Sonia Robles’s Mexican Waves is the story of the development of the regional radio industry in northern Mexico from the 1930s to the 1950s. It seeks to decenter Mexican radio history (as a medium of mass communication, radio, given its material and economic properties, seems especially prone to centralization) in at least two dimensions. First, it decenters the history of Mexican radio within Mexico itself. Most histories of Mexican radio focus on the development of radio in and around Mexico City, while Robles’s is focused around the northern border. Second, by incorporating Mexico de afuera (Mexico outside Mexico, that is, the Mexico composed of the Mexican expatriate community, mostly in the US), into a larger conceptualization of Mexico transcending formal international boundaries, Robles is able to culturally and geographically center the northern borderlands Mexican radio industry in this more expansive conception of Mexico. Robles reinforces traditional Mexican historiography of the period by describing the ways in which the radio industry served state aims of national identity formation and maintenance, but extends these common historiographic tropes by arguing that Mexican radio along the border helped facilitate the development of the commercial radio industry, helped shape “Mexican immigrant communities, their consumption practices, and the growth of their small businesses in the United States,” and helped nurture the career of Mexican performing artists.
There are several fascinating tidbits of this story worth mentioning. First is the fact that many towns and cities along the northern border received local and regional radio stations before they were physically connected to the rest of Mexico through telegraph wires and paved highways. The immateriality and spatial transcendence of radio emissions allowed Mexico to become informationally and culturally connected through radio before it was concretely connected. This reminded me of the concerns about internet penetration in Africa and other parts of the Global South during the 1990s and 2000s. The Northern internet infrastructure paradigm at that time entailed that every computer be a costly desktop or laptop and that every computer be physically connected to every other computer through ethernet, coaxial cable, and fiber optic cable. The infrastructural internetworking of Africa seemed, under this paradigm, an economic impossibility, leading to widespread fears rooted in essentialized African “backwardness” of an Africa “lagging” in perpetuity. Then came internet-enabled mobile devices and mobile broadband internet. The cultural and political connective power of radio in Robles’s story mirrors both the African internet paradigm and the creative solutions of tribal governments in Duarte’s story to connect people in rugged, sparsely-populated terrain with creative ICT solutions.
A second interesting aspect of Robles’s story is how the Mexican government integrated radio culture into the dynamics of capital, skills, and technology transfer. The Mexican government hoped to use the cultural influence of border-transcending radio to lure Mexican expatriates living in the US back to Mexico with capital, skills, and knowledge in tow. Radio could also help the import/export balance between the two countries, in the view of one Mexican cultural critic, who felt that the import of “practical” items like tractors from America was counterbalanced by the export of “bananas, coffee, parrots, and songs” — cultural capital, in other words — in part through radio. This helps to disrupt the unidirectional idea of technology transfer as well as the hierarchy of center-periphery dynamics through which Southern countries are relegated to the role of raw materials repositories. Instead, through radio, Mexico could export epistemic and cultural products to the United States. These cultural products were considered to be “diplomatic instruments” for combatting the cultural colonialism of Mexico by US artistic products like jazz, the foxtrot, or Hollywood film, functioning as a kind of cultural counter- or anti-colonialism.
A third fascinating, if a bit understated, tidbit involves regional station operators’ desire to “cash in” on the “radio season”. This apparently referred to the fall and winter months during which, due to the relative thinness of the air, radio waves would travel farther with the same power output. I have no idea about the physical veracity of this idea, but there is a lot of interesting scientific discussion about the ionosphere’s ability to reflect (and therefore increase the range of) radio waves and the ways in which this ionospheric reflection is amplified at night (during the fall and winter there is more of than during the spring and summer) because of the effect of the sun on the ionosphere’s electromagnetic albedo. This tidbit injects the story with interesting issues of electromagnetic materiality (Robles does not pursue these threads, as stated, her interest is more in the cultural, educational, and political uses of radio, rather than in radio as a material technology). These issues of the materiality of radio waves could have interesting implications for her story however. Due to the curvature of the earth, radio waves transmitted from a ground-bound tower can only travel for about 40 miles. Robles’s actors all seem very concerned about the range of their radio propagations and the cultural reach of their station. Shortwave transmissions are able to travel much farther through ground-wave propagation (if their frequency is below 3MHz) and by bouncing off the ionosphere (if less than 30MHz). The materiality of EM radiation becomes pertinent to Robles’s story, however, when you consider how poorly transmissions at frequencies this low transmit musical sounds. At this wavelength, radio transmissions have relatively low information density and correspondingly low sonic quality (which is why the AM band is mostly used by talk radio while the FM band, with its relatively high information density is used to transmit music). For what it is worth stations in the US began FM broadcasting in the late 1930s, Robles does not specify what frequencies any of these Mexican border stations are broadcasting at, but I find it interesting that the electromagnetic materiality (FM) best suited for the kind of cultural diplomacy Robles’s actors seek to engage in is inherently unsuitable to cultural diplomacy because of the limiting 30-40 mile range of such transmissions.