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Vaillant, Derek W

Page history last edited by Paul Russell Laverack 15 years, 2 months ago

Vaillant, D. W. (2002).  Sounds of Whiteness: Local Radio, Racial Formation, and Public Culture in Chicago, 1921-1935.  American Quarterly, 54(1), 25-58.




Derek W. Vaillant is an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication Studies and a Faculty Associate in the Program in American Culture at the University of Michigan. He has taught in Ann Arbor since 1998. He holds a B.A. from Yale and a Ph.D. in History from the University of Chicago.


Professor Vaillant has also worked in radio and television news and documentary production in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Chicago for media outlets including NPR, PBS, and the CBC. His credits include projects with Bill Moyers, John Hockenberry, R.J. Cutler, and Stanley Nelson. 




In "Sounds of Whiteness: Local Radio, Racial Formation, and Public Culture in Chicago, 1921-1935," Derek Vaillant describes a historical, technological, and political process by which "[b]roadcasting altered public culture," specifically with respect to a "cultural formation –a sound of whiteness" which he argues "bound ethnic listeners together as racialized whites consuming a racialized Other." He traces this experience through the rise of community broadcasting in Chicago, its apotheosis in the "sweet jazz" dance hall sensation exemplified by impresario J. Louis Guyon, and concluding with an exploration of the Federal Radio Commission's institutional support for corporate radio over locally-produced programming, which largely dimmed "the prospects for multiple musical publics on the airwaves" witnessed in the decade prior.


Vaillant casts a wide net, using a "case study approach" to describe a Chicago cultural scene stretching back into the 1910s. He draws on quotations from participants, researchers into local history, and media scholars, to advance his case for damage done both to people of color, and to early community radio efforts, by the exclusion and marginalization which were products of "hegemonic sound of whiteness that predominated on local radio in Chicago in the 1920s." The title indicates Vaillant will employ the racial formation perspective in analyzing these events, and in describing the exclusion of African Americans almost entirely from decision-making roles in 1920s Chicago radio, Vaillant asserts African Americans were prevented from taking substantial part in the racial project, as it was being constructed on airwaves around the city. It appears to this student Vaillant made his case implicitly, whereas more explicit argument may have been warranted. On the other hand, this student is new to the diagnostic tool of racial formation, and may not be the best judge of whether that discussion proceeds properly here.


Vaillant describes the relatively wide-open field of local radio in the pre-consolidated 1920s. He notes how having a space on the airwaves constituted "forms of power and privilege" that conferred "special status" to groups who had heretofore been excluded from the mainstream. He refers to immigrants, ethnic groups (such as Poles and Swedes), and working-class broadcasters –all of whom found some measure of "respite from... subordinate status" through their experiences with radio. However, African-Americans were specifically excluded, save for a single program –the Negro Hour –which broadcast on a single station, WSBC. Vaillant argues that, even so, the Negro Hour was an influential program, which employed an "uplift agenda" to dignify the experiences of its listeners, many of whom lived well beyond the borders of Chicago's South Side.


That said, it was not as though African-Americans were otherwise entirely absent from 1920s Chicago radio. They appeared as musical performers playing in "live/remote" broadcasts from the numerous dance halls throughout Chicago. While Vaillant argues this is not nearly the same thing as controlling one's own program, it is nevertheless of some significance. Whereas in the decade prior, race-mixing in the cultural field was confined to "slumming," sexual escapades of affluent white males, and "black and tan" cabarets on the South Side, which became sites of protest from moral crusaders like the Juvenile Protective Association, suddenly radio allowed the musical sounds from quarters taboo for middle-class white society to cross physical space and enter into homes all over the city. As Vaillant puts it, "[R]adio enlarged the possibilities of a multiethnic, multiracial public culture by popularizing the sounds of African American musicians."


At the same time, Vaillant argues these broadcasts "constituted a sound of whiteness" by allowing the sounds of African Americans to enter privileged communities, without actually having to allow in the African Americans themselves. White listeners could derive enjoyment from the music, while remaining "disconnected from... economic, social, and cultural relationships...." He goes on to say this widespread presence of African American music on the Chicago airwaves deflected attention from the absence of black "broadcasters generating dimensions of themselves." There is no such thing, it seems, as a free lunch.


Vaillant goes on to discuss the co-opting of blackness by white musicians, such as the aptly-named Paul Whiteman, who popularized the socially-safe "sweet jazz" form, which was performed in middle-class ballrooms and palm courts throughout the city, and broadcast live over the radio. Another form which took hold in radio at the time was minstrelsy. This was a transplanting of earlier blackface minstrel shows, and featured white performers doing exaggerated imitations of African Americans. The most famous radio example of minstrelsy was "Amos 'n' Andy," which was the creation of two performers heard in Chicago on WGN radio. Vaillant notes that minstrelsy "amused white listeners and garnered audience share among African Americans as well."


Vaillant introduces "the construction of radio families" through a profile of J. Louis Guyon, the impresario who owned West Side station WGES. Vaillant describes him as a "radio patriarch, seated at the head of an extended white family of the air." Guyon and other broadcasters frequently invoked an imaginary "family" of listeners and spoke of themselves as working to "serve the people" by likening a radio station to "a community center" for the neighborhood. It appears there was more to this than simply rhetoric, as owners like Guyon invited local residents on the air to sing and play musical instruments, and make announcements of a familial nature. Guyon made further claims to community service, saying, "There are thousands of Catholic people in the neighborhood that I am in that patronize my ballroom, and I felt as though I owed them something in return." Whether this was sincere civic-mindedness, or just good business sense, he put local religious figures on the air alongside opera and commercial dance music. Vaillant sums up these features of WGES radio as an effort "to redefine public culture and urban identity in Chicago via radio."


Vaillant describes other efforts at creating communities via radio, such as WIBO and its Swedish-language music and religious services, as well as WPCC and its conservative religiosity, which placed it in stark contrast with the comparatively free and easy attitudes considered part of the jazz lifestyle found on other stations. In the case of WPCC's Reverend O'Hair and his moral crusades, Vaillant observes, "Here the sound of whiteness invoked a devilish other to justify its own righteousness."


In decrying the evils of commercialism, Reverend O'Hair had been staking out a sort of Christian populist position against the rising tide of consolidation and commercialization of the airwaves. Vaillant details the battles some broadcasters faced in "cultivating local, sustainable audiences" as Federal Radio Commission regulators –looking to sort out the confusion of frequencies and licenses, and to simplify radio broadcasting –performed surgery with a cleaver, tearing through the muscle of listener communities who had been nurtured by their local broadcasters, and shattering the bone of Chicago radio. When the bloodletting was finished in 1935, as Vaillant quotes McChesney, "the [network] system was entrenched economically, politically, and ideologically." Vaillant sums up the reality that lay beneath the FRC's vague "public interest" language: "The removal of independent stations confirmed the worst to many, that musical publics mattered only for their varying worth to advertisers."


Vaillant returns to his discussion of the "hegemonic sound of whiteness" in the concluding portion of the essay. However, in his detailed discussion on the rise of commercialism and the decline of Chicago's independent broadcasters, Vaillant loses the thread of his argument, largely abandoning questions of race. While this loss of focus is noticeable, there is much of interest in Vaillant's overall description of 1920s Chicago radio and the ongoing contestation for space (the racial formation) –ethnically inclusive on the one hand, while exclusive of blacks on the other.... locally-controlled and community-oriented, in the face of rising commodification.


(Reviewed by Paul Russell Laverack)


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