As Time Goes By: Car Radio and the Travel Experience in Twentieth-Century America

Messbauer, Sarah

Since its invention nearly a century ago, the car radio has found its way into over ninety-five percent of vehicles on the road. Modern day radio programming is tailored to suit a mobile audience, and many listeners view car radios as an essential part of the driving experience. Yet within the scope of scholarly studies on this subject, the questions addressed are so focused on the mechanical problems of how radios were integrated into automobiles that there is substantially less research examining why radios were first imported into the car. What was the inspiration for such a combination? And how did it affect the travel experience for car users?

Expanding upon current scholarship related to mobile sound technologies and their influence on the experience of mechanized travel, I argue that the conditions individually brought about by the radio and the automobile mutually reinforced one another: both worked together to alter the perceived passage of time and space for their users. Given that these developments directly reflect similar shifts in the perception of space and time occurring with the invention of older travel technologies such as the railroad half a century earlier, the application of radio to the car can be understood as just one more manifestation of the new spatiotemporal paradigm gripping the post-industrial West in the first half of the twentieth century.

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October 23, 2018