Personal Narrative

I’ve always been curious about the ways that the lingering past informs multiple registers of contemporary life. Growing up on the East Coast, I was surrounded by ghosts and the public memorialization of the Eurocentric past (Revolutionary War fife and drum corps and Minute Men re-enactors). It took education and painful effort to face up to the violence, erasures, and lingering trauma underpinning the celebrations of local history. The removal and suppression of indigenous peoples, settler colonialism, and the fortunes grown throughout the Northeast through global trafficking of sugar, cotton, and slaves. In the suburbs, I rode the bus with a kids whose parents were immigrants hailing from faraway places (Uruguay, China, Germany, Holland, Japan). Rte 128 was a late-twentieth-century tech alley. Many of these folks had come to pursue opportunities in data processing, defense, or higher education. Many were also responsible for spawning a generation of frustrated Red Sox fans crushed by the ‘Curse of the Bambino,’ and far removed from childhood when the Bosox finally prevailed (repeatedly) in October. We were doomed to wasted Sunday afternoons as the truly horrible New England Patriots bumbled around the field, all this years before Tom Brady was a twinkle in his parents’ eyes.

I worked for Bill Moyers and Joan Konner at WNET/Thirteen in New York on “The World of Ideas,” a PBS series of one-on-one interviews of luminaries in the arts and sciences. Moyers also put together “Listening to America,” a live weekly program running during the 1992 presidential campaign. In Bill (you could not call him anything else), I found a role model–a brilliant, accomplished doer who somehow had never lost the capacity to care for other people, even the secretaries and lowliest production staff like me.  I apprenticed under a generous and idealistic cohort of journalists and producers who shared Bill’s passion for quality, integrity, ethics, kindness, and having fun when the day was over. I met the lovely Gail Pellett, the incredible filmmaker Stanley Nelson, and the quietly brilliant Lynn Novick. In between projects, I freelanced media work around NYC and environs, including with NPR’s “Heat,” a brash, live, nightly national politics and culture radio program that always featured a live musical guest in the studio. In what other job could you cap a day of high-stress booking and script preparation by walking down the block and chilling at the show with Kurt Vonnegut or Jill Sobule, or laugh as an NEA artist lit into Jesse Helms, or sneak out a window at WNYC dozens of stories up, and practically touch the Woolworth Building? Lucky.

On to Chicago! My Ph.D. thesis from the University of Chicago bloomed into a first book: Sounds of Reform: Progressivism and Music in Chicago, 1873-1935 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2003). It analyzed the cultural politics of what I described as “musical progressivism” — efforts by activists in late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Chicago to enlist music in assimilation and Americanization projects geared toward immigrant, ethnic, and working-class urban dwellers—and the countering practices of resistance and accommodation to, and negotiation of, such projects by Chicagoans themselves. I argued that musical progressivism marked a modern shift in the politics of everyday music in public spaces of the city that expanded the aesthetic vocabulary of civic life, and altered the dynamics of urban public space going forward.

I moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan with a growing family to take a position in the University of Michigan’s Communication Studies Department (now Communication & Media). My research interests developed to include the social and cultural history of media and communications in the U.S. from the late nineteenth century to the present, the transnational culture and politics of broadcasting, sound studies, and the cultural history of American music, media, and technology. Across the Waves: How the United States and France Shaped the International Age of Radio (University of Illinois Press, 2017) looked at the emergence of radio broadcasting as a transatlantic technological, social, and cultural medium linking France and the U.S. in the twentieth century. My current research project is dedicated to the local history and politics of legacy media in an era of digital transformation and flux in the ecology of news and information.

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