At the turn of the last century, I worked as the education director for Chicago’s Museum of Broadcast Communications, at that time located inside the Chicago Cultural Center. The museum leaned heavily into the history of old-time radio and featured radio classics like “Fibber McGee and Molly,” “The Jack Benny Program,” and ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy Charlie McCarthy (that’s right, a ventriloquist act on the radio), as well as local children’s television favorites like “The Bozo Show,” “Garfield Goose and Friend” and “Gigglesnort Hotel.” In addition to its exhibits, the museum housed an extensive, publicly accessible archive of broadcast programs, newscasts and commercials that attracted tourists eager to ignite their cultural memories and relive the golden (and not so golden) years of radio and television, Lucky Strike cigs included. Today, of course, much, if not all, of what was in the museum’s archive is instantly available on YouTube, that convenient backscratcher for nostalgia’s niggling itch.
The Museum of Broadcast Communications’ focus on conventional broadcast history is exactly the kind of historical narrative that Eleanor Patterson complicates in “Bootlegging the Airwaves: Alternative Histories of Radio and Television Distribution.” Patterson suggests that conventional approaches to the study of broadcast history tend to stress the role played by broadcast networks, personalities and advertisers in producing and distributing mass media content. As the title of her book suggests, Patterson charts a different course. She explores how radio and television audiences shaped the ephemerality of unidirectional radio and television broadcasts into a material, exchangeable commodity that helped establish and reinforce social identities. Through the social practice of bootlegging, audiences became active, grassroots agents in the literal and symbolic circulation of pop culture media rather than simply passive consumers packaged, in essence, to be “sold” by broadcasters to advertisers.
Media bootlegging is the unauthorized reproduction and informal (though no less intentional) distribution of copyrighted content and, in distinction from pirating, which Patterson notes is motivated by profit, functions to fill in accessibility gaps and facilitate human connection. The bootlegging of broadcast media occurred well before the advent of video recording devices; Patterson’s first chapter explores the bootlegging practices that appeared almost simultaneously with the rise of mass culture and the domestication of consumer technologies like the phonograph and kinetoscope. Patterson’s book is based on archival research (primarily of fanzines and the like) and interviews she conducted with some of the “bootleggers” who helped create and sustain, through their bootlegging practices, the fan communities that sprung up around old-time radio, buddy-cop television shows (particularly “Starsky & Hutch”), “Star Trek: The Original Series” (with an emphasis on Australian-based fan communities in the 1970s), and televised wrestling. These four case studies, as Patterson calls them, offer “a genealogy focused on small, concrete examples of bootlegging radio and television that challenges dominant narratives of broadcast distribution in the twentieth century.” They are intriguing examples of the ways in which people come together to create, reinterpret and exchange cultural artifacts in the interest of building both community and identity. All in all, “Bootlegging the Airwaves” offers an engaging, historical reframing of how we think about and value media bootlegging, to the extent we think about bootlegging at all in the post-VCR/DVD era. And it helped me feel not so guilty about videotaping and sharing with friends all eight episodes of “Manimal” back in 1983. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got an episode of “Baywatch” to stream.
“Bootlegging the Airwaves: Alternative Histories of Radio and Television Distribution”
By Eleanor Patterson
University of Illinois Press, 208 pages