Jennifer Petersen, Associate Professor of Media Studies, University of Virginia
Dr. Jennifer Petersen is an Associate Professor of Media Studies. Her interests focus on media history, technology studies, communication law, and conceptions of emotion in the public sphere. Her articles in these areas appear in journals such as Media Culture & Society and Critical Studies in Media Culture. Her first book, Murder, Media, and the Politics of Public Feeling (Indiana University Press, 2011), explores the emotional mediation of and legal responses to two of the most publicly visible and commented upon hate crimes of the late 1990s. Using textual analysis of media and legal texts as well as interviews with activists and lawmakers, the book analyzes the ways that media texts encouraged and conveyed feelings about the men and their murders, and traces how these feelings became the grounds for local political action and the eventual passage of hate crimes laws.
She is currently writing a second book, How Machines Came to Speak: Media Technologies and Freedom of Speech. Drawing on close readings of legal texts and “distant reading” of a large digital corpus of legal decisions, the book traces the history of legal conceptions of speech in free speech law. While most histories of free speech focus on the expansion of rights and freedoms granted under the First Amendment – the “free” in free speech—this book focuses squarely on the historical evolution of “speech” itself, from a narrow, self-evident category of strictly deliberative and linguistic communication to a broad category that encompasses symbols, aesthetics, and feeling. The book argues that this transformation has been driven in large part by media technologies and social scientific ideas about communication.
Dr. Petersen earned her PhD in the Radio-Television-Film Department of the University of Texas at Austin. She was a 2016-2017 Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS) at Stanford University and the 2015-2017 Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities at UVA; her work has also been supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). She will be on leave for the academic year 2018-2019, while she is a Visiting Scholar at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) at Princeton University.
Season 2, Episode 1
When radio first was introduced, there was a trajectory of adoption, concerns, and regulations. History provides an interesting perspective when we look at how social media compares to the advent of radio. In the early days of radio, some even spread falsehoods. In looking at the role of social media today, we take a trip down memory lane and gain insights from the early days of radio.
Listen to more: Activate World
What the Advent of Radio Has in Common with Social Media
Jennifer Petersen, Associate Professor of Media Studies, University of Virginia
Season 2, Episode 1
Jon Mertz: 00:02 Welcome to the Activate World podcast, a series on how business leaders have more power to solve societal issues than any elected official. We explore business activism with substance and depth-of-thought.
Jon Mertz: 00:17 We’re excited to have Professor Jennifer Petersen with us from the University of Virginia. She is the author of Murder, the Media, and the Politics of Public Persuasion, and is also working on a second book called, How Machines Came to Speak: Media Technologies and Freedom of Speech.
Jon Mertz: 00:33 Professor Petersen, welcome to Activate World.
Professor Peterson: 00:36 Thank you. It’s wonderful to be here.
Jon Mertz: 00:38 Before we get started, give us a little background on who you are, what you teach, and any other interesting things you’d like to share.
Professor Peterson: 00:44 I research in general intersections of media law, and affect is another area of interest, which is probably less relevant to our conversation today. And I teach at the University of Virginia in the department of media studies. I teach on the history of documentary film, news analysis, history of media, and media technologies, and free-speech law.
Jon Mertz: 01:07 That’s great. So, obviously, a lot of changes in our society today as it relates to media with social platforms and other struggles that go with that. I know radio is one of the areas that you have focused on. Could you give us some history on radio back in the 20s and 30s and how it began to unfold?
Professor Peterson: 01:23 So, radio arrived on the scene for most Americans in the 1920s. It had been around a while, technologically, before that, but it had been used more as a point-to-point communication, where hobbiests were using it to speak to one another, kind of like a walkie talkie or short-wave radio today.
Professor Peterson: 01:42 So, it was something that was associated with young men, technology that young men used to talk to each other. And, as a lot of historians have pointed out, there are a lot of similarities in the way journalists talked about these young men in the teens and the way that we talked about hackers in the 90s. So, they were seen as a little bit of troublemakers, and kind of odd fish.
Professor Peterson: 02:04 But, in the 1920s, radio really changed. The radio sets became much more consumer friendly and you started to have these furniture-like radio receivers, which is really different, obviously, from what these hobbiests had had before that, which were both receivers and transmitters.
Professor Peterson: 02:23 So, radio became more of a consumer technology. You would, and this is the 20s, you’d go to a department store and you would buy a radio receiver. And that meant that this was open to anybody, you could put it in your living room.
Professor Peterson: 02:37 And the second important thing that happened, was you began to have various different groups of people creating radio broadcasts on a regular basis. So, the person who bought this radio receiver would have something to look for, a radio station to look for, and the would tune in the station and listen to it. And some of the first radio stations were, in fact, equipment manufacturers and companies that were selling the receivers.
Professor Peterson: 03:02 So, Westinghouse, for example. And they would set up a radio station in order for there to be a good or a reason that you would buy this receiver. And so, in the 20s, you had a variety of different types of radio show, that were … Most of them weren’t the kind of model we have today, where there’s commercials and things like this.
Professor Peterson: 03:20 It wasn’t ad-supported radio. And there was a lot of debates about what radio would be. By the end of the 1920s, you begin to see the commercial that we have today emerging. This was really controversial though at the time, because there had been a big group of people who thought that radio should’ve been used for educational purposes and for uplift.
Professor Peterson: 03:41 And even the people who were pioneering this new commercial form of radio were very cautious about it. They were very concerned not to have too many advertisements or too crass an advertisement, because the whole idea of a commercially-supported mass medium that was received in the sanctity of the home, the domestic sphere, was really understood by everybody to be controversial.
Professor Peterson: 04:06 Which I think is surprising today, because this is just what broadcasting [inaudible 00:04:11] does. So, in the 1930s, this was a really, really new thing, the idea that news and culture was being brought to you through this very self-evidently commercial format. And so, this is part of the backbone of the debates about radio in the 1930s, the fact that this commercial nature of radio was quite controversial.
Jon Mertz: 04:35 And so, initially, the programming was by the radio manufacturers, but then broadcasters and others saw this as a new channel to reach consumers and citizens, and then started creating their own content. Right?
Professor Peterson: 04:46 Yes. So, in the 20s, you’d have equipment manufacturers, but also church groups, universities, newspapers often had radios. You had a lot of different owner-operated stations. But yeah, increasingly in the 1930s, you had larger and larger chains of broadcasters. You had the beginnings of NBC, CBS, the first radio networks, and they produced content that they then shared with all their affiliates.
Professor Peterson: 05:14 And, in fact, often, they didn’t actually produce the content, but advertising agencies or the sponsoring company would actually produce the content for them. So, this is part of the way that the industry worked in the 1930s.
Jon Mertz: 05:28 What was the mix of content as CBS, NBC, and others got in to it?
Professor Peterson: 05:33 Well, especially NBC had this practice of having both more educated or uplifting material, or what they considered uplifting material and sponsored material. So, they tried to kind of balance it out. But, across the 1930s, it’s trending more and more towards, if it wasn’t going to be commercially viable, it wasn’t going to be on the air.
Professor Peterson: 05:52 The idea of commercial radio was being accepted by politicians and by Americans, and so the need for sustaining or the kind of, what was understood as quality programming, was no longer as emphasized.
Jon Mertz: 06:07 Right. I’d imagine that President Franklin Roosevelt probably helped drive the growth of radio with his Fireside Chats, because that was a very new thing for a US president to do.
Professor Peterson: 06:16 It was. It was a very new thing for a US president to do and a very canny thing to do. So, one of the things that he did with radio, even before the Fireside Chats, was he spoke directly to the American people without having to deal with the gate keepers and the newspapers.
Professor Peterson: 06:33 Most of the newspapers at the time were not for Roosevelt, they were anti-Roosevelt. So, this was really important to him, to woo the radio, and use radio to reach out to the American people.
Professor Peterson: 06:44 So, this was a very important thing in a way in which there are many parallels between the use of Twitter by many different personalities, and radio at the time. So, he used radio to reach directly to people. It was understood to be a populist medium.
Professor Peterson: 07:01 And also, when he started to do the Fireside Chats, one of the really distinctive things about them is the way he spoke to the American population. He spoke in very folksy terms, not in … He didn’t use jargon. He spoke in a very intimate, colloquial tone. People felt like they were speaking with the president.
Professor Peterson: 07:22 So, it was a really common tool for campaigning. And when you go back and look at some of the early radio regulation, it’s clear that they’re thinking about the fact that politicians are using radio as a direct means of address to the American people. And how this would work would be, you wouldn’t necessarily be speaking across NBC, CBS, to the American people.
Professor Peterson: 07:42 If you were Roosevelt, you would hold a press conference, and you would be speaking to these giant networks. But, for a smaller politician who was doing more regional politics, you might be speaking on a local, independent station. You might purchase time. So, people were using radio in a lot of different ways.
Professor Peterson: 08:04 One of the interesting things that emerged in this … And this is some of the research I’m doing on my new book on free speech and media technologies. Is that this raised questions about who was the liable speaker, if somebody, say a politician on the air libeled somebody, or anybody on air libeled somebody. Because the station owner and operator was different, sometimes, from the person who is actually saying things over the air. And, often they weren’t invited people, but they were paying, it was like a toll call. They were paying to actually make this address to the audience. And so, in legal cases, you have this attempt to define who is responsible for libel over the radio. And there’s this very real puzzlement over who’s going to be responsible.
Professor Peterson: 08:52 Is it the person who is actually speaking? Is it the host, say, who’s interviewing them? Is it the technicians who could’ve pulled the plug on the broadcast at any time? Or is it the license holder, who’s probably also the owner of the station?
Professor Peterson: 09:07 The inconclusiveness of this results in a set of practices in a lot of different radio stations, where the owners and operators don’t know if they’re going to be sued for libel, and if they’re going to be held responsible.
Professor Peterson: 09:20 So, people coming on the air have to submit statements, like written scripts, of what they’re going to say before they can go on the air so it can be approved, so that the license holders feel a little more secure about their liability. They’re not going to get in trouble for anything.
Jon Mertz: 09:36 So, how did that evolve then?
Professor Peterson: 09:38 There’s actually a case in the late 20s or early 30s in Nebraska that involves this type of political speech on air, where the license holder was held responsible. The libel was understood to be both the actual speaker and the station owner.
Professor Peterson: 09:55 So, they both end up having to pay for this damages for the libel. And this sets a precedent of fuzzy boundaries of responsibility, that lasts until the, it’s the 50s or the 60s when this gets ironed out a little bit more in a little bit more of a rigorous fashion, that allows everyone to know what their responsibility is.
Professor Peterson: 10:19 But for all the years in between, that’s when you have these practices of informal, each station has its own rules about how they’re going to curb their bets or CYA about liability. And a lot of this is we’re really going to really vet people before they go on.
Professor Peterson: 10:41 We are going to make people submit everything to us in writing. And it may have contributed, as well, to some of the types of rules that a lot of broadcasters had about controversial speech and activities where any kind of controversial speech was often … There were policies saying there would be no controversial speech, so it was in a sense banned in a lot of different radio stations.
Jon Mertz: 11:07 Yeah, so obviously, the parallel to today’s world with Twitter, Facebook, and Google, each platform sets their own policies of what’s acceptable and what’s not. If you take Info Wars and Alex Jones as an example, initially, Facebook and Google banned him, but Twitter did not until just recently.
Jon Mertz: 11:23 So, it seems similar. Some parallels between radio during the time and what some of the social media platforms are struggling with today. Did his message then just get lost, or did he come up with another way to get his voice heard?
Professor Peterson: 11:35 Yeah. I think that there’s several interesting and telling, or useful, parallels. And this is a difference, I guess I would say, between the platforms today, and radio in the 1930s. And radio at the time, by the way, as sort of an aside, radio was talked about as a platform, and there was a lot of back-and-forth, about was radio more of just a platform for the speech of others, or was it an editorial outlet for the views of the owner?
Professor Peterson: 12:07 And so, there was a lot of back-and-forth about this in the 30s and the libel laws and the inconclusivity of the libel laws is part of this, this “we’re not sure what type of technology this is.” And it felt very wild west to those involved in it.
Professor Peterson: 12:23 But, it did all get ironed out or institutionalized. And so, these rules did, these roles were solidified and rules were solidified. And I think that probably we’ll see some of that in the next decade with social media. I think that there are some parallels between the way that we are having a difficult time figuring out if Facebook is a technology or whether it is a news outlet type of thing.
Professor Peterson: 12:49 I think radio had a lot of the same ambiguities at the time. In the 1930s and 1940s, radio tended to be quite shy of controversial speech for a variety of reasons. There were often explicit rules about not allowing controversial speakers.
Professor Peterson: 13:06 In the 30s, this often meant labor, and liberals and labor activists were quite upset about this. And it wasn’t the state that labor needed to worry about so much as it was these radio stations that were censoring their speech. And so, this was the backlash against this in the early 30s, and there was a sense that the speech of labor was being unfairly targeted.
Professor Peterson: 13:29 This went both ways, though, by the end of the decade.
Jon Mertz: 13:33 Going back to labor unions and the struggle in getting their voice heard, did they undertake similar tactics with more editorial or did they have better success on radio?
Professor Peterson: 13:42 Yeah, there was a lot of writing. So, there’s a lot of editorials, a lot of advocacy in the newspapers, but they also did a lot of litigation. And, obviously, also picketing and strikes, is one of the things they’re doing.
Professor Peterson: 13:59 And some of the litigation is over the ability to … Or they’re involved with some of the radio litigation about advocating or accusing certain radio networks of …
Professor Peterson: 14:12 And I’m trying to remember some of the facts of the cases here, of like NBC and CBS networks, for being monopolists, and not giving them space to speak. And again, this also sounds familiar with some of the talk about Google being a monopolist and its free-speech implications.
Professor Peterson: 14:33 But also, being involved with litigation about the ability to picket and things like this. So, a lot of their agitation … So, there’s a lot of turning to print, but there’s also a lot of use of court cases to establish rights and one of the big outcomes of this, is in 1939 in Hague versus the CIO, the Supreme Court establishes the public forum, and says that city streets and city parks are physical places where everyone should speak.
Professor Peterson: 15:08 And one of the ways these places were talked about, were platforms. These were platforms for the working men, or platforms for the poor. And it meant, as an outlet, since these voices were having trouble accessing the privately-owned platforms of the newspaper and the radio, that the city, municipalities, public places needed to operate as platforms, so that labor and other causes associated with people without means had a space, had a channel to speak on.
Professor Peterson: 15:42 So, the public forum law is very much wrapped up in concerns about media concentration and private censorship in the 1930s and 40s.
Jon Mertz: 15:54 At what point did radio become more open, where labor or other voices could be heard through a radio channel?
Professor Peterson: 16:00 Criticizing business or capitalism was also always something that was hard to do. In the 1940s though, you had the establishment of, or Fairness Doctrine, and various other policies, that the efforts of the FCC, to try to make sure that radio gave more a voice to everyone.
Professor Peterson: 16:20 It’s party in response to this advocacy in the 30s, and trying to make sure that at least two sides of every issue get aired, and is trying to force radio to operate, and TV, to operate a bit more like a common carrier. Not fully like a common carrier, but a bit more like that. Like a platform where we’re going to at least have different spokespeople for different sides of an issue on it.
Professor Peterson: 16:44 And that lasted for a while. It really started to recede in the 70s, and was killed in the 90s. The other thing that I would add onto, to clarify on that question, is your radio and television were not as business driven in the 30s or as profit drive, especially in the news divisions as they are today.
Professor Peterson: 17:07 Starting in the 80s, you began to see profit divisions or profit being the primary rationale in more aspects of media than were previously. Obviously, profit was always a very, very important thing, but when we look at media history, we often note the way in which broadcasters used to also have a sense that they were also cultural institutions.
Professor Peterson: 17:35 And they had various public … They had to serve with public interest. They had a little bit of a public servant role, especially in their news divisions. And that has gradually, sort of, waned. It’s not gone, but it has waned, or has transformed.
Jon Mertz: 17:51 As you continue to look at this and use radio as a historical example to understand and use, what are the lessons learned, and what might platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Google take to heart from history?
Professor Peterson: 18:03 Well, one of the things that I take away right now, is looking back, reading the newspapers, reading documents from the 30s, I can see how unsettled people were, and how unsettling radio was. And in a way that I think right now social media are very unsettling, politically, to most of us. And how people were very afraid that the audience might be easily duped.
Professor Peterson: 18:32 These often greedy or self-interested hucksters or political speakers on the air arose in the 30s, and seemed to have quite this effect, quite a large effect, and people thought that politics were transforming for good.
Professor Peterson: 18:49 They didn’t in many ways. In some ways they did, but in many ways they did not. And, what I take from this is the sense that right now, we may be living through a period of flux, interesting times that you don’t want to live in, right?
Jon Mertz: 19:04 Right.
Professor Peterson: 19:04 And that people are responding to social media with a set of norms and assumptions and modes of reading a listening that are honed on older media. And maybe in a decade, we will respond and react differently. We will have developed our ways of understanding what a true and false claim is in new media and social media.
Professor Peterson: 19:28 These are the things that give me some hope. I think, “Well, okay. We’ve seen these moments of great fluctuation and great uncertainty and transformation in the past, and things did not completely fall apart.” So, people did develop new ways of listening and understanding when somebody was a duplicitous speaker and the worst abusers of radio as a new medium.
Professor Peterson: 19:50 We’re all in the early 30s, we’re all in the 30s, and so its worst abuses happened at the very beginning, and it became a less politically-volatile space after that. So, that’s something that I see as being hopeful.
Jon Mertz: 20:05 So, there’s a role for listeners, and a responsibility in helping settle the unsettling times, as well.
Professor Peterson: 20:11 Yeah. And I don’t think that it was listeners individually getting smarter, necessarily. It wasn’t only critical literacy, but the development of genres and norms, and that these things kind of happened collectively. And I think that that helps.
Professor Peterson: 20:28 And also, new institutions or new institutions that are acting either as gatekeepers or proxies for trust, new ways of understanding how you trust speakers in these new mediums, which you have to do, both with the credentials of who’s speaking, but also with genres and ways of speaking and courting trust in this new medium.
Jon Mertz: 20:52 That’s fascinating. What a wonderful conversation and very appropriate in looking at the history of radio and how it applies to our times today. Any closing thoughts of take aways for our listeners?
Professor Peterson: 21:02 Well, I would say one of the big take aways is, new media are always disruptive and most likely things will flatten out, to some extent.
Jon Mertz: 21:13 Well, Professor Jennifer Petersen, thank you so much for your time. I look forward to your new book, How Machines Came to Speak. What’s your target release on your new book?
Professor Peterson: 21:21 Well, academic publishing’s a little slow. The book will be done this year, but that means, probably, going for a 2020 or 2021 release date.
Jon Mertz: 21:32 Well, again, thank you so much for your time. You’ve given us a lot to think about, as well as sort through, in how we use the wild west of social media, and potentially tame it through how we listen, but also giving us hope for some of the institutions to help us through it as well.
Professor Peterson: 21:47 Thank you.
Jon Mertz: 21:53 Listeners, we would love to hear from you.
- Can you think of other parallels between radio and social media?
- How would you like to see social media continue to evolve personally or through our institutions?
Send your perspective to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s John without an H, Jon @ activateworld.com.
Jon Mertz: 22:13 Write it out or record it. Send it my way. We want to hear and share your thoughts. Be sure to tell your friends and colleagues about the Activate World podcast. Encourage them to subscribe, listen, and share from their favorite podcast platform, Apple, Google, Spotify, and others.
Jon Mertz: 22:29 Let us know how we’re doing by leaving a review. Your reviews mean a lotto us. And join us next time, as we talk to the research team from MIT labs, who explored social media polarization. Activate World is a team endeavor. Special thanks to Kaela Waldstein and Kent Nutt. Music by Jason Goodyear. For Activate World, I’m Jon Mertz.