From Parsifal to Perón: Early Radio in Argentina 1920-1944, by Robert H. Claxton

LS2 Radio Prieto 'was heard throughout South America, Europe and the U.S' with its powerful 40kW transmitter. This reception card was sent to an American listener. © Committee to Preserve Radio Verifications Collection, Library of American Broadcasting, University of Maryland

Early Radio in Argentina, 1920-1944
Author: Robert Howard Claxton

A Review by David Ricquish

American history professor Robert Claxton has just released a thoughtful and informative book about early radio in Argentina, with a focus on the period 1920-1944. What soon becomes apparent on reading this book is that the story of early radio in Argentina shares much in common with a number of other countries. Even the Pacific is within sight from the high reaches of the western mountains of Argentina, and heard across the pampas in Buenos Aires very early in the piece.

Given the global reach of radio waves it’s really of no surprise, except that country specific radio histories always seem to overlook this point, and write about local radio developments as if they were occurring in some splendid isolation.

El Cuando, an Argentine Dance.
One of a series of dance leaflets produced for international listeners
© Cleve Costello Collection, Radio Heritage Foundation
Radio El Mundo sent this QSL card to a New Zealand listener in 1936
© Eric Shackle Collection, Radio Heritage Foundation

Early radio was largely about personal contacts being made by individuals, always pushing to create new records for distance, for power and type of transmitter used, for time of day of broadcasts, for wavelengths used, antenna types and so on. It was about testing the limits of a new technology. By its very nature, radio has been international from the beginning.

Carlos Braggio set intercontinental radio distance records from Argentina with this equipment.
© Revista Telegrafica Electronica 1964, courtesy Horacio A Nigro

The boundaries for two-way contacts were pushed further in 1924, all the way across the Pacific. On the 22nd of May, Ivan O’Meara in Gisborne made the first two-way contact with South America when he communicated with Carlos Braggio in Buenos Aires in Argentina. Their 10,300 kilometre morse code conversation established a world distance record for two-way radio communication. The two men exchanged cables congratulating each other on their record. O’Meara noted in his log-book, ‘The greatest event in my Radio History’.

Ian Dougherty – Ham Shacks, Brass Pounders & Rag Chewers – A History of Amateur Radio in New Zealand 1997

Claxton pays overdue and valuable attention to the role of radio amateurs in proving the technology, and describing how music and speech performances such as the opera Parsifal broadcast from Buenos Aires in 1920 contributed to greater knowledge of radio characteristics and gave the foundation for contemporary broadcasting.

Enrique Susini and others broadcast Parsifal and other operas over a three week period to listeners as far away as Brazil.
© Carlos A Artgelt, who explores this famous broadcast in detail at oldradio.com

With history, it’s ‘context, context, context’ to make sense of individual facts and allow a story to emerge. Claxton looks at how receptive the Argentine society was to the advent of radio broadcasting. High literacy levels, a culturally distinct immigrant based population looking for the means to achieve a symbolic and real ‘nationalism’, strong uptake of new technology, many international trading and cultural links with Europe, a strong and expanding economy and the largest and most progressive city in the southern hemisphere, let alone South America.

As a result, in his words – “My work tries to make this early story more complete. In doing so, it preserves what little is known of some stations and so becomes a reference work. This book explores radio in the Argentine provinces, not just in the capital. Although I do not ignore the history of commercial stations, this study goes down ‘the path not taken’ very often in the early history of U.S radio, exploring the endurance of non-commercial broadcasting.

Busy Buenos Aires street scene, 1920
© www.buenosairesantiguo.com

This study also examines ancillary industries, broadcasting’s backward linkages. It evaluates the impact of the reception of programs, not just their transmission. Finally, this study offers the Argentine experience in a regional context, with insights from U.S radio history.”

Radio Excelsior LR5 issued this magnificent certificate to an American listener © Committee to Preserve Radio Verifications Collection, Library of American Broadcasting, University of Maryland

As a reference work, the book dedicates about 300-350 words each to short station profiles of Buenos Aires stations such as LR1 Radio El Mundo, and about 150-200 words each for the provincial stations. It includes a total of two and a half pages listing the known stations on air prior to 1944 with callsigns, frequencies, transmitter power, brand name and owner.

As an exploration into how Argentine radio has developed commercially, and non-commercially, and the differences between Buenos Aires and the provinces, the book presents a useful introduction to the subject.

As part of ‘context’ the growth of the local radio manufacturing industry and how programs were received by listeners, and the influence of regulations and politics as the established order of Argentina coped with the changes introduced by the new technology is well canvassed.

LS2 Radio Prieto ‘was heard throughout South America, Europe and the U.S’ with its powerful 40kW transmitter. This reception card was sent to an American listener.
© Committee to Preserve Radio Verifications Collection, Library of American Broadcasting, University of Maryland

The regional context is a potential strength that is tantalizing but largely lacking in delivery. Too many interesting possibilities remain un-explored, but, hopefully, will come from further studies now that this book exists.

A comparison with early radio experiences in neighboring Brazil would be illuminating, as would those of Mexico. There is a little comparison with early radio in the U.S. but even that’s over almost before it begins. Claxton acknowledges as much with a review of the poor Latin American radio heritage resources available for his study.

As we know at the Radio Heritage Foundation, ‘official’ and academic resources are often sparse in content, and surviving ephemera in private collections requires either major outreach ‘expeditions’ or a lot of luck to locate.

The real strength of this book is that a systematic review of many radio heritage resources has been undertaken, and many useful issues for further study clearly emerge. The individual station stories are simply far too short. The strong coverage given to radio amateurs and their place in early Argentine radio is very welcome.

LR1 Radio El Mundo [owned by Editorial Haynes Ltd] for a rapid growth in sales. Publicity folder issued in May 1936.
© Eric Shackle Collection, Radio Heritage Foundation

What started out as a study of whether waves of new technology [such as radio] accompanied waves of democracy in Latin America has made a more valuable contribution to our understanding of Argentine radio heritage than the author probably originally intended.

The major flaw with the entire book is the complete absence of photographs, art work or other visual means of telling a story about connecting radio broadcasting with popular culture. In today’s multi-media and visual world, this really is inexcusable.

The Buenos Aires importer of Crosley brand radio receivers used this beautiful ad in 1930.
© www.enjoyart.com
[from whom you can buy a replica of this vintage poster art.]
Eva Duarte [Peron] was a highly paid ‘radio actress’ by 1943 and a very adept user of the power of radio to influence popular Argentine culture
© Wikipedia Foundation

The text screams out for images. Where are photos of art deco studio buildings, families listening to the radio, the immense radio towers on the pampas, the personalities, the soap opera stars, the adverts in popular magazines for programs and radio sets, the popular record covers, the list goes on. Whether the decision to exclude such material is Claxton’s or the publishers is unknown.

In this respect, the potential reach for the study is sadly reduced to a largely academic audience, and an opportunity for creating a more entertaining look at the connections between Argentine radio broadcasting and popular culture missed.

As a research and resource aid for non-Spanish speakers, this book by Robert Claxton fills an important need. The real stories however, remain to be shared by broadcasters, listeners, and all Argentines who’ve been touched by radio in their lives. We’ll all understand and appreciate Argentina better as a result.

From Parsifal to Peron, Early Radio in Argentina, 1920-1944.

Written by Robert H Claxton, professor emeritus of history at the State University of West Georgia.

Published by the University Press of Florida, September 2007. ISBN: 978-0-8130-3090-6.

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