Radio Wal-Mart

Muzak was the creation of one General George Owen Squier, chief of the U.S.
Army’s Signal Corps and a techie of his day. He was the Wright brothers’
first airplane passenger, but he was also a visionary in his own right.
Squier patented the device that allows one wire to carry multiple telephone

Squier saw the potential of a nation just then becoming wired for
electrical power and telephone service. At the dawn of the wireless
broadcast age, he envisioned something called Wired Radio, a sort of
musical utility that would beam the latest hits, as well as news and
advertising, into every household in the land.

The details weren’t quite right — he thought this could be accomplished
via the electrical lines, for instance. His other wrong assumption was that
people would be willing to pay for what they could hear on the radio for
free. Never mind. Muzak has never been one to get things right the first
time around. Its first broadcast satellite, for instance, crashed and
burned shortly after launch in 1979.

The genius of Squier’s idea was that, in radio’s infancy, he had already
anticipated cable. More significantly, Squier was among the first to
harness popular culture to the ends of commerce. Muzak has gone on to
become the world’s largest radio station, with 100 million daily
listeners — none of whom can turn it off. Eat your heart out, Barry Diller.

After its initial missteps, Muzak was rejiggered to the workplace instead
of the home. Quasi-scientific research had shown that music actually
improves workers’ productivity. Wartime workers in the factories of World
War II made their torpedoes, rations and carbines to the sweet sounds of
Muzak’s strings.

After the war, Muzak kept growing, transmitting its music over the
telephone wires. In the 1950s, Muzak was the largest consumer of AT&T;’s
phone lines, according to Joseph Lanza in Elevator Music: A surreal history
of Muzak, easy-listening, and other moodsong. More and more Americans
worked behind desks, where their minds were prone to wandering. Muzak
sopped up these nonproductive thoughts and kept workers focused on the
drudgery at hand.

Muzak was everywhere. Eisenhower had it installed in the White House,
according to Lanza. It even accompanied the astronauts into space (a detail
missing from the film “Apollo 13”). Muzak played in the empty halls of the
American Embassy in Saigon, even as the last choppers lifted off the roof
and North Vietnamese regulars swarmed into the building. They were, no
doubt, astonished.

Muzak was, if not hip, at least in step with popular music of the pre-Elvis
era. A song that made Muzak was guaranteed to become a hit; for a while it
was even owned by the Warner Brothers record label. Annunzio Paolo
Mantovani and Andre Kostelanetz, the maestroes of mush of the 1950s, sold
heaps of easy-listening records, string-drenched music specifically
intended to linger in the background. Muzak absorbed the Mantovani sound
and made it ubiquitous, while draining its lush emotional swamps.

It worked, but not for long. Popular music changed drastically, but Muzak
stayed the same. By the late 1970s, its orchestras-for-hire — for a while,
Lanza reports, its primary provider was Czechoslovakia’s Brno Radio
Orchestra — were still churning out string-and-woodwind versions of pop
chestnuts, and the company was in trouble.

“I was embarrassed to tell people I worked at Muzak,” says Elfi Mehan, one
of the few remaining employees from those days. She ought to have been,
judging from the ghastly ’70s-era rendition of “Puff the Magic Dragon” that
Muzak once inflicted on its helpless listeners.

Do you think the tides of Muzak are ebbing or rising? Are we witnessing the dilution of rock into mere atmosphere or is Muzak just an unfortunate musical tangent? Can you recover the essence of a song once it’s been Muzaked? Whether you’re a rocker, hummer, or hipster, you can take part in FEED’s online discussions. Just click on the Feedbag icon below and start posting!