The following is from the Introduction to the upcoming book:

Radio Art 1980-1994

American Artists making images and telling stories
with sound and language

Co-edited by Helen Thorington and Jacki Apple.

Art Rangers in Radioland
by Jacki Apple

Radio holds a unique place in American cultural history, and in the shaping of popular culture in particular. It is the bridge between the two halves of this century, the memory trace from one generation to the next, traversed by world leaders, sportscasters, crooners, comedians, cowboys, private eyes, and space travelers, voices imprinted into the American psyche resonating across time and space. Through high times, hard times, and a worldwide war, for three decades radio held a central place in our living rooms. Then it was superceded by television. Still, for another two decades it was a primary conduit for youth culture and it's music -- rock n' roll, and for a vast majority of Americans who were in their teens and twenties in the 50s and 60s, radio and automobiles are inseparable. Not surprisingly radio has continued to hold a special fascination for a generation of American artists for whom it has been an indelible part of their life experience and imagination, and between 1980 and 1994 a number of them reconceived radio for their own time as a bridge between art and popular culture.

Ironically, in the 90s radio resurfaced as a cultural force in the popular television series Northern Exposure and the youth film Pump Up The Volume. In both instances radio operates as an intimate personal voice that poses philosophical questions about the values of the community. The unconventional structure and content of KBEAR's "Chris in the Morning" local community broadcasts, and a teenager's nightly home studio radio programs directly reflect the radio works produced by artists in the 80s and their incursion into mass media. In the former a small town artist/disk jockey's ongoing discourse is a radio "artwork" that mingles the daily life of Cicely, Alaska with art, literature, and intellectual and spiritual inquiry into the human condition. It is the voice of conscience and the community's cultural catalyst. In the latter a disenchanted high schooler's late night pirate interventions puncture the prevailing system when his alter ego "Hard Harry's" uncensored personal confessions, raunchy sex and underground rock and rap, turn into free speech guerilla politics that rally a population of alienated suburban teens into a motivated empowered community.

Although avant-garde artists have experimented with radio since its inception, it was the advent in the 1970s of non-commercial, listener-sponsored public radio on the FM band, including college and local community stations that opened up the possibilities of art on the airwaves, not simply as an isolated incident but as a viable alternative to rigidly formatted commercial radio dominated by advertising interests. This new opportunity was augmented by the revolution in both recording and broadcast technology and easy consumer access to sophisticated equipment and processes that rapidly changed the nature of production and distribution. Thus in the 1980s radio and audio artworks -- sound art, experimental narratives, sonic geographies, pseudo documentaries, radio cinema, conceptual and multimedia performances, a whole panoply of broadcast interventions that confronted the politics of culture, subverted mass media news and entertainment, and challenged aural perceptions, infiltrated the broadcast landscape and acquired an audience.

Although these works encompass a diversity of esthetics and styles, the artists share a sensibility radically different from that of their predecessors whose roots are in a European avant-garde tradition. It is a distinctly postmodern American sensibility of blurred boundaries between realities -- a convergence of art concepts and forms and media culture, of history, memory, fantasy, and fiction, of public and private space. Unlike the Dada/Fluxus based sound poetry, musique concrete, and audio/radio art explorations of John Cage's disciples, contemporary American radio art of the 80s and 90s, from the most complex hi-tech studio productions to the raw energy of live and interactive broadcasts, is predominantly engaged with employing new narrative strategies and subverting media conventions. The result is a montage of performance art, poetry, politics, worldwide music, urban noise, manipulated nature, popular entertainment and advertising, vernacular speech, fractured language, all modes of talk and an array of cultural voices from the mainstream to the marginal. These artists cross disciplines, raid all genres and recontextualize them into new hybrids. Their work reflects the socio-cultural complexities and contradictions of life in late twentieth century America, as it grapples with the problem of art as a mode of communicating ideas in a media dominated environment.

The very phrase 'radio art' may seem like an ironic contradiction, an oxymoron even, given the nature of the mainstream broadcast landscape. But it is in actuality a paradigm for our time in which ancient traditions of aural culture collide with instant information access and retrieval in the global village of mass media telecommunications systems. From the artist's point of view radio is an environment to be entered into and acted upon, a site for various cultural voices to meet, converse, and merge in. It may even be conceived of as a means of intra and interplanetary travel.

If in the hierarchy of media television has been the condo in the sky, radio has been a basement apartment, a lot cheaper and easier to break into. But basement apartments also have a long history as the sanctuaries and fertile abode of revolutionaries, poets, artists, and inventors. In the early 80s visual and performance artists, composer/musicians, and writer/performers approached radio as an alternative art space, a performance arena, a distribution system, a public art forum, and they have since used it both as an art context, and an artmaking medium in itself with specific properties. In one sense radio art in the 80s and early 90s carried on the spiritof the original "alternative" spaces of the early// 70s, those industrial lofts that were the spawning ground of conceptual and performance art. Both radio art and the ephemeral art of that period sought to wrench itself free from the commodities marketplace of the gallery and the elitist prestige of the museum in order to inhabit public space and public consciousness. It presented itself as information and experience, a participatory transaction between artist and viewer/listener, as opposed to goods. In the materialistic 80s art on the airwaves, spurred by a similar impetus, has had farther reaching implications.

Radio art has operated on the aesthetic, perceptual, and conceptual frontier, marginalized not only within all the art disciplines it encompasses, but inside the system of distribution it has infiltrated. Like astronauts defying the gravitational laws of time and space, contemporary practitioners have crossed the borders from artland to mass medialand throwing into question definitions of art based on context, while attempting to redefine the nature of the site of their activities and position their "product" in relation to it's non-art counterpart. Arty journalism is NOT radio art, though journalistic devises may be employed by radio artists. Likewise, it is not traditional radio drama, though it may use dramatic conventions. It is not, strictly speaking, music, though it may be composed entirely of non-textual sound. In addition, radio art investigates the nature of language itself -- speech as culture, and sound as language --in an era when language has been corrupted by euphemism, double-speak, jargon, and propaganda. As an aural artform it reaffirms that it's not just what we say, but the way we say it. Given all these characteristics the entire enterprise is inherently political outside of the specific content of any individual work.

On one hand, radio as a free, easily accessible, portable performance space without walls, democratizes art consumption by making art available at the switch of a dial, and by sometimes engaging the listener as participant. Initially it was relatively easy for artists to simply walk in the back door and onto the airwaves of public radio unobstructed. For a brief time they traversed unmonitored airwaves like guerillas in the night, beaming into automobiles across the urban sprawl. Foghorns in the foggy bog, they developed an audience, an odd cross-section of the populace scanning the broadcast band for a signal amongst the babble in Babel.

On the other hand, since the late 80s, public radio more than any other medium has been subject to extreme censorship both outside and inside the system, with audio and performance artists and writers caught at the center of the controversy over civil liberties, freedom of speech and cultural diversity, public access to public broadcasting, and who controls comunications technology. From the point of view of those who own and control mass media, radio art may be perceived as anarchistic, unpredictable, uncategorizable, and therefore politically undesirable. The goal of the media artist is after all to communicate a different version of reality to a vast number of people, many of whom might not otherwise be exposed to it. Since the fluid composition of this audience does not adhere to marketing research demographics, the most effective way of suppressing this work is to declare that such an audience does not in fact exist, or that its numbers are too small to be of significance. In other words, to manipulate statistical data and apply marketplace prerogatives to so-called non-commercial public radio. Given the collapse of arts funding, the vagaries of cultural politics, and the seductions of cyberspace, radio art as such may well be on its way to becoming an endangered species, or a cultural form about to mutate and adapt to new technologies as artists seek to gain a footing in the uncharted territories of the digital superhighway and expanding telecommunications media.

What contemporary radio artworks share with the golden age of popular radio is the way in which they intimately engage the imagination of the listener. The sonic arts bring us into a different perceptual relationship with the world, and the complexity of the aural palette with its ability to create a multidimensional reality rich in sensations and images has endowed radio as a medium with a special capacity for transport. While film and video remain always outside the body, a facsimile on a screen, and words remain bound to the page of the book, aural media both surround and penetrate the body. Radio in its most creative manifestations is the original holographic virtual space. Projected onto the visual field of the inner eye, resonating along aura pathways in the boom box of the brain, words and sounds become living presences. Think of radio as words with wings, Swedenborg's and Wim Wenders' angels descending to whisper in your ear, their breath caressing your skin. Thoughts are energy transformed into matter through the voice. The voice is the engine of desire that makes flying possible.

This book explores and documents the work of seventeen artists -- Terry Allen, Charles Amirkhanian, Jacki Apple, Sheila Davies, Earwax (Barney Jones, Markos Kounalakis, Jim McKee), Rinde Eckert, Shelley Hirsch, Lisa Jones/Alva Rogers, Don Joyce (Negativeland), William Morelock, David Moss, Guillermo Gomez-Pena, Rachel Rosenthal, Donald Swearingen, Helen Thorington, Gregory Whitehead -- whose endeavors have significantly defined the American radio art enterprise from 1980 to 1994. Their work characterizes a uniquely American sensibility, culture and landscape, and their diverse voices and visions represent a crossection of our individual and collective histories and experiences. In that sense, all of this work may be seen as a form of cultural autobiography and oral history.

The majority of these artists have sustained bodies of work in the visual and performing arts, and they bring that formal vocabulary to the works they have created for radio. Each has experimented with ways to tell a "story", introducing unconventional structures to traditional broadcast formats. This holds true in both textual and non-textual works. Some approach radio as an architectural space to be constructed sonically and linguistically; or as the site of an event -- an arena, a stage, a promenade, a public square, a cafe, a telephone booth, an intimate interior. Some use it as a gathering place, or a conduit, a means to create community. Some artists employ the media landscape itself as the narrative, while others look into the body as the site and the source; the voicebox, the larynx become medium and metaphor. Still others gather the sounds of the world as evidence and construct maps of imaginary geographies. The tape recorder and microphone replace the camera, capture moments in time, the life of a place in process; a journey is recalled and reconstructed, overlaid with new insights. Some transpose a cinematic syntax -- a montage of dissolves, quick cuts instead of fades, a series of close-ups, long shots, reverse angles. Others appropriate media genres and turn them inside out giving an appearance of veracity to interviews with false personae, and documentary authority to invented data; or the reverse, creating musically structured works from authentic field interviews.

In the next century radio as we have known it may disappear, swallowed up by multimedia cyberspace. Or, as an obsolete technology relegated to the subculture fringes, it might exist only in pirate form, a weapon of the world's underclasses, a tool of artists, revolutionaries, shamans, and other questioning voices in our brave new tech world. The purpose of this book is to document and illuminate a vital body of work that might otherwise be lost between the pages of art and media history. While tapes may decay, and those that are not continually translated into the latest technology will become unplayable, the ideas can be preserved.