Richard Byrd, Polar Exploration, and the Media

Article excerpt

AMERICAN society in the 1920s and 1930s underwent a variety of social, economic, and technological changes. The urbanization of the nation, a demographic fact by 1920, developed with the expansion of industry and the need for a large labor force to mass produce consumer and industrial goods. The radio and airplane transformed perceptions of time and space, quickening the tempo of life and shattering the barriers associated with distance. Nationwide radio broadcasting linked listeners in cities, towns, and remote regions together through a variety of programs whose content, by the 1930s, was largely driven by consumer advertising., Americans, avid consumers of popular culture, also thrilled to the emergence of air flight and stunt-flying.2 Much like astronauts in the 1960s, aviators in the 1920s took on a mythic status in the radio and the press, achieving worldwide celebrity for their exploits. Charles Lindbergh became a national hero for his spectacular, nonstop solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927, an event that was avidly reported in the mass media of the day and still reverberates in American popular culture.

Consumer capitalism and its offshoots thus emerged full-blown in the roaring twenties.3 Talking motion pictures, stunt flying, media feats like pole-sitting, and, beginning in the 1930s, the strident radio programs of Walter Winchell, all formed what one contemporary observer aptly called the Ballyhoo Years. Through displays of luxury goods and a variety of massproduced products, consumer capitalism completely transformed social life by promoting material acquisitiveness to millions. By the 1930s mass media and the mass consumption of manufactured goods were basic features of American life.5 The increasing commercialization of geographical exploration was part of this larger historical trend, and the early polar expeditions of Richard Evelyn Byrd were significantly affected by the opportunities, demands, and hazards presented by the electronic media and corporate advertising. The specifics of this phase of Byrd's career can now be evaluated in light of the archival record.

The popular history of polar exploration is in large part the story of its promotion in the mass media. This was especially true of Byrd's Antarctic expeditions. His extensive use of film, newspapers, and radio continued a trend that began in the 1870s, when dramatic stories of geographical exploration were featured in metropolitan newspapers in England and the United States. As increasing numbers of readers gained access to relatively inexpensive newspapers, geographical exploration grew in popular appeal. The public was captivated by sensationalized expedition accounts, sometimes following the exploits of explorers for months on end. By the first decade of the twentieth century, newspaper and book publishers paid huge sums for the exclusive rights to firsthand accounts of voyages of discovery.6 Newspapers applied journalistic techniques developed in the nineteenth century to transform geographical exploration into a news commodity. Through the use of banner headlines, hyperbole, and serialization, editors built and sustained the interest of their readers. Such highly promoted polar explorers as Robert Peary and Frederick Cook received thousands of dollars to have their stories told in installments in major metropolitan dailies.7

The press promoted explorers as heroic embodiments of national pride and as daring adventurers who overcame hardship and danger to further the cause of science and geographical discovery. Its visibility greatly magnified by the electronic media, polar exploration in the 1920s and 1930s came increasingly to the fore in the popular mind. News organizations used radio and film to dramatize geographical exploration as entertainment for increasingly larger audiences. In this context, the explorer, like the movie star, became a celebrity, and geographical expeditions became carefully orchestrated narratives structured to maximize publicity and dramatic appeal. …