Invisible Industries: Sound and the Public Sector

Curator's Note

It’s not surprising that, particularly in the United States, media industry studies should be dominated by a focus on the commercial sector: it is huge and in your face. The world of public, non-profit media fades into invisibility beside it, despite the fact that US public broadcasting has an audience that is larger in sheer numbers than that of most other public broadcasting systems in the world, with the possible exception of the BBC. It is in fact an industry, a large and prosperous one, with its own methods of finance, production, distribution, and marketing. But the industrial practices of public radio and television fly under the radar of academics and the mainstream press alike.

Nowhere is this more true than in the contemporary soundwork industry that I described in the recent Cinema Journal “In Focus” section. Here, an evolving non-profit sector centered around, but not limited to, the increasingly complex business of public and community radio (NPR, APM, PRI and thousands of local stations and independent producers) has combined energetically with the free-form “amateur” economics of podcasting and the material affordances of digital platforms. New modes of distribution and exchange have begun to emerge, including most notably PRX, the Public Radio Exchange, as explained in this video.

PRX combines production support with a distribution center that also opens up access to both amateur and professional work, negotiates royalties, encourages commentary, and directs payment. And anyone can listen in. Though no one is getting rich in independent sound production, we are living in a period of marvelous experimentation and innovation, fueled by the public, non-profit sector. Other significant online soundwork sites include Transom, focused on encouraging independent production, and the Third Coast International Audio Festival, with its workshops, curated listening sessions, and prizes.

Our public media sector has become more truly public than ever, and it is churning out enormous cultural profits every day. How many media studies courses even recognize its existence?


Thinking about this in terms of courses makes me think of my own History of TV course, which spends the early weeks on radio in order to establish how radio laid the groundwork for much of what was to come in TV. But after that, I rarely talk about radio. Seeing this video sparks thoughts of how I could work radio back into the course, especially when we discuss contemporary developments and compare them to the trends we saw develop across history. In particular, it would be fun to ask the students to compare this to the early days of amateur radio, before its possibilities were snuffed out by commercial demands, and to consider industrial developments since. We also look early on at predictions for broadcasting, like Shaw Desmond's 1928 "Seeing Across the World," and it's striking how much some of those projections sound akin to what the internet offers today, so I'd love to put this into that mix too.

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