It was once known as “Radio Changed America,” a documentary film about the history and social impact of our first mass medium on America society. We interviewed old-time radio veterans from the Golden Age such as Norman Corwin, Art Linkletter, Dick Van Patten, and John Astin. Then, seeking additional funding to complete the film, we modified the title to be more active: “Hearing Voices: How Radio Changed America and America Changed Radio.” Under this banner we added radio and television talker Larry King, Washington Post journalist Marc Fisher, and media activist Malkia Cyril of the Center for Media Justice to our growing list of interviews completed for the film.
As we continue to move forward, new ideas and connections are continually being uncovered with this untold story of radio and what it means to all of us today. The hardest part has been to get past the actual word “radio.” It seems to have held us back. As a medium, most people seem to take it for granted as background filler despite the reality of how much we actually count on it being there and how much power and influence is contained in the use of these airwaves. Our previous subtitle was “How Radio Changed America and America Changed Radio.” It was an apt summation of the larger issue, albeit somewhat vague.
Our new subtitle for HEARING VOICES is “Modulating a Revolution.” Clever. Pithy. Sounds interesting. But what does it mean? Well, naturally the revolution referred to is the medium of radio. It changed America, as our previous title indicated, and opened up opportunities to serve the public interest (as mandated by Congress in 1927) and make a lot of money for its station owners. But this revolutionary medium, like its direct descendant television, was heavily modulated to the needs of the advertisers paying the bills and providing the profits for owners.
Modulation is an apt word. To modulate is to adjust; to tone down; to soften. So in this way, “modulating a revolution” refers to the ways that radio, as a revolutionary means of communication, was adjusted to meet the needs of owners and advertisers. The film probes the connection between the previous congressional mandate to serve the public interest in exchange for using the public airwaves, which was eliminated in 1981, and the resulting media landscape we have today. What has this modulation done to our society? Has it made us less informed, has it made us a polarized nation, or is this all beside the point? Or are we giving mass media too much of the blame for our own ambivalence as passive citizens?
Either way, we’ve got a great documentary in the works!