Wednesday, October 30, 2019

National Recording Registry Project: The National Defense Test

What do you know? Live from coast to coast, it’s the military/industrial complex!

National Defense Test
Conducted Sept. 12, 1924

On Sept. 12, 1924, 18 fledgling radio stations shared the same broadcast nationwide, a largely unprecedented feat. Everything you need to know about this unprecedented communications event can be found here in CaryO’Dell’s comprehensive essay at the National Recording Registry; my comments are parenthetical.

The National Defense Test was conducted in concert with something called National Defense Day, a government initiative to promote military preparedness and patriotism. It was deemed valuable to be able to communicate with the entire country simultaneously and instantly in case of national emergency (such as an invasion, though this wasn’t made explicit), and radio provided the ability to do just that.

Military concerns often prompt advances in technology, especially in American history and particularly since the beginning of the last century. The phone company, long a tolerated monopoly as American Telephone & Telegraph, had perfected the ability to transmit sound from station to station using long-distance telephone lines. Under the aegis of the U.S. military, a series of hookups united the stations into a temporary network.

This was not the first coast-to-coast broadcast. On Nov. 11, 1921, speeches from Arlington, Virginia were transmitted to New York City and San Francisco via phone lines. In 1922, two primitive rival networks developed — AT&T’s “WEAF chain” and RCA’s “WJZ chain” — but these were only regional. AT& T’s chief engineer James J. Carty made a speech Feb. 8, 1924 that made its circuitous way across the continent, again through an ad hoc linkage of stations.

The content of September’s 90-minute program, described by O’Dell, was dry and formal. The important thing about it was the possibilities it outlined. Continuous information and entertainment could now reach a mass audience in real time, a bigger cumulative audience than the world had seen before. This meant big business. (New York and Chicago were early broadcast centers; the West Coast wasn’t seen as such until Louella Parsons initiated the Hollywood Hotel radio show in 1934.)

It also meant that the powers that were now had a mighty megaphone at their disposal. Mass communication would prove to be a double-edged sword. The medium was neutral; it would accommodate whatever message was sent over it. It’s worth thinking about in an age where dueling propagandas have, temporarily I hope, superseded the search for truth.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: electric recording transforms the industry.

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