Ep. 26: Lightning Birds (Jacob Smith)

Today we present the first episode of Jacob Smith’s new eco-critical audiobook, Lightning Birds: An Aeroecology of the Airwaves. In this audio-only book, Smith uses expert production to craft a wildly original argument about the relations between radio and bird migration. The rest of the book is available, free of charge, from The University of Michigan Press, but this introduction is a great standalone experience that we think Phantom Power listeners will delight in. It tells a truly unique cultural history of radio, describes important scientific discoveries about bird migration through interviews with key researchers, and continues exploring Smith’s singular mode of ecocriticism, combining text-based scholarship with sound art, music, and audio storytelling. 

Professor Jacob Smith is Director of the Masters in Sound Arts and Industries Program at Northwestern University and author of numerous books. He is a cultural historian focused on media and sound who never fails to come at his subject matter from an oblique and completely original angle. His first three books focused on the relationship between the media technologies that developed over the course of the twentieth century—the phonograph, radio, film, and TV—and the kinds of performance styles we have come to expect from performers. For example, his 2008 book Vocal Tracks  tackles questions such as how radio changed acting and why fake laugh tracks developed on television—and why we feel so weird about canned laughter.  

In recent years, Jacob Smith’s work has changed in a couple of ways. Thematically, he took a hard turn towards environmental criticism. His 2015 book Eco-Sonic Media lays out an agenda for studying the negative environmental effects of media culture while also telling a strange alternate history of “green” sound technologies: hand-cranked gramophones with eco-friendly shellac records and needles sourced from cacti instead of diamonds. His next book maintained this eco-critical perspective while revolutionizing the format of the scholarly book. 2019’s ESC: Sonic Adventure in the Anthropocene was a 10-part audiobook that mined golden age radio shows and sound art to explore the dawn of the Anthropocene era, in which humans emerged as the primary force affecting earth systems. In episode 12 of this podcast, we played an excerpt of that book and interviewed Jake about the process of crafting a book-length scholarly argument in sound by sampling sounds from other eras. Lightning Birds continues this Smith’s work in this innovative vein.