Author’s Spotlight: Radio and the Politics of Sound in Interwar France, 1921-1939

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A. Sue Weisler

Radio and the Politics of Sound in Interwar France, 1921-1939

The period between World War I and World War II may be best remembered for The Great Depression, but it also was an era when the mass media of radio transformed everyday experience for millions of people.

Rebecca Scales, an associate professor of history in Rochester Institute of Technology’s College of Liberal Arts, examined the impact of radio and broadcast sound on French society in her book, Radio and the Politics of Sound in Interwar France, 1921-1939, published by Cambridge University Press.

Scales first became interested in radio as a graduate student.

“There was significant scholarly literature examining how visual media such as newspapers, film and photography affected people’s interactions with their world,” she said. “But very little had been written about sound.”

France’s first public radio program was broadcast in 1921 from a transmitter on the Eiffel Tower and by 1930, France was the only European nation with both state-run and commercial radio stations.

“That created a set of debates about what the new medium of radio should do,” Scales said.

“While we often think of radio as a domestic medium consumed primarily by people in their homes, crowds flocked to loudspeakers on city streets to listen to political speeches and schoolchildren tuned in to radio lessons from their classrooms.”

Many at the time believed they were living through a “sound revolution,” she said.

“It was hard for them to separate radio from other new sound media, such as the gramophone or the public address system, which were beginning to colonize both public and private spaces.”

Listening to radio soon became the subject of fierce intellectual and political debates. When and where should people listen to the radio? How did sound waves affect the body and mind? What were the acceptable social and political uses for the radio?

One chapter of the book examines debates about radio’s ability to rehabilitate France’s nearly one million blind World War I veterans. Social elites argued that radio listening would replace their damaged eyes and allow them to participate in national life.

Yet as Scales discovered, “deaf and hard-of-hearing veterans also started converting radios into hearing aids as a way of demonstrating that they, too, had a wartime disability meriting the right to a state pension.”

Scales said readers interested in European history, the mass media and sound studies will appreciate her book. And the topic is relevant nearly 100 years later.

“Today, we are debating the impact of new digital media on our social and political environments,” she said. “My book examines a similar set of debates about the first mass broadcast media of the 20th century.”