'We Haven't Learned From History': 'Radio Influenza' Is A Warning From 1918 Computerized voices read newspaper stories from the 1918 flu pandemic in this haunting audio project. "I wanted it to sound like a broadcast from a dystopian future," says artist Jordan Baseman.

'We Haven't Learned From History': 'Radio Influenza' Is A Warning From 1918

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/831053620/842195659" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


More than a hundred years ago, an influenza pandemic swept across the world. A new work of audio art posted online tries to bring voices from 1918 to life. Here's NPR's Neda Ulaby.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: The voices are not real. They're computerized. They read newspaper stories from 1918, when the so-called Spanish flu ravaged the planet. But these stories still feel timely.


COMPUTERIZED VOICE #1: A man with a cold can easily throw it 12 feet by a sneeze. Therefore, he must be kept at a distance. Sneezing and coughing unscreened by a handkerchief should be regarded as an assault.

ULABY: The work is called "Radio Influenza." It was created by artist Jordan Baseman.

JORDAN BASEMAN: I wanted it to sound like some broadcast from a dystopian future. So what we hear are artificial voices that I've manipulated to sound kind of real.


COMPUTERIZED VOICE #2: There is a danger of panic. If you create an unreasoning, a culture of fear, then you create anxiety, hatred, hostility...

ULABY: Baseman started this project two years ago to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the flu pandemic that killed more than 50 million people worldwide. On the "Radio Influenza" website, there's an audio entry for each day of that year...



ULABY: ...Reading a fragment of news from that day, sometimes verbatim, sometimes cobbled together from various stories. Here's a headline from 102 years ago today.


COMPUTERIZED VOICE #2: After influenza, rabies.

ULABY: Just like today, reporting was fraught, sometimes even sensational. And these dispatches from the past are filled with their era's equivalent of fake news. The flu is blamed on German U-boats, on jazz, on immigrants and on Jews.


COMPUTERIZED VOICE #3: Jews, says a medical man, enjoy immunity from influenza.

ULABY: While Jordan Baseman was doing his research, he says he was not prepared for the extreme behavior caused by the influenza scare.

BASEMAN: So much so that I had to stop putting that stuff in there because it was unbelievable what people actually did to one another because they were so unwell and they couldn't stand it any longer - the psychological impact of having influenza and what that did to people - how depressed it made people, how suicidal it made people, how homicidal it made people.


COMPUTERIZED VOICE #4: The tragic death of Mr. Jay Hun (ph), builder and undertaker of Maidstone, took place on Monday when he was found with his throat cut. The deceased had suffered recently from influenza.

ULABY: Even stories of scientific optimism are a little heartbreaking, like this one from June 28, 1918.


COMPUTERIZED VOICE #5: A new method of preparing vaccines is described in The Lancet by Captain David Thompson (ph) and Captain David Lees (ph), which the writers think may result in the complete mastery of infectious diseases.

ULABY: Or not.

BASEMAN: That's the thing that I find the most confusing and also the most human.

ULABY: Artist Jordan Baseman.

BASEMAN: We haven't learned from history. You know, we don't, do we? - in our personal lives and in our collective lives.

ULABY: Baseman's takeaway from examining hundreds of news stories from 1918 is simple.

BASEMAN: The only way that we're going to survive this thing is if we share what we have and is if we pool our resources, if we pool our information and if we trust one another and to recognize that we are creative and we are powerful and that we do have opportunities to behave differently. We need each other now more than ever.

ULABY: Sometimes art works as a consolation. "Radio Influenza," says Jordan Baseman, is a warning.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.