Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Acousmatic Presences: From DJs to Talk-Radio Hosts in American Fiction, Cinema, and Drama

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Acousmatic Presences: From DJs to Talk-Radio Hosts in American Fiction, Cinema, and Drama

Article excerpt

Radio's the greatest because it's all in here.
It's a theatre of the mind.

--Robert W. Smith, a.k.a. "The Wolfman"

The disc jockey (also called "DJ" or "jock") is a figure that originated in the history of radio in the United States: the phrase "disc jockey" was coined by American commentator Walter Winchell in 1934, but the heyday of DJs was the second half of the twentieth century, with remarkable changes occurring in the radio industry throughout the 1950s and the 1960s, especially in the short age of the underground radio depicted in Michael C. Keith's Voices in the Purple Haze.(1) The talk-radio host was also born in American radio, in the late 1940s, though its golden age was during the conservative 1980s and 1990s, when, "with the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine [in 1987] [...] the talk format enjoyed a major boost" (Keith, Talking 77; see also Douglas 298-300). DJs and talk-radio hosts, their different historical origins notwithstanding, have something in common: they are not just media professionals but pop icons who are as famous as actors or sport heroes, and who have been repeatedly portrayed in cinema, fiction, and drama in the United States.

This essay does not aim at tracing the history of DJs and talk-radio hosts; rather, it will attempt an analysis of the figures of DJs and talk-radio hosts as American icons, depicted in a group of American literary texts, films, and a play, Talk Radio, by Eric Bogosian. Bogosian's play is endowed with a somewhat pivotal role because it posits a deep connexion between the two figures: its protagonist is a talk-radio host with a past as a countercultural DJ in commercial radio--something that, as we shall see, mirrors a historical shift.

By means of a multi-disciplinary reading, I will try to highlight how the DJs in these works can be seen as embodiments of an icon--emblems of a certain professional or artistic figure (the DJ being on the borderline between artistic creativity and professional entertainment) endowed with strong social and political meanings. Surely icons cannot be read as sociological representations of what DJs and talk-show hosts "actually" were or are in American radio; yet those highly subjective artistic representations--be they unconventional or stereotyped, realistic or romanticized--always contain traces of the socio-economic processes at work at the time of their creation. This article will explore the relationship between icon and socio-political context; however, it should be seen more as a starting point than a conclusive assessment, as such a methodology could and should also be applied to other iconic figures in the American mediascape (e.g., the tycoon, the rock star, the cowboy, or the gangster). Moreover, this interpretive effort might help us understand how such icons have played the role of cultural ambassadors of American culture abroad, where the "original" figures that those icons hint at are not known. It is in fact easy to understand that, due to cultural, linguistic, and (until very recently) technical reasons, these American radio DJs and talk-show hosts did not penetrate European culture, yet Europeans have nonetheless connected with the American radio world via its representation in American fiction, cinema, and drama (one of the most striking examples being Robert Altman's 2006 film, A Prairie Home Companion, shown in European cinemas and seen by an audience that was largely unaware of the NPR program it was based on).

Afictional DJ can be found in a classic of postmodernist fiction published in the middle of the countercultural sixties. Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49. The disc jockey is Wendell "Mucho" Maas, who works for the Californian radio station KCUF. His biggest problem is the libidos of teenage female listeners who are stimulated by his voice, which throbs with "naked lust" (9), according to Mucho's manager, Mr. Funch. Funch answers by editing out Mucho's replies from taped phone talk. …

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