Q&A with Derek Vaillant, Author of “Across the Waves”

vaillantDerek W. Vaillant is an associate professor of communication studies at the University of Michigan. He is the author of Sounds of Reform: Progressivism and Music in Chicago, 1873-1935. He recently answered some questions about his book Across the Waves: How the United States and France Shaped the International Age of Radio.

Q: How did you first become interested in this topic?

Vaillant: Over a decade ago at an international conference of broadcast scholars, it hit me hard that while the Anglophone world’s interconnection to the media and communications history of the United enjoyed an extensive broadcast history, other important players were often sidelined or absent from the discussion. I am pleased to see that many scholars are helping to rectify this situation, but I felt compelled to explore those uncharted waters for myself. I chose France as a focus of study given the lengthy intertwined histories of the U.S. and France, but especially the extensive transatlantic circulation of person, ideas, the arts, and cinema. I asked, what difference (if any) did radio make in the history of U.S.–French communication and cultural history? As I began exploring the topic, I discovered a mind-boggling amount of information ignored by U.S. media historians that described an extraordinary history of interconnectivity that casts U.S.–French interaction and the making of radio and the global media environment in a fresh light, particularly for scholars grappling with the historical shaping of 21st-century communications, questions of nation-state sovereignty in a wireless context, and issues of power, prestige, and relevance in today’s mediated geopolitics.

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Q: How has the history of radio broadcasting influenced our international media today?

Vaillant: I think it fair to say that you cannot adequately apprehend the landscape of the 21st-century international/global media environment or the United States’ exceptional place within it, without understanding how the world’s first instantaneous mass medium—radio—helped foster possibilities of unprecedented interconnection between the U.S. and other nation-states. Such affordances prompted extremely challenging reckonings among unequal, but necessary partners in the new game of international/global mass communication. The emergence of radio broadcasting required landmark decisions involving a range of actors, including national governments, private interests, political strategists, and cultural producers in the construction of what historian T.E. Hughes, evocatively termed the “human-built world.” The circulation of radio waves across sovereign borders became a powerful symbol of what many saw as an inexorable modernity that could mean the annihilation of local, regional, and national cultures and conventions. In our own time, we see Facebook, Apple, Amazon, and Google enlisting a communications infrastructure that radio helped further, such as undersea cable and telecommunications systems. We also see the struggle over the political economy of new and emerging media systems that stressed U.S.–French relations in the international radio age continuing to play out in attempts by U.S. allies, as well as adversaries, to live with and develop countering techno-aesthetics to adapt to U.S. power in the new millennium.

Q: How did the increased representation of women in French radio broadcasting push for the evolution of non-traditional gender norms? 

Vaillant: The German Occupation of France and the postwar politics of the Cold War created an opportunity for transatlantic broadcasting to symbolically unite French and U.S. women in pursuing modern lives in the postwar world. While not without ideological blind spots in areas of class, race, and colonial politics, Bonjour Mesdames (Hello, Ladies) an English-language program produced in Paris and broadcast in the United States, focused on French women remaking their lives in a new era in ways that confounded gender stereotypes of women as domesticated and subordinated to the men in their lives. Historian Mary Louise Roberts uses the concept of “gender damage” to link the trauma of military defeat, occupation, political collaboration, and effects and aftermath of the 1944 Liberation to female experiences, such as physical and sexual abuse, but also negative cultural stereotyping as helpless victims of conquest and control. In the United States, U.S. women suffered losses and traumas of their own leaving both populations hungry for greater control over their lives. Supported by the Marshall Plan, French national broadcasting, and postwar U.S. radio, Bonjour Mesdames emerged as a literal and symbolic mediation point between U.S. and French women practicing different forms of postwar “gender repair” in solidarity as modern women.

Featuring a female host joined by U.S. and French female guests, the series explored female entrepreneurship in France in the fashion and cultural industries. Dispelling stereotypes of French women as victims or sexual objects of male fantasy, the program presented French women as leaders in their professions, creative innovators, and sympathetic figures in charge of their destinies. The program encouraged U.S. women listeners, particularly younger listeners, to travel to, work in, study in, and to embrace the art of French fashion and style, especially when it meant consuming French luxury goods. While not without problematic fixation on commodities as culture, the show presented women as empowered choosers in life, which gave the show a progressive gendered energy in the late 1940s and through the 1950s.

Finally, the program represented a haven for unconventionally gendered men, including U.S. announcers pursuing bohemian experiences in Paris in their public and private lives. On occasion, these men engaged in campy antics on the air, which gave the show a subtle, but decidedly ‘queer’ undertone. The series also profiled French men engaged in fashion design, culinary arts, and hair styling, which while conventional gendered pursuits in France, were different enough on U.S. airwaves to invite listeners reflection (whether male or female) on conventional modes and transgressions of gendered labor by men as well as women.

Q: What was the U.S. and France’s role in combatting radio propaganda during WWII? Are there any similarities in the abuse of media today?

Vaillant: The irony of the topic of “radio propaganda during World War II” is the degree to which European broadcasters had already perfected the dark arts and techniques of radio propaganda from the advent of radio in the 1920s and 1930s. The French government officially decried the use of public broadcasting for propaganda purposes, and belatedly named named an information minister in 1938. Exposed to years of Nazi and Soviet radio propaganda, not to mention the dubious and censored reportage of their own state broadcasting system, French listeners were arguably battle-hardened to radio propaganda before the war even started. Once Germany defeated and occupied the strategic sectors of France in 1940, however, French radio changed dramatically. There were no longer independent broadcasters and free speech ceased. National radio turned against the French people. The Nazis and collaborationists controlled Radio Paris, and the Vichy regime managed a propaganda network of its own. The U.S. in partnership with the BBC and via direct transatlantic shortwave broadcasts took up the work of providing trustworthy news to occupied French listeners. Started by U.S. networks in the 1930s, the anti-propaganda campaign expanded exponentially when the U.S. entered the war and formed the Office of War Information and Voice of America to conduct systematic foreign-language broadcasts to France, North Africa, and elsewhere by 1942.

The similarities between the 1930s and today’s media environment in the United States are significant and cause for worry. It does not take the slaughter of millions as Europe experienced during World War I to create conditions ripe for exploitation of the means of communication to justify extreme, hateful, and antidemocratic views. The erosion of trust in journalism and broadcast media has spiked in recent years. Since the 2016 national election campaign (manipulated by external propagandists operating under cover from Russia), Americans have witnessed relentless and blunt attacks on the integrity of print and electronic journalists across the entire spectrum of the profession. The plague of accusations of “fake news” chill the blood of any historian of modern Europe who recognizes the tactics of fascist and Soviet propagandists to discredit free thinking, intimidate independent thought, and turn the media into an ideological echo chamber. Americans who believe in constitutional democracy must resist the lies and blandishments of propagandists. More importantly, they must participate as citizens in working to strengthen democracy and its institutions (including supporting a free press), and must act as they can in their everyday lives to help foster conditions for justice, opportunity, and inclusion in the U.S.

Q: How did censorship become a concern for France during the 1930s?

Vaillant: Between the first and second world wars, a series of center-right political coalitions tried to hold France together. Political volatility was the norm and was further exacerbated by the rise of Nazism in Europe, which inflamed tensions between ideological factions in France. On 6 February 1934, Paris erupted in violent conflict between far-right leagues and communist and socialist organizations; The General Assembly dissolved. A subsequent ban on far-right leagues in 1936 by the Popular Front government of Léon Blum created enormous tension in France’s print and broadcast media. Underground fascist agitators and propagandists illegally used shortwave radio to sow dissent and confusion inside France. As the European political crisis worsened, the French government increasingly censored broadcast news in a vain effort to control public opinion and named an information minister, but these efforts did little to forestall the global conflict of World War II.

Q: How do you tIMG_7545 smallhink broadcasting media will continue to evolve in the future?

Vaillant: It is an obvious point that the technological processes of creating, disseminating, and consuming broadcast content are in flux. Such flux, however, is less novel than we might be led to believe. Uncertainty over the means of producing, transmitting, and receiving “radio” – and the protean forms that “radio” took during the twentieth century, which now embraces the podcast indicates the fungible nature of one-to-many forms of aural communication. Nor can we say today that the institutions undergirding broadcasting (for-profit private and governmental actors) are significantly different in their objectives from predecessors, such RCA, NBC, Radiodiffusion Française, and the U.S. State Department’s Voice of America. Radio broadcasting remains a focal live electronic mass medium among hundreds of millions of people in the greater Francophone world, in the Southern hemisphere, and elsewhere. Cultural theorist Kate Lacey speaks in historical, metaphorical, and gently ironic terms of radio’s “resilience” in the face of advances in technologized communication that would render it pitiable and obsolete. I would add to that radio’s “resilience” to control and mastery by profit-oriented and statist agendas. Radio resounds for a reason. Around the world we see it in daily use at the micro- as well as the macro-levels among diverse constituencies at all societal levels, who embrace the technology as a cost effective and nimble medium for effortlessly receiving news, information, and entertainment. Likewise, broadcasters need not travel via the information highway, so to speak, to address audiences across physical, lingustic, and cultural divides and to engage a spectra of needs and concerns. I expect we will see this extraordinary vitality continue for the majority of the world’s population for decades to come irrespective of the directions taken by communications giants, such as Google, Amazon, Apple, Netscape, and Facebook, or by future cycles of technological innovation that produce compelling technical and economic incentives, but have failed to dislodge this legacy sound medium from global relevance.


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