Interview with Gary Gumpert

© Gary Gumpert and Figure/Ground
Dr. Gumpert was interviewed by Laureano Ralón. December 14th, 2012.

Gary Gumpert is Emeritus Professor of Communication at Queens College of the City University of New York and co-founder of Communication Landscapers, a consulting firm. His primary research focuses on the nexus of communication technology and social relationships, particularly looking at urban and suburban development, the alteration of public space, and the changing nature of community. Some of his noteworthy and early publications include: “Talking Tombstones and Other Tales of the Media Age” (1987); “Inter/Media: Interpersonal Communication in a Media Age” (1979); and “The Zoning of Social Interaction” (1991). Among his most recent articles are “Communicative Cities“ (2008); “Public Space Transformed: Digital Connectivity and Urban Spaces” (2010); The Urban Communication Infrastructure: Global Connection and Local Detachment” (2010); and “New York as Global City and Local Community: The Paradigm of Urban Communication“ (2011).

How did you decide to become a university professor? Was it a conscious choice?

My intellectual perspective was, in part, influenced by the fact that I was not born in the United States. When I was six years old my immediate family escaped from Germany three months after the Second World War began in 1939. The early struggle to learn English at age seven, to become American, probably shaped my intellectual thirst.  I struggled academically during my first year at Temple University but I was attracted to radio and television courses offered in the Business School and theatre and speech courses offered in the School of Liberal Arts. In retrospect, the communication discipline’s later identity problems can be seen early on.  I decided to seek fame and glory in radio. There was something magical about the medium. I was attracted by it’s ability to create imaginary worlds and simply the mystery of transporting the human voice. I began as a sound engineer for WRTI and later produced a radio program in 1952 or 1953 for which I interviewed actors and musicians in the Philadelphia area. In 1954-55 I was fortunate to have the opportunity to occasionally direct a 15 minutes drama produced by Temple University and broadcast over WFIL weekly for the Philadelphia School system.

I graduated from Temple University in 1955, and at that point fell in love with television – the new medium capturing the public’s imagination.  I remember watching the early morning antics of television innovator Ernie Kovacs. I became a frequent, bewitched spectator of band leader Paul Whiteman and the TV Teen Club that was broadcast from the Old Amory on Broad Street. At the same time many of my theatre friends at Temple became actors on a live TV western, Action in the Afternoon, produced on the WCAU Philadelphia Main Line lot – the drama sometimes interrupted by the sound of a Greyhound bus roaring by. Television had captured me.

My last two years at Temple University were amazing with my intellectual and creative selves beginning to fuse. It resulted in my receiving an assistantship at Michigan State University for $1600 a semester. For that sum I had to produce a weekly radio drama over WKAR-FM. At the same time I began to learn television production. It was the best of all possible worlds. I also had the luxury of studying French, Latin, and Greek literature and minoring in English. I had come a long way linguistically and for my master’s thesis studied the work of Katherine Anne Porter, a brilliant 20th century Southern writer. My thesis was titled “The Problems Involved in the Television Adaptation of Catherine Anne Porter’s ‘Noon Wine.’”  At that point I realized that wanted to pursue an academic career and that I might be able to blend the artistry of television with an intellectual career.

Who were some of your mentors in university and what did you learn from them?

One of my early mentors was Adrian Jaffe, an English professor at Michigan State. He was a small man, witty, sharp-minded.  I was scared to death of him yet I learned so much from him. His comment during my presentation of my thesis ideas still reverberates in my mind: “don’t hide when I ask you a question.” He was very influential in terms of his refusal to allow me to evade his penetrating questions. He required an intelligent response and his pursuit was relentless. I studied Greek and French literature with him, and it was an unforgettable experience. I was fortunate to meet several such mentors early in my career.

After I got the MA degree I was drafted into the army and served for two years in 1956 and 1957. I ended up in in a television production unit at the Signal Corps’ Army Pictorial Center at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. I also went to motion picture school at Fort Monmouth and especially learned from Frank Capra, Jr., the son of the great American motion picture director. One my assignments was to learn aerial reconnaissance  – great fun accompanied by an equal amount of fear – in case we dropped the camera during a shoot.

I got married in 1958 and received an assistantship from the University of Iowa to become the lighting director at their television center. I stayed there for one year and studied with several great teachers. One of them was the late O. J. Brocket, who taught dramatic theory. I was required to write a weekly two page theory paper based on specific theoreticians – from Aristotle to Brecht, with a third page reserved for references. The synthesis of economy of thought and academic style remained with me forever and the two grades we received, one for content and the other for style were informative and often humiliating.  Every week he would lecture for 50 straight minutes, without a pause. He was brilliant, assertive, and extremely insightful.

Despite the brilliance of my University of Iowa mentors, I wasn’t satisfied since I wasn’t directing, I received another assistantship from Wayne State University, and I directed more than I could have imagined. There I had an extraordinary mentor: Lee S. Dreyfus. He was an amazing administrator with an ability to use people effectively. He was a brilliant speaker, a man of imagination, and my doctoral advisor. In 1978 he would become the Governor of the State of Wisconsin and remained a great mentor, even though he was a Republican.

One day early in 1960, Lee Dreyfus asked me to attend a lecture at the Merrill Palmer Institute in Detroit. That would be my introduction to a charismatic and mystifying performer: Marshall McLuhan. The next day Lee Dreyfus informed me that he wanted me to direct and produce a half hour television program with McLuhan. Thus my relationship with McLuhan began. In preparation for the program we corresponded and met several times in my on-campus apartment in Detroit, he came accompanied with a good bottle of scotch and several excellent cigars. I slowly gained an understanding of what he was about. The result was that on June 4, 1960 we produced The Gutenberg Galaxy in the form of a kinescope – a film made off a television tube (video tape as a recording medium had just begun to emerge in the mid 1950s). The Gutenberg Galaxy, the book) would be published in 1962.  The production budget for the project was $365 (which included a $75 directorial fee for myself) plus one negative kinescope and print for $250 adding up to a grand total of $650. It was not a very good production, but certainly an historical one.

There is a sequel to this tale. The program was produced in conjunction with the National Association of Educational Broadcasters, but a copy of the production was given to me and kept in a metal canister in the basement of my home.  For the next 50 years that canister would remain sealed and I had no idea about the condition of what was inside – had it disintegrated into dust? Last year I gathered up my courage and took the can to a reliable New York production house and asked them to examine the contents – would they find a useable kinescope or ashes from the past? It turned out to be intact, and they produced a master tape plus several DVDs.

How were your conversations with Marshall at the time? He was on his way to becoming a pop icon and you were a 27-year old…

Back to the story about the show. Marshall McLuhan appeared with two others: Harley Parker from the Royal Ontario Museum and Robert Shafer, Associate Professor of Education at Wayne State University We had two cameras in a television studio surrounded by posts and everything was done live. By contemporary standards it was an amateurish production, yet the image of a cigar smoking Marshall McLuhan flicking his ashes while pontificating remains an indelible memory. One of my colleagues observed that in the production McLuhan looked like a deer caught before a pair of headlights.

Did this TV show have any relation to the book with the same title? What did Marshall talk about?

McLuhan and his colleagues described the impact of technology on human beings, the industry, the nature of patterns, repeatable commodities, assembly line production, and on the duplication of technologies.  We used a portion of Norman McLaren’s 1956 animated production of Rythmetic in which the relationship of each number to another was punctuated with sound and motion. We used it to illustrate the notion of repeatability and impact. McLaren was an extraordinary Canadian filmmaker. You might be familiar with his wonderful animated production of Neighbours.

I think McLuhan had a great impact on my future work. That work would rely a great deal on understanding the texture of radio and the magic of the television screen – in short an understanding of the grammar of the medium – and that would radiate and penetrate both my teaching and my conception of communication research and theory. If we are going to talk about media from a theoretical perspective, we ought have some intuitive sense of understanding the language of the medium. I’m not asking everyone to be a TV director but I am asking for an appreciation of the creative process. I think many of our scholars don’t have that understanding. You need to know film, you need to know sound, you need to know the technology of television, and to link that with an intellectual theoretical approach.  Ironically, McLuhan had no understanding of production, but completely understood the power of the medium. McLuhan pushed me even more in that direction.

In 1961, after a short period at Queens College, I was invited by Lee Dreyfus to join him at the University of Wisconsin as the Executive Producer for WHA-Television. The position also gave me the opportunity to finish writing my dissertation on “Television Theatre As an Art Form.” As the Executive Producer I also held an academic position in the Radio and Television Division.

This was a strange experience in which I could express my creative identity, but I also saw how destructive departments and academic ambition could be. The Speech Department did not speak to the School of Journalism and neither had a relationship with the WHA-TV and the Radio and Television Division. We did some remarkable work at Wisconsin including the production of the first Intercontinental Television Classroom in 1963. On Memorial Day we took our remote unit and linked a group of students at the West Bend High with the Lycée Henri-IV in Paris. –  I saw Lyndon Johnson on one of the monitors waiting to use this non-synchronous satellite. For one half hour the sophisticated French students, fluent in English, bonded with the American students as they talked about The Beatles and other noteworthy and insignificant matter – but what matters is that their conversation spanned four thousand miles.

So, in a sense, this was a prototype of distance education… 

Yes, and from that experience I learned that every medium connects and disconnects simultaneously.

In your experience, how did the role of university professor evolve since you were an undergraduate student? What makes a good teacher today?

I think there are two kinds of professors. For me scholarship has always been all-consuming and learning a constant. In that sense one my graduate students became a mentor and colleague. Susan Drucker and I have been working together for over 28 years. She was one of my graduate students in our MA program at Queens College. Between her baccalaureate degree at Queens and her MA she received a Law degree from St. Johns University.  Our collaboration has been amazing and is reflected in much of our writing – a legal perspective has been added to an aesthetic, theoretical, philosophical approach.

But back to your question: I retired from university in 1991; I was 58-years-old and realized at that time that the teaching process was changing. In the twenty years since, I have seen the teaching model change. The technologizing of the classroom, grade inflation and student evaluations are shaping the professor and the classroom experience. You are liked or you are not liked. The student enters the classroom tied to a cell phone, I-Pad or laptop. The current professor steps into a consumer market place classroom in which control has shifted from professor to student. The classroom has become a much more complex place and new PhDs, seldom are taught to teach, but must now also be able to cope with Blackboard, 24/7 on demand contact, and a learning environment shaped to a great extent on access to information rather than to the acquisition of knowledge. The notion or philosophy that all is searchable is counterproductive to the teaching/learning process. The danger of the technological classroom and its accompanying attitude is that the teacher may be transformed from an intimate and “immediate” mentor to an abstract and distant tour guide. 

You are a Professor Emeritus of Communication Arts and Sciences at Queens College, City University of New York, but also a partner in the consulting firm of Communication Landscapers. How do the two facets of your career (professor, consultant) have reinforced one another? And what are, in your view, the most important points of contact between Urban and Communication Studies?

The underlying question, the elephant in the room, is whether a scholar should be heard and by whom?  I would hope to be considered a Communication Scholar recognized by Communication Scholars but I have clocked thousands of miles and hours of work in an effort to be heard by someone outside the academy. I was particularly honoured to have received the MEA Neil Postman Award for Career Achievement in Public Intellectual Activity in 2011. I hope that some of what we say has an impact.

I am now the President of the Urban Communication Foundation and that is a natural growth of my interest in exploring the nature of public space and what happens to community in a technological age. I am indebted to Victor Hugo and to Marshall McLuhan. Hugo, in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, intuitively understood the intricate relationship of invention and impact. In a chapter titled  “This Will Kill That” Hugo details how the invention of the Gutenberg printing press would have an incredible influence on the church – impacting on both the priesthood and the edifice.  The mobile Bible would require the re-evaluation of the priest and the huge cathedrals of worshipping would be less effective in their ability to dominate those who worship.

What we are doing now as part of the Urban Communication Foundation is to encourage a focus upon the impact of technology on the urban landscape and quality of life.  It is predicted that within the next 20 years 70% of the world’s population will live in urban settings. We are looking at the link between place and medium. We must be able to choreograph those technologies to balance out their influence.

Touching somebody is still important, but we are quickly being reduced to a fragmented kind of living. In the U.S. air conditioners allow us to close our windows to disconnect outside from inside; the automobile has lead us to a universe of strip malls, highways and urban sprawl.

We are concerned with the transformation or perhaps even the loss of physical social space – those sites where people interact. This is leading us to work with architects, environment psychologists, landscape architects, and planners through the Environmental Design Research Association in the U.S. and International Association of People Environment Studies abroad. These issues transcend the “silos” of Communication and link to the broader matters of design.

Do you think communication studies should be a discipline in the first place – concerned as it is with a sort of nothingness, i.e., mediation and the invisible effects stemming from technological environments?

When we attempt to define ourselves we mark boundaries. Much of our time has been devoted to establishing boundaries and the result has been detrimental to the field. In 1963, Wilbur Schramm pointed out that communication had not yet become an academic discipline like Physics and Economics, but that it had become an interesting and lively area of research and theory. He identified the individuals whom he considered to be founding fathers of communication research in the United States: Paul Lazersfeld (a sociologist), Kurt Lewin (a psychologist, who came from Vienna escaping form the Nazis), Harold Lasswell (a political scientists trained at the University of Chicago), and Carl Hoveland (a psychologist from Yale). With their psychology and sociology backgrounds they were concerned with propaganda, mass media and behaviourism. In the United States no departments of Communication existed until probably the 1960’s when both Michigan State University and the University of Wisconsin began doctoral programs. Being a communication scholar requires an academic paternity test and our legitimacy is often not clear.

The contemporary study of communication in the United States results from several dissimilar parents: Speech, Journalism, The Chicago School of Thought, The Canadian Tradition (Innis and McLuhan), and The New York School (Media Ecology and Queens College). Add to that the European theoretical lines of Habermas, Adorno, Horkheimer, Benjamin, and Foucault and you find a discipline in flux. What you see is a clear trend in which communication scholars are the illegitimate children seeking redemption and/or recognition. The result of this is a search for territory and legitimacy in which, rather than emancipation of thought, we see the pursuit of territory. Thus, in the U.S. we have seen the proliferation of silos or fiefdom of intellectual territoriality. The insecurity of communication scholars, unsure of their identity, has been counterproductive”

The transformation of the department at Queens College is significant. When I got there in 1967 I was put in charge of the television studio – probably considered at that time the least significant area of the department, in fact in most departments around the country. This ego-deflating position became part of an intellectual battle in which several of us asserted that pervasive “Media Studies” ought to be integrated in the fabric of “Communication Studies.” We began to integrate media studies with the more traditional parts of the department – small group, interpersonal, persuasion, rhetoric, non-verbal communication. I was very fortunate to work with Robert Cathcart who came to Queens as Chair in the early 70’s. Our collaboration resulted in the three volumes of “Inter/Media: Interpersonal communication in a Media World.” Oxford University Press published the first volume in 1979. The premise of Inter/Media stressed continuity and flow within the discipline. I had entered the Department of Speech and left Queens College and the Department of Communication Arts and Sciences in 1991.

What are you currently working on?

The work has escalated in the last twenty years and perhaps can be divided into several parts.

Susan Drucker and I had begun an extensive study of public space that combined legal perspective with a social one. “The Zoning of Social Interaction” (1991) was a significant step in that direction and our involvement with the urban landscape is punctuated by a million dollar contribution by Gene Burd toward the establishment of the Urban Communication Foundation in 2005. I became its president. The mission of the UCF is to promote research that enhances our understanding of communication patterns in the urban environment and encourages collaboration between communication scholars, urban planners and policy makers. Most of my current research and publications are linked to the urban landscape.

The second preoccupation is on Communication Rights that has resulted in a continuing series of publications. However, the most recent focus in this area has been on the “communication division of Cyprus.” We also came to fin dout, as a result of our work in Cyprus,  that between 1946 and 1949 the British incarcerated on the island 53,000 Jews, seeking a homeland after World War II. We are now completing “Memories in Cypriot Soil, a documentary on that that forgotten, but important event.

A Third area of current activity is “the Urban Impulse,” a series of essays inspired by the transformation and evolution of the city as viewed through our communication tinted glasses. It will hopefully complement “Talking Tombstones and Other Tales of the Media Age” my book published in 1987.

The last major area of obsession involves my passion for the game of baseball. We are currently editing “There Used to Be A Ballpark Here: Communication, Community and the Spaces of Baseball” to be published by Peter Lang next year.

© Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Gary Gumpert
and Figure/Ground with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Suggested citation:

Ralon, L. (2012). “Interview with Gary Gumpert,” Figure/Ground. December 14th.
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Questions? Contact Laureano Ralón at

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