new definitions of what constituted noise); and, as a result of these other shifts, “the reformulation of the relationship between sound and space” (2). Steen Eiler Rasmussen, in his classic Experiencing Architecture of 1959, also explained that radio impacted the design of space on the architectural and interior scale, too: [SLIDE 37] “Radio transmission created new interest in acoustic problems. Architects began to study acoustical laws and learned how a room’s resonance could be changed – especially how to absorb sound and shorten the period of reverberation” (235). [SLIDE 38] Products like Akoustolith, Acousti-Celotex, Acoustone, Sanacoustic Tile, Sabinite, and Sprayo-Flake created architectural spaces characterized by the lack of reverberation. Rooms no longer had a signature sound based on their dimensions and materials; these new architectural materials signaled “the power of human ingenuity over the physical environment” (171). Radio and record producers could then engineer back in the simulated sounds of particular performance spaces.

[SLIDE 39] These various developments converged in the creation of Rockefeller Center, which, with GE, RCA, NBC, and RKO on site, represented an “unprecedented concentration of facilities for the dissemination of sight and sound by radio and by record – through the air, the film, and the disk” (Thompson 296). [SLIDE 40] Architect Raymond Hood and associates ornamented the building with radio-themed mosaics, including Barry Faulkner’s “Enlightenment,” which depicts “the radiolike transmission of man’s thoughts across space,” and Gaston Lachaise’s “The Conquest of Space” via radio waves (299). [SLIDE 41] Gordon describes the “interior design as “visual jazz” – a space, as describe by a promotional book, that “seems to pulsate the throb, the feeling of life and motion intensified by the ceiling’s unique design: eight enormous bands that seem to radiate from the stage like waves from a giant source of light” (quoted on 111). Again, that “jazz” is translated into visual terms. But what did the space sound like? Thompson reports that the RKO building was equipped with an Antenaplex System, which allowed all tenants to plug their radio receivers into special outlets and receive guaranteed “efficient reception”; windows were fitted with Maxim-Campbell Silencer and Air Filter; and offices were isolated by “scientifically efficient” soundproof partitions (301). The NBC studios, with their movable acoustic units, were “heralded as ‘a temple to glorify the radio voice,’ a ‘gigantic cathedral of sound’” (301).

Radio City Music Hall was the apotheosis of modern sound developments. With its state-of-the-art acoustical design, microphones, loudspeakers, etc., it represented the ultimate sonically controlled space. Rather than being compared to a temple or a cathedral, however, it was likened by Walter Lippmann to a “monument to a culture in which material power and technical skill have been divorced from human values and the control of reason; in other words, its designers had taken the spatialization of “radio logic” too far (quoted on 312). Yet despite its failures, it did represent, Thompson says, the “culmination of the modern soundscape” for the radio era (233).

I’d like to consider how we can extend some of these concerns – the application of new radio and related sound technologies, new understanding of acoustics, new techniques of listening – to urban design of the age. I hope to find additional case studies that explain if, and how, the radio’s influence might have been heard in the “radio city.”  


[SLIDE 42: BLANK] I now want to consider a few contemporary design projects and practices that evidence the persistent impact of radio, despite that fact that we’ve supposedly become an ipod-centric, “acoustic cocooning” culture.  I also want to examine architects’, urban designers’, engineers’, and other practitioners’ and publics’ sensitivity to sound and acoustics – a sensitivity perhaps conditioned over the years by radio and related sound technologies.

I’ll consider five examples – and I welcome your recommendation for others, particularly those in underrepresented parts of the world:

  • [SLIDE 43] Call to Prayer: The tradition of the call to prayer certainly isn’t new, but its mediation – through loudspeakers and even through radio – continued to raise questions regarding the politics of sound (or noise, depending upon whom one asks), “rights to the city,” and religious freedom.As Tong Soon Lee reports, the use of the radio to broadcast the call to prayer is occasionally a compromise to ease tensions within religiously diverse community over the call’s projection into public space via loudspeaker. Yet as Lee suggests, the radio also redefines the relationship between physical and acoustic sacred space in the cities of Singapore: “Through the use of radio, the extended and separated profiles of Muslims in the urban environment now form[s] uninterrupted acoustic space, and resultantly, a unified social and religious space. It is the radio, rather than the physical proximity of a mosque, that facilitates the cohesion of the Islamic community and maintains its identity within the larger, urban context of Singapore” (92).
  • [SLIDE 44] Evolving Zoning Practices: New York passed another noise code in 2005; it took effect in 2007. This code regulates many of the old sources of noise, but also adds a few new ones, including noise produced by nightclubs and ice cream truck jingles. A June 2007 article in the New York Times reports that “The…code bars playing a personal stereo in public at a level that can be heard 25 feet away, and for those wearing earphones on a subway or bus, the volume must be lowered so that no one five feet away can hear.” I plan to draw on the ongoing research of Lilian Radovac, from McGill, to better understand how these evolving codes response to evolving urban, sonic, and media contexts.
  • [SLIDE 45] Urban Sound Design: Arup, a global firm of “designers, planners, engineers, consultants and technical specialists” focusing on the built environment, has a team that focuses specifically on acoustics (I consulted with them on some of my earlier research on library sound design). That team, Arup Acoustics, has created a tool called the SoundLab, thorugh which engineers can listen to the sounds of simulated buildings, or recreate the acoustic conditions of buildings past. Arup is even occasionally asked to sound-design entire cities, as they were with [SLIDE 46] Dongtan, China (a project that eventually fell through). As reported in Dwell magazine, the automotive fleet was to be entirely electric, which created space within the soundscape for city-dwellers to hear sounds – birds, voices, wind in trees – that would’ve otherwise been masked by combustion engines. Arup’s Neill Woodger says, “People haven’t really known that they can change the sounds of a city – they can change the road surface, for example, and that has a huge effect.”
  • [SLIDE 47] Sonic Warfare: I aim to draw on the work of Steve Goodman to identify how radio and other public broadcast technologies are used in urban law enforcement and warfare – and in opposing practices that resist them
  • [SLIDE 48] Low-Powered Radio / Pirate Radio: I want to better understand their distinctive, detourned integration within physical urban space. With the rise of Internet radio and global virtual music communities, remaining pirate radio operations are typically motivated by very specific connections to material practices and urban space.
        • [SLIDE 49] Vice Video [through 4:45: “It’s a way to get your music out.”]


Media artist and scholar Matthew Fuller lists the material components of pirate radio:

[SLIDE 50] Pirate radio: transmitter, microwave link, antennae, transmission and studio sites; records, record shops, studios, dub plates; turntables, mixers, amplifiers, headphones; microphones; mobile phones, SMS, voice; reception technologies, reception locations, DJ tapes; drugs; clubs, parties; flyers, stickers, posters… [CLICK] [A]s all the various elements organize in combination within the sound, across the city, through a jumble of available media, there is also a sense in which the polyphony traversing the signal echoes a wider sense of connective disjuncture as a crucial term of composition… The media ecology is synthesized by the broke-up combination of parts (15-16)

[SLIDE 51] He also examines the tower block as an integral part of this combination: “The thicker the forest of towers, the more antennae perched above the city, the more the Radiant City, botched, radiates” (16). There are no open plans, open vistas, feel-good diversity in these radio cities. In the “botched” Radiant City – the city where so much of the world’s population lives, radio city echoes disjuncture, mismatch, time-slippage, grafting, hacking. But still, it resounds.

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