The Wired Wireless Mass Medium

The invention of radio at the beginning of the twentieth century further transformed the individual’s relationship to the collective by providing a system for instantaneous communication across great distances. During the 1920s, commercial radio broadcasts spread across radio waves providing regular, dependable media experiences that large numbers of individuals could share simultaneously, even while apart. Once purchased, radios assembled these individuals into a mass audience regardless of their literacy or social status, creating the first true mass media. Through the addition of the tuning dial, radio listeners gained the effortless experience of surfing for information across different channels. Listening to the radio was less a private experience enjoyed by an autonomous individual and more a series of individual or small group experiences in which people saw themselves as part of a regionally dispersed body made up of content producers, transmitters, radio signals, receivers, and other listeners whom they never meet personally.

Radio, however, still faced many real limitations: it required large and expensive signal towers; its relatively weak transmissions were easily interrupted by local terrain and would often degrade in poor weather conditions; its signals would drop off due to distance. In 1911, General George Owen Squier, then Chief Signal Officer of the US Army Signal Corps, discovered a solution to these problems, finding an effective means of audio transmission over electrical power lines using the signal multiplexing he developed to carry multiple channels over one wire. In contrast to wireless radio, transmitting music through the system Squier named “wired wireless” ensured higher signal quality regardless of atmospheric or solar conditions. Weary of the privatization that had marred the early development of the telephone industry, Squier patented his discovery in the name of the American public, making the technology available for free use and development across the nation.

Engineers adapted the new technology to create the first countrywide communications network, allowing the simultaneous delivery of programs through utility lines to remote radio transmitting stations. Squier, however, was not satisfied with the commercial structure of radio, in which programs were funded by intrusive commercials. He envisioned a new network supported by a toll that would also make unnecessary the commercials and program interruptions that sponsored, and for Squier, corrupted radio. Squier approached the North American Company, then the nation’s largest utility company, to transmit music over their lines. North American responded positively and formed Wired Radio, Incorporated. To avoid problems with broadcast rights to music, North American purchased Breitkopf Publications, Inc., a European music-publishing house, and renamed it Associated Music Publishers.

In 1934, North American formed the Muzak Corporation to transmit music directly to homes in Cleveland. Muzak’s name was derived from a merger of the word “music” with “Kodak,” a highly technological and reputable company. Squier died later that year, never to see the success of his invention.

Success was not, in any case, immediate. The project in Cleveland fell victim to technological troubles and the development of superheterodyne circuits, vacuum tubes, and volume controls gave radios a technological boost while the ongoing Depression encouraged consumers to stick with a one-time radio purchase over the expense of a long-term lease. For their part, radio companies opposed the idea of Muzak competing for their listeners. In 1938, the Federal Communications Commission severely restricted Muzak’s market in radio’s favor by forbidding the company from using electrical power lines for broadcast directly into the home. Although Squier’s inventions of wired wireless and signal multiplexing would later be widely adopted by cable television broadcasters, Muzak would initially be restricted to commercial venues.

Far from limiting the company, forcing the Muzak Corporation to target commercial venues instead offered the company a clearer mission that would give it an advantage over radio in commercial settings. Recorded music is sold with limited rights of use, generally not including public performance. Recorded media was an enormous source of income for the young record industry, but created new difficulties in tracking the number and locations of its playback. In 1914, the American Society of Composers, Artists, and Publishers (ASCAP) was founded, serving as a member-owned organization to fight for fair compensation when recorded work was publicly performed. The first successful lawsuit pursued by ASCAP, against Shanley’s Restaurant in New York City, was heard by the United States Supreme Court. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes explained his judgment in favor of ASCAP by saying “If music did not pay, it would be given up. Whether it pays or not, the purpose of employing it is profit and that is enough.”

By 1920, the administration of music rights had become a major business. While radio stations could license programming for personal performance, they could not track where music was being played and take responsibility for its licensing. The wired wireless subscription service, however, was ideal for this task. Because every Muzak receiver could be uniquely identified, it was easy for Muzak to track who was using their service and what the service was being used for.

Muzak is the perfect commodity. If, as Guy Debord suggests, the spectacle is capital accumulated to the degree that it becomes image, Muzak takes this a step further, making visibility a thing of the past.

Muzak reformed in New York City to cater to the hotel and restaurant market in such famed venues as the Chambord, the Stork Club, and the Waldorf Astoria. Audio would subsequently be sent to clubs through leased telephone lines rather than electric lines. Speakers would be hidden amongst large plants, thereby making the music seem to come out of nowhere and lending the name “potted palm”? music. With the disappearance of any visible means of sound production, Muzak exceeded the gramophone’s capac-ity to make sound autonomous. In delivering programming to the workplace, Muzak soothed the minds of employees, enhancing their productivity while eliminating the distractions caused by commercials, scripted programs, and other verbal content.

Sending music to the workplace was in keeping with the vision that Squier had left for the company. As Chief Signal Officer of the US Army Signal Corps, Squier used music to increase the productivity of his secretaries. Afterwards, he investigated ways that music could recapture the benefits of pre-industrial song, in order to soothe the nerves of employees while increasing their output. The idea of using music to improve an environment was not uncommon by the 1930s, when dentists employed music to augment or even replace anesthetic.

Muzak soon proved effective in locations beyond the office or factory floor. As skyscrapers reached ever taller in North American cities, building owners employed Muzak to calm anxious elevator riders; quickly earning its programs the name “elevator music.”

New research in the 1930s provided a rationale for Muzak’s effects. Named after a study at the Hawthorne Plant of the Western Electric Company in Cicero, Illinois, the Hawthorne Effect provided a rationale for human relations in the workplace. The study concluded that individuals would be more productive when they knew they were being studied or paid attention to, regardless of the experimental manipulation employed. The workplace, it turned out, was first and foremost a social system made up of interdependent parts. According to this theory workers would be more influenced by social demands from inside and outside the workplace, by their need for recognition, security, and a sense of belonging, than by the physical environment surrounding them. Being the object of a study made workers feel involved and important. The Hawthorne Effect argued for attention and surveillance instead of architectural or social reforms.

At this time Muzak unreflectively mimicked radio, with a hotel orchestra sound developed by Ben Selvin, a prolific bandleader who had recorded 1,000 records by 1924 and whose Moulin Rouge Orchestra had extensive experience on the air. Named vice-president for recording and programming at the corporation in 1934, Selvin provided set up Muzak as a radio station, with distinct programs featuring types of music such as marches for breakfast and pipe organs for lunch. Selvin preferred a quiet and restrained sound with few brass instruments and an emphasis on strings. To prevent the music from lulling workers to sleep, Selvin chose popular songs familiar to everyone, thereby keeping workers’ attention. Muzak provided a gesture to the workers—deploying the Hawthorne Effect—a constant reminder that the boss was thinking of them.

Within the workplace, Muzak distinguished between four basic conditions—public areas, offices, light industrial settings, and heavy industrial settings—each of which they addressed with a different music program. In industrial settings, where loud noises make traditional background music hard to hear, Muzak turned to sounds with a greater penetration, favoring percussion instruments and melodies with more distinct timbres. Even if the factory was loud, the difference in pitch made the music audible. Studies produced by Muzak showed that it reduced absenteeism in the workplace by 88 per cent.

During the Second World War, the military sponsored scientific research and stimulated management techniques to improve productivity, undertaking extensive research into the playing of music in office and factory environments. These studies, often undertaken by employees of Muzak and its competitors, concluded that silence during repetitive tasks led to boredom while talking was too distracting. Music, on the other hand, did not draw the eye’s attention away from the task at hand but alleviated fatigue arising from monotonous actions.

The general conclusion of these studies suggested that music affects the body physiologically, stimulating breathing, metabolism, muscular energy, pulse, blood pressure, and internal secretions. This fit neatly with the James- Lange theory developed independently by William James and Carl Lange. The James-Lange theory states that the human nervous system creates automatic changes with regard to experiences in the world. Only once one feels a rise in heart rate, an increase in perspiration, dryness of the mouth, and so on does one experience emotion. By affecting the body physiologically, background music could keep workers’ nervous systems calm and thereby giving them greater emotional stability during the difficult days of the war.

Starting during the “Baptism by Fire” of the British during 1940, the BBC’s “Music While You Work” program broadcast music made by two live bands to factories to soothe workers returning to work after a night of bombing, thereby preventing them from dwelling on their predicament. Soon after, music was made mandatory for all British war workers. By war’s end some 5 million British workers listened to “Music While You Work.” Nor was the United States different. By 1943, some 6 million American workers listened to music in the factory.

After the war, corporations continued to be interested in using music to improve productivity. At Muzak, company researchers who had been involved in wartime research came to the conclusion that in addition to the vague increase in productivity that music in the workplace generated through the Hawthorne Effect, the James-Lange theory suggested that music could more deliberately affect the changing attention levels of workers throughout the day to maintain a steady level of productivity.

While Taylorist work practices streamlined industrial manufacturing and office work, they also made these jobs even more monotonous. Without direct supervision, the fatigue and boredom brought about by repetitive tasks could quickly undo the very advances that these new practices hoped to provide. Muzak researchers concluded that varying the tempo of music played to workers throughout the workday was one way of fighting fatigue.

For this they turned to another fundamental observation of modern industrial psychology, the Yerkes-Dodson Law, first formulated by Robert M. Yerkes and John D. Dodson in 1908. According to the Yerkes-Dodson Law, optimal performance is attained with a median level of arousal. Too much arousal distracts the worker while too little leads to inertia. The sources of arousal in the office environment can take many forms, and include negative stimuli like stress and anxiety as well as pleasure and comfort or even, as the Hawthorne Effect proved, the act of scientific monitoring itself. The key isn’t each moment of arousal itself, but the flow from one moment to the next, and the variation of arousal types. Muzak researchers concluded that by its nature complex work is more engaging and therefore requires less distraction from background music while simple work, being less arousing, requires a greater degree of complexity from the music.

Whatever the workplace environment, Muzak set out to maintain the Yerkes-Dodson median level of arousal. Muzak observed that natural levels of arousal are never static or consistently varied, but rise and fall throughout the day as well as over fifteen minute cyclical periods. In response, Muzak arranged programs according to a “Stimulus Progression,” varying musical energy levels over fifteen-minute segments that would be followed by either a thirty-second or fifteen-minute long period of silence, depending on the subscriber’s desire. The length of the Stimulus Progression enhanced productivity by creating more distinctly delimited breaks between spurts of work activity.

The Stimulus Progression itself was based on Muzak’s analysis of its songs for their emotional content and energy levels. Factoring in tempo, type of music, instruments employed, and the size of orchestra, Muzak determined a stimulus value for each song. By the 1950s, Muzak could carefully vary its level of stimulus during the day to offset decreases in worker efficiency during mid-morning and mid-afternoon slumps. The order of the Stimulus Progression was crucial: studies showed that if played backwards, it would put listeners to sleep.

The Stimulus Progression was based on the human heartbeat. Playing music at a rate above that of the heartbeat—an average of 72 beats per minute at rest—stimulated listeners, but constantly doing so would make them nervous. Thus, the Stimulus Progression would start out below 72 bpm and rise above that rate. That the Stimulus Progression addressed the heartbeat at rest indicates that Muzak focused not so much on the factory, where workers might exert themselves but on the office, where workers would be sedentary. Programmed for round-the-clock shifts, Muzak created an endless circadian cycle in which all sounds, including silence, were given space. Eventually, Muzak began to develop additional programs for use in homes, hospitals, urban environments, government facilities, and outer space. With its omnipresence, Muzak could order our lives temporally.