Hello America! Radio Adventures in Europe. By Cesar Saerchinger. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. $3.50.
Cesar Saerchinger’s “Hello America!” is an exceedingly valuable record of the first seven years of a new medium of intercontinental communication. Regular transatlantic broadcast service came into existence when Mr. Saerchinger, an experienced newspaper correspondent, went to work for the Columbia Broadcasting System during the Five-Power Naval Conference at London early in 1930, and became the pioneer of a new profession in the field of communications. The foreign director for an American broadcasting chain is in part an impresario, in part a reporter, something of a technician, and a formidable globe-trotter. Much of Mr. Saerchinger’s book is devoted to the personalities, events, and atmospheres which he endeavored to present to American radio audiences. He frequently enjoyed what he calls a “mikeside” view of history in the making, as in Vienna during the brutal suppression of the Socialists in 1934, in the Saar during the plebiscite, and in London during the abdication crisis. His search for European “atmospheres” with which to beguile American radio patrons took him to such places as Pompeii, Seville, Montmartre, and Wordsworth’s garden, where he achieved the miracle of a transatlantic performance by an English thrush.
As a raconteur of European experiences, Mr. Saerchinger outdoes many of the newspaper correspondents whose autobiographical works recently have appeared in such appalling numbers. He is wise and witty, with a talent for bringing to life the mood and color of the milieus through which he moved. His range of acquaintances is greater than that of the average newspaper correspondent, and he does not employ the affectation of omniscience and the gee-whiz style of writing which afflict many of the newspapermen. His eye-witness impressions of Europe are fascinating to read, and provide an understanding of the laborious preparation and nerve-racking and sometimes almost insuperable difficulties of managing the transatlantic broadcasts. The book is particularly important for its observations on the general effects of international broadcasting and on the social and political questions which the perfection of long-distance radio has brought into existence.
Mr. Saerchinger believes that international broadcasting is an instrument of great usefulness for achieving international understanding and peace. He visualizes a permanent service across the Atlantic in which the wisdom of the most notable men of the age will be made audible, as well as the atmosphere and “feel” of everyday living. He argues strongly for the ability of radio to “eavesdrop on history,” and points out that the public thinks of contemporary history in terms of the men who shape it and that the voice of the man is an essential part of his personality. He observes that dictators rose to power without the aid of radio, and that they now cannily refuse to go on the air unless they are accompanied by the sound effects of a responsive multitude. This, Mr. Saerchinger says, is because the microphone, by itself, strips oratory of its bombast and insincerity and allows the listener to think for himself without the compulsive excitement of crowd hysteria; he therefore concludes that radio can calm political passions and clarify the real issues. He also believes that radio has advantages over printed journalism, not only in speed and in the superior vigor of the spoken word over the written word, but also in the power of radio to explain the bare news event with competent analyses and interpretations.
Mr. Saerchinger’s writing reflects his enthusiasm for the exciting and still somewhat magical medium with which he has been working. Those who listen to the actual contents of transatlantic programs, however, may fail to understand their dramatic significance and may be without the perspective and social consciousness which make Mr. Saerchinger sensitive to the pacificatory powers of radio. Few persons will quarrel with his faith in the potential usefulness of radio broadcasting as a means for aiding international understanding and co-operation; but can much satisfaction be derived from the actual results of international broadcasting up to the present time? Mr. Saerchinger’s book shows that radio reporters in Europe have evolved a new art of arranging words and sound effects for the dramatic presentation of atmosphere. How accurate are the impressions gained from them by the American listener? Even when the presentation is not highly impressionistic or synthetic, as many of them apparently are, what reason is there to believe that the American radio fan is equipped for intelligent listening or that the special features from Europe increase his sympathy and understanding? In respect to the “makers of history” whose personalities come to life in the radio loudspeaker, and the “best minds” whose interpretations of the European scene are brought to American ears, is there any tangible evidence that these personages have actually induced a political sophistication in the American radio audience? Most of the transatlantic radio performers are “front” men whose words are dictated by political prudence and the natural tendency of radio orators everywhere to besprinkle their efforts with weasel words and platitudes. Perhaps there are reasonable grounds for saying that radio disguises rather than clarifies. Seldom, if ever, has international radio tapped and revealed the ultimate sources of political power, the economic masters whose policies lie at the core of modern nationalism, or the inner circles of demagogic political parties, or the condottieri in European foreign and war offices.
Furthermore, this reviewer suspects that American listeners in general enjoy broadcasts from Europe for the novelty rather than for instruction, that they are likely to have their previously conceived opinions reinforced rather than modified by what they hear, and that their listening is too random and casual to have much effect of any kind upon their political opinions. It is also interesting to note that foreign representatives of radio chains are under as much pressure from their home offices as are the newspaper correspondents, and that the existence of competition leads to the same straining and “stunting” that characterizes the work of many of the journalists working abroad.
In the excellent and informative concluding section of his book, in which he describes the radio systems of Europe and the rivalry of nations in the construction of short-wave radio armaments for propaganda, Mr. Saerchinger states that “the sinister potentialities of radio [in time of war] defy our imagination, which has not grasped even its full possibilities in peace.” He notes that European long-wave radio has achieved technical regulation of wave frequencies through the Union Internationale de Radiodiffusion, but that a condition of chaos obtains in the short-wave field, with the nations racing to construct super-powered channels for the dissemination of ballyhoo and poison beyond their frontiers. The democratic nations have fallen far behind in the race for propaganda power. In January, 1938, Mr. Saerchinger estimated that the dictator countries had preempted thirty out of the ninety-four effective short-wave frequencies now operating for broadcasting, “with an aggregate of 1,033,000 watts out of the available 1,484,000 watts of short-wave power in the world.” Yet he is not discouraged by the capacities of the totalitarian states to do harm. He believes that the democracies, including the United States, have a duty to civilization to extend their broadcasting activities so as to reach a larger international audience. He believes that the democracies now have, as a result of purges and emigration, greater resources than the totalitarian states in artists, musicians, and writers, the persons of talent who are the final measure of broadcasting effectiveness. He also believes that campaigns of propaganda and untruth tend to cancel each other out, and that tolerance and truth (broadcast from democratic countries) will win in the end.
It is greatly to be hoped that events will justify Mr. Saerchinger’s optimism. Coincidental with the publication of his book, the Federal Communications Commission assigned four so-called “Pan-American frequencies” for the transmission of broadcasts from the United States to South America. American programs are now being broadcast to Europe and South America from nearly a dozen shortwave stations in Spanish, Portuguese, German, French, Italian, and English. The number of programs of American origin being rebroadcast from foreign stations is increasing. There is also considerable agitation for federally owned and operated short-wave broadcasting stations. These are indications that the United States is engaged in expanding its radio armaments in answer to the threat of radio voices from abroad. Unfortunately, and contrary to Mr. Saerchinger’s hope, these efforts may result in increasing the pandemonium and confusion rather than in establishing tolerance and truth. There is even a suspicion in some quarters that the democratic countries themselves have an economic and political stake in the world outside of their frontiers, and that they are using radio in the same way that the dictatorships are using it, to increase their trade and political credit. International radio may, as Mr. Saerchinger says, ultimately increase world-consciousness, if there is peace; but at the moment the expansion of international broadcasting seems largely a concomitant of the forces which are leading the world away from peace.