Radio Lessons for the Internet

Martin Spinelli

First published in Postmodern Culture, Vol. 6 No. 2 (January 1996), Oxford University Press.

    For the first time in history, the media are making possible
    mass participation in a social and socialized productive
    process, the practical means of which are in the hands of the
    masses themselves.  Such a use of them would bring the
    communications media, which up to now have not deserved the
    name, into their own.  In its present form, equipment like
    television or film does not serve communication but prevents
    it.  It allows no reciprocal action between transmitter and
    receiver; technically speaking it reduces feedback to the
    lowest point compatible with the system.1
  1. These words were not written in celebration of the Internet, as one might expect, but were were written about radio decades ago by German broadcaster and poet, Hans Magnus Enzensberger.2 Enzensberger critiques mono-directional media and argues for a democratizing and empowering media rife with promise for the masses in a language that has recently found new currency with the net's rise in popularity.

  2. The ease with which Enzensberger's radio essay could be mistaken for a contemporary tract about the Internet attests to the similarities between the utopian rhetoric once used to promote radio and the rhetoric now being used to promote the Internet. This essay is a study of the promises made for two emergent media: radio and the Internet. Three common aspects arise in a close examination of the independent popularization of radio and the Internet: (1) the emergent medium is instilled with hopes of initiating utopian democracy, providing for universal and equal education, and bringing a sense of belonging to a community; (2) cultural investment in these hopes is encouraged by people in power and exploited for commercial gain; and (3) the rhetoric of these promises obfuscates any real understanding of the material place of the emergent medium in society (such as who has knowledge of its use, how is it used, how is it produced, how is it consumed, how it addresses both basic and inessential needs) and ultimately defuses any potential for social change the emergent medium might have had. After an analysis of the emergent media of radio and the Internet, and their utopian rhetoric, I want to suggest a less naive, more responsible rendition of the net and a way of describing the net that conceives of citizens as genuine producers, not consumers.

  3. That it operate in the "public interest, convenience or necessity" was the mandate handed down to radio in the Communications Act of 1934. But from its infancy as a laboratory experiment, through its advent on the market, radio was conceived by its creators not as a public service but as a consumer product. David Sarnoff, the future president of National Broadcasting Company, is often given credit for being the visionary employee of the Marconi Company who first imagined popular radio. In 1916, in a letter to the company's general manager, he described the "Radio Music Box" which would "make radio a 'household utility' in the same sense as the piano or phonograph."3 This letter, notably empty of ideas of public service, concludes with a generally overlooked table of projected radio sales which figures that $75 million can be made selling radio sets in the first three years they are put on the market.4 This document of the seminal moment in American radio shows only a profit motive driving the production of radio.

  4. Originally the companies that manufactured radio sets were the same companies that produced broadcast programs. As the federal government fumbled to insure standards and regulate the industry, programming was used to motivate people to consume radio sets.5 By the end of the 1920s, with network broadcasts beginning to cover the most populated areas of the U.S., radio began to enter the minds of social thinkers. Writers, politicians and educators began to characterize radio as the fertile ground where the seeds of a better life would take root and mature.

  5. "[A]nything man can imagine,"6 was how Martin Codel, a newspaper editor and later a radio theorist, described the promise of radio in 1930, nearly a decade after the first radio ad quoted Nathaniel Hawthorne to sell suburban homes to Manhattanites.7 Codel exemplifies the utopian strain in writing about radio, rhetoric that would be detached from any political agenda and unconscious of profit motive. Radio was nothing short of magical.

    [T]hat anything man can imagine he can do in the
    ethereal realm of radio will probably be an actual
    accomplishment some day.  Perhaps radio, or something
    akin to radio, will one day give us mortals telepathic
    or occult senses!8
    Codel finds in the emergent medium a most interesting space: reality and fantastic projection overlap and become indistinguishable. This overlap, happening in the virtual space of radio, shifts the consideration of life possibilities from an everyday physical space to an ethereal, magical one. For Codel, before radio life possibilities were confined to what could be done in the material world; after radio there are no limits. The possibilities of the emergent radio are but virtual possibilities; they take place not in a material space, not in the space of a physical being in the physical world, but in the virtual and surrogate world provided by the emergent medium. Radio has created a new space that has not been fully understood. Its conditions and limits are as yet so vague that radio can give rise to any utopian plan or individual desire. The shift in focus onto the surrogate space of the emergent media, the place where real desires seem to find virtual or "occult" answers, will ultimately allow virtual or simulated equality to stand in for actual equality while the switch goes unnoticed.

  6. The feeling of fulfillment offered in the surrogate space of radio was a key element in the rhetoric of democracy and equality which evolved around the promotion of the emergent medium. The Codel-style euphoria that characterized earlier thinking on radio began to crystalize and soon led to the suggestion that buying a radio was like buying a seat in political chambers in that it promised a greater feeling of participation in a national democracy as well as a sense of access to that democracy not dependent on class status. Rudolf Arnheim, a German psychologist of media and communications effects, wrote in 1936 that the democratizing power of radio was so complete that it made class distinctions irrelevant, and the very concept of class an anachronism:

    Wireless eliminates not only the boundaries between
    countries but also between provinces and classes of
    society.  It insists on the unity of national culture
    and makes for centralization, collectivism and
    standardization.  Naturally its influence can only be
    extended to those who have a set, but from the very
    first there has nowhere been any attempt to reserve
    wireless reception as a privilege of certain classes,
    as it might have happened had the invention been at the
    disposal of feudal states.9
    While egalitarian and inclusive in proclamation, Arnheim's conception of a public does not include all the people in a society. As Arnheim describes radio as a requirement for contemporary civilized life, membership in his public begins to be defined in terms of consumption:

     Rather it is the case that wireless,
    like every other
    necessity of life from butter to a car and a country house, is
    accessible to anyone who can pay for it, and since the price of a
    wireless set and a license can be kept low, wireless, like the
    newspaper and the film, has immediately become the possession of
    The class limitations of his "everyone" are obvious; "everyone" means car owners and those that own a second (country) home, not urban laborers or people who walk or use public transportation. (But even if we accept Arnheim's premise that everyone may claim a radio as a birthright, the previous element of his argument is similarly untenable: that equality of access to the emergent medium makes for social equality. In saying all people are now a priori equal by virtue of access, Arnheim renders inappropriate any attempt to describe the economic realities that separate different classes. Here the rhetoric of the emergent medium covers up class distinctions while not erasing them.) For Arnheim, the "universal commodity"11 of radio confers citizenship; it is a "necessity" for citizens in a national culture. In order to be counted, one must tune in. This will soon evolve into: in order to participate in democracy, one must be a consumer.

  7. In returning to David Sarnoff we again find an elaboration of this ethic of consumption. In testimony before the Federal Communications Commission, Sarnoff describes consumption not only as a sign of membership in a national culture, but as a quasi-patriotic act that feeds other American (free market) ideals. Before the FCC, as president of the largest producer of receiving sets in the world (RCA),12 and chairman of the board for the first and largest radio network (NBC),13 Sarnoff skirts implications of monopoly while defending competition as an abstract principle.14 Sarnoff cloaked himself in the rhetoric of the social benefits of listenership in order to defend against federal anti-trust action. Because the emergent medium of radio could be conceived as a great leveler, it had a social value beyond price:

    [T]he importance of broadcasting cannot be measured in
    dollars and cents.  It must be appraised by the effect
    it has upon the daily lives of the people of America --
    not only the masses who constitute a listening audience
    numbered in the tens of millions, but the sick, the
    isolated, and the under-privileged, to whom radio is a
    boon beyond price.  The richest man cannot buy for
    himself what the poorest man gets free by radio.15
    The maintenance of the quality of radio as a social tool was more important than trust-busting. And because it is a tool that legitimates capitalist competition while feeding American myths of equality and equal opportunity in spite of class, Sarnoff could be given free reign to develop it in its current form. The emergent medium is described as existing beyond pecuniary value because it benefits all sectors of society; therefore it should transcend any critique of monopoly capitalism.

  8. What belies the true nature of this proclaimed public space is that its ownership and management were to remain decidedly in private hands. Apparently unaware of the implicit contradiction, a 1939 NBC informational pamphlet exclaims: "Fortunately for the United States, the democratic answer to the programming problem was found in private enterprise."16 As is to be expected, neither Sarnoff nor NBC nor RCA articulates the limits of a democracy based on the idea of citizen-as-consumer fostered by private enterprise capitalism.17 How could they when their fortunes depend on nurturing a nation of consistent consumers?

  9. The rhetoric of radio's power to democratize brought with it a renewed interest in the idea of community. Arnheim found in radio a sense of community defined in terms of use and interest, rather than proximity or economic relation. He explains how a national unity and identity are produced out of a collapse of geographic space:

    Wireless without prejudice serves everything that
    implies dissemination and community of feeling and
    works against separateness and isolation.18
    This replaces an old social order in which

    [t]he relation of man to man, of the individual to the
    community, of communities to one another was originally
    strictly determined by the diffusion of human beings on
    the surface of the earth.  Spatial propinquity of
    people -- so we used to think -- makes for a close bond
    between them, facilitates common experience, exchange
    of thought and mutual help.  Distance on the other hand
    makes for isolation and quiet, independence of thought
    and action . . . individuality and the possibility of
    sinking into one's own ego. . . .19
    What would come about with the end of "distance" might today might be described as the totalitarian effects of a medium or its potential for control.20 Radio can collapse a regional sensibility, displace independence and individuality, unify the national community, and make possible a general standardization. The emergent medium of radio, he says, both homogenizes and colonizes:

    Just as it incessantly hammers the sound of "educated
    speech" into the dialect-speaking mountain-dweller of
    its own land, it also carries language over the
    Radio, for Arnheim at least, is a collector of individuals into some unified conception of a society, not a purveyor of choice.

  10. The utopian rhetoric of early radio often described this colonization as "education." Collected in a celebratory volume on the first decade of radio published in 1930, Joy Elmer Morgan, then the editor of The Journal of the National Education Association, sees the emergent medium of radio as an educational tool ripe with potential. Earnestly, he declares radio a revolutionary tool on par with the invention of moveable type. As with moveable type, radio's revolutionary nature lies in its ability to generate a unified cultural identity. For Morgan, education comes to mean a complete integration into this cultural identity:

    It will give to all that common background of information,
    ideals, and attitudes which binds us together into a vast
    community of thinking people.  It is giving the school a
    new tool to use in its daily work.  No one can estimate
    the stimulus which will come into unfolding life as
    radio brings it into instant contact with the great
    thoughts and deeds of our time.22
  11. Morgan also finds in radio a useful kind of isolation or bracketing off individual experience which insures a fidelity to the common cultural identity. In removing the unpredictable variable of interactivity found in the public school classroom, radio codifies experiences and allows for controlled learning in isolation. Radio makes possible distance-learning from home by turning the home into a sacrosanct schoolroom:

    [Radio] has helped to keep people in their homes and in
    that way to preserve the integrity of home life.  No
    other agency can take the place of the home as a force
    for excellence and happiness.  In it are the issues of
    life.  In a very real sense it is the soil into which
    the roots of human life reach for spiritual nourishment
    and security.  Whatever radio can do to strengthen the
    family circle is clear gain; whatever it can do through
    widespread instruction, looking toward better home
    practices in such matters as housing, nutrition, family
    finance, home relationships, home avocations,
    contributes to a better life.23
    Radio is the proposed antidote for the very social fragmentation it encourages. It is a provider of stability that works toward an America of happy homes while it limits broader human interaction. Socializing or organizing outside of the highly structured and morally regulated familial unit (communication that might lead to uncontrollable political union for example) is thus prevented. As Morgan continues, radio becomes more than just a force that keeps a family together. It provides a virtual example of an appropriate life: "Increasing numbers of people will catch a vision of what intelligent living really means." The emergent medium civilizes and humanizes as it educates:

    Through experience, through study, through habits of
    industry and reflection, and through long years of
    right thinking and right doing, there comes into
    individual life a unity and a quiet sense of power and
    happiness which are the highest of human achievements.
    We believe radio has a contribution to make here both
    in the school and in the home. It widens the family
    circle and the school circle to include the ablest
    teachers, the most earnest preachers, and the noblest
    Here consumption rhetorically becomes a productive act. Because it is tied to values of self-discipline and industry, radio has the power to turn buying and passive listening into things more than refining and educational. Consumption itself imparts "habits of industry" and provides a feeling of diligence.

  12. A survey of today's radio landscape fails to reveal the flowering of what was then seen as nascent democracy, community, and educational potential. For a case study I look to Buffalo, New York, where (with the exception of three small independent holdouts) all commercial radio stations are now owned by four large media companies. The result is a dominance of talk radio and classic hits programming as these same companies fight over the same "average consumer."25

  13. The recent decades of FCC deregulation allowed for format changes by freeing stations from having to employ news personnel and reducing or eliminating community service broadcasting requirements. But, because regulations preventing large-scale corporate ownership remained intact, the real homogenization of radio content did not occur until 1992 when FCC deregulation made it possible for a single company to own up to 49 percent of some radio markets.26 Consolidated ownership, when coupled with the programming deregulations of past years, has lead to a massive increase in the broadcast of canned programming (pre-recorded programs produced outside of the local region and distributed via satellite or postal carrier) in Buffalo.

  14. Hearing the listening choices diminish, and noticing in particular the lack of local bands now receiving air time, the Buffalo Common Council launched an investigation of local broadcasting in 1994. Their public study describes "a virtual blackout of local music"27: only one song in roughly 900 played on commercial radio came from a local band without a national record contract. The Council invited the management of local stations to a public forum to address concerns about the lack of local context and content in broadcasts and the reduced variety in program offerings. Instead of appearing at the forum, the management of WKSE-FM (consistently one of the top rated music stations in Buffalo) sent a letter to the Council stating that they had "no legal or moral obligation to play music by local musicians" and that there were no FCC guidelines indicating that they should even consider the issues raised by the Council:

    We retain the services of the country's best broadcast
    consultants, research companies, and in-house employees
    to make decisions on our playlist.  I can assure you
    that at no time has any data or direct input from our
    listeners ever given us reason to believe that a true
    demand exists for more music by local artists.  It is
    our opinion that our ratings would be damaged and our
    profitability impaired if we were to increase our
    commitment to local musicians. . . .  Meanwhile, we
    would encourage the local musicians coalition to strive
    to continually improve the quality of their work.  Only
    then can they hope to gain a contract with a recording
    company who can promote them into a position to be
    played on our airwaves.28
    This letter emphasizes clearly and repeatedly that the profit motive exclusively, not any conception of community, is guiding the development of this radio station. The capitalism of deregulated commercial broadcasting does not even have room for the ideas "local" or "community." In order for a band to be described as a local success it must have a national contract. Regional interest is simply not a category. It should further be noted that stations' playlists do not even represent a kind of populist democracy in terms of most simple popular opinion determining what gets played. Marketing analysts are employed not to determine general popularity but only to define what is the most sellable or what will be the most appealing to an audience of consumers.29 Here again membership in a public would be defined as an ability to purchase. The management of WKSE-FM has even failed to understand how, by only making available limited musical choices calculated to appeal to a targeted audience, they might help determine the musical taste and interest of local consumers. The station plays what is popular to increase listenership and advertizing revenue, but they have not recognized that what they play influences what gets bought and what is popular. Simply put: people will not buy music they have never heard before.

  15. Local music is not the only avenue presented for the expression of community. Talk radio has received much popular press for facilitating democracy. But this democracy is wholly inflected by a profit motive as well. Arbitron ratings for the Buffalo market (Autumn, 1995) show that a single and delineable demographic constitutes the audience for all the top talk shows. The fight to attract this demographic between every daytime talk show has eliminated content difference and reduced what might have been an exchange of ideas to a repetition of the single ideology of the target demographic. In Buffalo the hosts of all the daytime shows on all the top rated talk stations are exclusively right of center, libertarian, and populists (Rush Limbaugh, G. Gordon Liddy, or locally-based equivalents). For an active demonstration of the counter-democratic operation of these programs we need only examine the way the callers are handled: All calls are carefully screened to prevent airing anything that might shock listeners into turning off their radios. Guests and callers with views opposed to those of the host/audience are invited to speak only in so far as the host may confirm carefully predicted listener fears about an issue or to provide an opportunity for the host to engage in ad hominem or to assert his verbal prowess. Should a caller slip past the screener and seriously threaten the host/audience he or she is quickly and easily disconnected and the host is given ample time to recontextualize the caller in an unthreatening manner or to dismiss the caller as simply abhorrent. Talk radio "Democracy," like "The Latest News," or "The Greatest Hits of the '70s," is simply a programming format aimed at a specific demographic to insure faithful listening and (indirectly) steady consumption by the target audience. As with the radio of the 1930s, today's talk radio offers only a promise of democracy.

  16. The utopian rhetoric that surrounded the emergent medium of radio functioned largely to obscure a profit motive; and, in a celebration of consumption-as-citizenship, the needs for real democracy, fulfilling community, and equality in education were not realized even in a virtual sense in the surrogate space of radio. The same hopes have become staples of Internet theory. As with radio, the utopian promotion of the net under the rubrics of democracy, community, and educational opportunity, will serve only to obscure economic and representational disparity and thwart any democratizing potential the net might have.

  17. In a recent Forbes magazine column, House Speaker of the 104th Congress, Newt Gingrich, gushes with praise for the democratizing, liberating potential he sees in the Internet:

    The information age means . . . more market orientation,
    more freedom for individuals, more opportunity for
    choice.  Government must deal with it.30
    He seeks both to highlight the virtual potential of the information age, and to characterize government in its familiar role as antagonistic regulator of liberating emergent media.

  18. As it is typically characterized by Internet promoters, access to the net is another great social leveler which does away with government and gives equal weight to everyone's voice. When Gingrich asserts, "Everybody's an insider as long as you're willing to access [the information on the net],"31 "access" becomes not simply a supplement to democracy, but the only way democracy can now work. In strikingly similar terms to the discussion of early radio, the emergent medium of the Internet can end the oligarchy and provide us with genuine democracy. For Gingrich, the Internet is not just a corrective to democracy, it is democracy.

  19. In January 1995, Gingrich testified in front of the House Ways and Means Committee about the democratic imperative of access to information through the Internet. He said:

    If we're moving into the information age, don't we have
    to figure out how to carry the poor with us?  Don't
    they have every right to have as much access as anybody
    else? . . . [M]aybe we need a tax credit for the
    poorest Americans to buy a laptop.32
    Gingrich neglects to acknowledge a basic economic reality in his assertion that a tax-credit-for-access would equal opportunity: He does not mention or is not aware that the vast majority of poor people would not save enough through an annual tax credit to buy even the most basic software package.

  20. The scope of net promotion is not confined to guaranteeing democracy. An evangelical zeal has evolved within Internet rhetoric. Being online offers a kind of salvation which must be heralded to everyone. In this way Gingrich's Internet functions as Morgan's radio did:

    Maybe private companies ought to do it.  But somehow
    there has to be a missionary spirit in America that
    says to the poorest child in America, "Internet's for
    you.  The information age is for you."  There's an
    alternative to prostitution, drug abuse and death, and
    we are committed to reaching every child in this
    country.  And not in two generations or three
    generations; we're committed this year, we're committed
    The recourse again to private ownership/management is more than a rehash of the now standard "smaller government" rhetoric. Its implications are capitalist colonization and perpetuation of a market. If private companies supply people with simply another way to consume wrapped in the promise of equal opportunity, money would soon find its way back to those owners in the form of training classes, always "affordable" user fees, and the sale of ancillary computer products and services each with additional attendant promises. Money that could be returned or given to the disenfranchised to improve their real lives (to buy clothes or food, to build new schools, or to rent busses to transport angry voters to Washington to lobby Congress or protest) is channeled back into the accounts of private companies. The virtual possibilities of "anything man can imagine" cover up real, material disparities with the promise of the benefits of access.

  21. The official vision for the Internet from the White House, The National Information Infrastructure: Agenda For Action, is also utopian. On the first page we encounter language that could have been lifted directly from Morgan's tract on radio and education: "The best schools, teachers and courses would be available to all students, without regard to geography, distance, resources, or disability. . . ."34 This education is still based in some school somewhere, and maintains the rather traditional concept of education with students, teachers, and courses. Described in this way its disruptive force is not revealed. What this description lacks however is an acknowledgement of the real economic and political problems that can come with this idea of collapsed geography and local context. Carried to fruition, a centralized model of distance learning would electronically shift larger and larger blocks of the student population to what are currently considered the "best" schools. Increasing virtual enrollment at these (almost exclusively suburban) schools would cause a shift in public educational dollars from poorer schools less prepared to deal with the "information age" to schools already in possession of liberal technology budgets. Even better programs would then be created at the these large affluent schools. As poorer urban schools have funding decreased and are forced to close due to declining enrollment, poorer students who are currently excluded from the information age by the economic realities of their own lives and educational facilities would then be even further removed from the physical sites of education and would ultimately have less access to educational materials. These students will be left behind in the race to virtualize education.

  22. The Agenda continues, "vast resources of art, literature, and science are now available everywhere."35 Beyond the overstatement (fewer than four hundred books are currently available online for the cost of access alone), this assertion reveals the Agenda's monolithic spirit. What the Agenda does not observe is that a fixation on a global community of art and literature will cause the destitution of locally relevant art and literature in the same manner that radio has meant the destitution of local music in our Buffalo example. While it is true that the net could be used as an archival site for regionally specific culture, this seems outside its purview. Couched in the Agenda's language of "best" and "greatest" is the belief that "art" means images from the Louvre, not ballads from Appalachia. In addition to the problems of what is and will be available in the globalized community of the Agenda, there is the more interesting notion of what the Agenda calls "universal access." Following a vow to promote private-sector ownership of the net, the Agenda articulates its second objective which reads:

    Extend the 'universal service' concept to ensure that
    information resources are available to all at
    affordable prices.  Because information means
    empowerment -- and employment -- the government has a
    duty to ensure that all Americans have access to the
    resources and job creation potential of the Information
    It continues:

    As a matter of fundamental fairness, this nation cannot
    accept a division of our people among telecommunications
    or information "haves" and "have-nots."  The
    Administration is committed to developing a broad,
    modern concept of Universal Service -- one that
    would emphasize giving all Americans who desire it,
    easy, affordable access to advanced communications and
    information services, regardless of income, disability,
    or location.37
    As with Gingrich, "affordable access" to the emergent medium is made available to all. But what these official promoters have failed to recognize is that access by itself is meaningless and unimportant.

  23. There are, however, political gains of all sorts in the promotion of access to information as a social curative. Political thinking about the net is most often condensable to this: "If we give welfare mothers laptops they can get their benefits and do their shopping online and we can end the wasteful bureaucracies of Food Stamps and WIC; after access they shouldn't be found asking for better schools because the best courses and teachers are already online; and they won't need better ways of holding their elected officials accountable -- protests and boycotts now being irrelevant -- because dissent can now be sent neatly to Congress electronically." In this system a mere feeling of representation in a community must replace actual representation.

  24. As with radio's early promoters, the Agenda promises classlessness in an information age: "It can ameliorate the constraints of geography and economic status, and give all Americans a fair opportunity to go as far as their talents and ambitions will take them."38 "Ameliorating constraints" is code for effacing real class difference.

  25. "Democracy" in the Agenda, as in Arnheim's radio, means the act of consuming. Vice President Al Gore, in his contribution to the Agenda, goes so far as to say, "We can design a customer-driven electronic government."39 Those without the technology, or without the opportunity to learn how to use this very class-bound technology, are left without representation in his electronic government. This conflation of the consumer with the voter can do nothing to realize any genuine democratic potential of the net. Again, the implication is that one must be buying the emergent medium to have representation.

  26. A similar kind of virtual/consumptive inclusion is evident in the assertion of community on the net. Howard Rheingold's The Virtual Community (1994) offers an excellent reference for this new community spirit as embodied in the WELL of San Francisco (a typical fee-based computer network). The need for a fulfilling sense of community was so strong among the WELL's creators that its 1985 design goals included the credo: "[The WELL] would be a community."40 The conception of the electronic space as community existed before the space did. Even the name "WELL," is a forced acronym designed to evoke an image of a traditional village resource. It stands for "Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link."

  27. Included in those goals was the belief that the WELL should be profit making. In trying to realize this goal the virtual value of electronic community becomes apparent; in telling the history of the WELL Rheingold invokes one of the WELL's architects, Matthew McClure, whose vision was to "facilitate communications among interesting people" at "a revolutionary low price":

    To reach a critical mass, [the architects] knew they
    would need to start with interesting people having
    conversations at a somewhat more elevated level than
    the usual BBS stuff. In Matthew's words, "We needed a
    collection of shills who could draw the suckers into
    the tents." So we invited a lot of interesting people,
    gave them free accounts, called them "hosts," and
    encouraged them to re-create the atmosphere of a Paris
    salon -- a bunch of salons.41
    The virtual community of the net is artificial even on its own terms: the communal feeling did not grow out of shared interests, but was formed by bribes, discount prices, and contrived social interaction. Its "community" was a commodity the WELL's creators could then market like any other.

  28. But in spite of the celebration of the WELL as the new informal meeting place, a space that has replaced the pub, the cafe, and the park, Rheingold somehow manages to claim that the highest achievement for his electronic community is its ability to transport the user to yet another community. He describes the WELL as "a small town" with "a doorway that opens onto the blooming, buzzing confusion of the Net."42 Movement, not destination is the real goal. This reveals that the net has clearly not replaced the corner coffee shop in that its greatest achievement is always transporting the user out of a community, leaving whenever a community promises to become recognizable or delineable. No real community, in the sense of actual interaction or exchange of something (ideas, goods, etc.) is ever sufficient. Clearly the promise of connection is more important than what is being connected to, this is the impulse that led to the virtualization of the idea of community in the first place. The eagerness to abandon and move on, rather than to work in and develop a community, mirrors the promise of that first radio ad: the better world is always just through the next gateway, ready-made and without those noisy neighbors. It also reveals that a buffet of choices is more important than developing the potential of the options or spaces already available. This is the same thinking that promises 500-channel television.43

  29. Despite utopian rhetoric's complicity with monopoly capitalism and its actual denial of real democracy, community, and educational opportunity in promising their virtual equivalents, there may yet be value in the utopian expression of the emergent media. The value certainly does not exist in the "electronic commons" promised by the Agenda,44 any more than it existed in the almost identical "America's Town Meeting of the Air" of the RCA of the 1930's.45 In light of past failures, I would like to argue for a smarter, more aware, set of ideas to guide our thinking, a set of ideas conscious of the material realities of the "information age" and the Internet that does not pretend "affordable access" is social penicillin.

  30. To do this I would like to return to Enzensberger whose theory of the media may yet unlock any real potential for social change that might exist in the net. Enzensberger would not have us see in emergent media a panacea or a pacifier for the disenfranchised, but the power to "mobilize." This mobilization is not the virtual movement of telnetting from San Francisco to Milan, nor is it access to the Library of Congress at affordable prices. It is the mobilization of production -- that is, a public identified as producers, not consumers. Any democratic potential in an emergent medium must lie in its ability to facilitate the organization of non-virtual politics, not in vacuuming political action into itself.

  31. On only a few occasions have I experienced a glimmer of this kind of mobilization: the February 1995 "Freely Espousing" multi-city demonstration against cuts to the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Protests and marches were planned and the net was used to help organize them and arrange their simultaneous occurrence. Distribution lists such as POETICS were used to provide information used for speeches and posters, and texts of angry letters were posted to be downloaded and mailed to politicians. It must be emphasized however that this example does not address "access" as an issue of class and shows the net being used for mobilization by people on the cultural margins but not the economically disenfranchised.

  32. Other, primarily aesthetic, versions of this mobilization exist within the net. Mobilization on the net happens around textual poaching,46 the reinflection of texts already generated by the medium in order to elaborate new meanings or uses to discrete users. The Anti-hegemony Project47 poached texts and formats from news oriented usergroups to illustrate the vacuity of traditional news coverage and to poke fun at the group of writers spontaneously involved in producing the Project. Also, the currently difficult to regulate transfers of information (if not ownership and access) of the net facilitate valuable copyright violations which occasionally make available everything from philosophical texts to pornography otherwise locked up by publishing company capitalism and intellectual property law. But as the technology of information control and intellectual property law evolve to service the needs of private enterprise these useful moments will doubtlessly become more scarce.

  33. But in spite of these moments of genuine productive potential and sparks of mobilization, the current system of ownership and management of access generally renders the productive activity on the net framed by consumption on all sides. In order to produce anything, whether news story or parody, we must not only buy a modem but access time for every minute of our productive activity. The argument can be made that there are costs of consumption involved in every productive activity. But the one-time purchase of a computer or typewriter, and the continuous cost of paper to print on, are minimal (and get less and less significant over time) when compared to the 3 dollar an hour (plus extras) charge of most access providers. And interestingly, the vast majority of information produced on the net (the writing of user groups and chat rooms) already seems to revolve almost exclusively around other consumptive activities: the consumption of goods or of other media products. And further, it must be restated that the cultural community or democracy of the net, in so far as it consists of a collection of producing subjects, is still extremely class bound. Observing that a kind of creative enfranchisement exists for those with the money and the education to use the net does not minimize the efficacy of our critique of the Gingrichian classless democracy proclaimed by Internet promoters.

  34. Corporate ownership of the media, says Enzensberger, is simply antithetical to a conception of citizen-as-producer and only affords the most co-opted and simulated form of production:

    To this end, the men who own the media have developed
    special programmes which are usually called "Democratic
    Forum" or something of the kind.  There, tucked away in
    the corner, the reader(listener/viewer) has his say,
    which can naturally be cut short at any time. As is the
    case of public opinion polling, he is only asked
    questions so that he may have a chance to confirm his
    own dependence. It is a control circuit where what is
    fed in has already made complete allowance for the
    The responsible role then for those in possession of the technology of use is to insure not a universal access to what has already been produced, but to insure a universal knowledge of media production which grows out of, and contributes to, an understanding of material social relations. This means more than simply making the economic and class realities of human relations more central to the subjects of the media; it means actually using the media to enact a change in material circumstances. Revolutionaries of all stripes learned this decades ago, hence broadcasting centers are always the first things seized in a political overthrow.

  35. Neither the Internet, nor radio, is some kind of deus ex machina of democracy, community, or education. The net is only an emergent medium, existing in a specific context with a real set of material confines, and possibly with a real potential. But it is a potential that will remain unrealized if we allow the drive to virtualize to obscure its material base and the economic realities of our culture.

    Department of English
    State University of New York at Buffalo


1. Hans Magnus Enzensberger, "Constituents of a Theory of the Media," New Left Review 64 (1970) 15.

2. Enzensberger's career as a writer, broadcaster and critic spans various genres and addresses various audiences. After having attended several German Universities as well as the Sorbonne, Enzensberger could have easily entered academe, but he chose initially to engage with the world on a more populist level. He joined Radio Stuttgart and began producing radio essays. During years of radio work, journalism, writing poetry and criticism, and guest lecturing in the 1950's and 1960's, Enzensberger evolved as a protegee of the Frankfurt School. In 1964, on the event of his first public address as the poet-in-residence at Frankfurt University, he was introduced by Theodor Adorno. His works of criticism, poetry, novels and plays interrogate a broad range of topics (Spanish anarchism, cultural progress and barbarism, documentary fieldwork, communication technology, etc.) and have always been informed by political analysis. In 1968 he gave up a fellowship at Wesleyan University and left the United States in protest of the Vietnam War. Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Critical Essays, ed. R. Grimm and B. Armstrong with a forward by J. Simmon (New York: Continuum, 1982) xi-xv. "Constituents of a Theory of the Media" serves as both a series of observations about the genuine potential of emergent media and as a site of utopian hyperbole about emergent media, it therefore makes an excellent point of departure for our discussion.

3. Radio Corporation of America, Principles and Practices of Network Radio Broadcasting -- Testimony of David Sarnoff Before the Federal Communications Commission November 14, 1938 and May 17, 1939 (New York: RCA Institute Technical Press, 1939) 102.

4. RCA 104.

5. Robert Hilliard and Michael Keith, The Broadcasting Century (Boston: Focal Press, 1992) 28-29.

6. Martin Codel, "Introduction," Radio and Its Future, ed. Martin Codel (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1930. New York: Arno Press and the New York Times, 1972) xi.

7. Hilliard 30.

8. Codel xi.

9. Rudolf Arnheim, Radio, trans. Margaret Ludwig and Herbert Read (London: Faber & Faber, 1936; New York: Arno Press and The New York Times, 1971) 238-39.

10. Arnheim 239.

11. Arnheim 239.

12. RCA 10.

13. Hilliard 48.

14. Sarnoff says, "Our policies are based on the belief that the public interest . . . will best be served by a strong, prosperous, and growing radio industry, and by vigorous competition which results in better service to the public and greater stimulus to the industry." (RCA 7)

15. RCA 12.

16. National Broadcasting Company, Inc., Broadcasting in the Public Interest ([New York]: National Broadcasting Company, 1939) 10.

17. The emphasis on "private enterprise" in the American discourse of radio owes much to the extensive use of radio by fascist European governments at this time. It only took a few casual references to Nazi Germany to create a popular fear of the idea public ownership (government management) of radio in America. This fear of fascism was used by Sarnoff and others to stall the regulatory efforts of the FCC. For an example of this fear of government managed media see Thomas Grandin's The Political Use of the Radio (Geneva: Geneva Research Institute, 1939).

18. Arnheim 232-233.

19. Arnheim 227.

20. These totalitarian aspects, viewed as favorable by Arnheim in the emergent medium of radio, are almost always absent from discussions of the emergent medium of the Internet. But if this totalitarian potential is found to be essential in one emergent medium it probably also exists in another. Obviously today an Internet promoter would not laud this potential but conceal it.

21. Arnheim 223.

22. Morgan 68.

23. Morgan 71.

24. Morgan 74.

25. Anthony Violanti, "Uneasy Listening," The Buffalo News 22 April 1994, "Gusto" section: 20. One local politician describes the state of the city's radio as "below banality." See also Violanti's "Morning Madness," The Buffalo News 10 March 1995, "Gusto" section: 18.

26. David Franczyk, The State of Buffalo Radio (Buffalo: The Buffalo Common Council, 1994) Appendix E.

27. Franczyk 11.

28. Franczyk, Appendix D.

29. "The myth is, of course, that the American public gets the programming it wants (and can thus blame no one but itself for the banality of mass culture); the reality is that the American public gets programming calculated to attract the "commodity audience" with limited concern for what most [people] actually desire." (Henry Jenkins, Textual Poachers [New York: Routledge, 1992] 30)

30. Newt Gingrich, "Newt's Brave New World," Forbes 27 February 1995, "ASAP" section: 93.

31. Gingrich 93.

32. "Gingrich Pushes Computers for Poor," The Los Angeles Times 6 January 1995: A18.

33. Gingrich 93.

34. The White House, The National Information Infrastructure: Agenda for Action (Washington, D.C.: The White House, 1993) 3.

35. The White House 5.

36. The White House 5.

37. The White House 8.

38. The White House 12.

39. The White House 17.

40. Howard Rheingold, The Virtual Community (New York: HarperPerennial, 1994) 43.

41. Rheingold 42.

42. Rheingold 10.

43. For a discussion of the social ramifications of this virtual movement, and an understanding of the virtual ideology that it facilitates, see Arthur Kroker and Michael A. Weinstein, Data Trash: the Theory of the Virtual Class (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994).

44. The White House 15.

45. RCA 12.

46. Henry Jenkins, in his Textual Poachers, provides a useful model and vocabulary in his discussion of TV series fans as producers of a kind of cultural community. Fans of Star Trek pirate stories and characters from the series to produce new stories in fanzines, songs and videos. Armed with copyright attorneys the owners of the series object to this appropriation. Fanzines draw attacks from Hollywood because they short-circuit the desired distribution and consumption of a product: new products with roots in an old series are distributed without any involvement of, or profit to, network TV or Hollywood. But because the commodity of the net is different from that of Hollywood or network TV -- it is access or means of consumption/distribution not an image or story -- the poaching metaphor must be deployed differently to describe would-be alternative culture on the net. Since the "text" in the case of the net is access, "poaching" would resemble something like stealing blocks of AOL time for non-profit or anarchist purposes.

47. Archived at the Electronic Poetry Center.

48. Enzensberger 22.