The Death of Radio? An Essay in Radio Philosophy for the Digital Age - Alan Beck - online book - published by Sound Journal 2002



Dictionary definition: The final, sometimes inessential, part of a musical structure.


[I]t is during such periods of relative intellectual insecurity [in film studies] that new connections and alliances may be forged, new perspectives discovered, and old questions recast in fresh and dynamic ways.

(Allen and Smith, 1997, 1)


Coda 1

Can there be a comprehensive theory of radio and for the digital age? Some may say no. Theories best arise out of specific problems, others say. Words like 'art' and 'radio' point to areas of life and culture within which there are specific difficulties and practices, and these call for various sorts of theoretical engagement. But they may not in themselves constitute an occasion for comprehensive theorising. (See Sparshott, 1988, 107 for some useful thoughts here to which I am endebted.)

But 'art' as we use it today is not only theory-laden (Danto's 'enfranchised by theory') but entirely theory-engendered. At the very least, the use of the word 'radio' (in its pre-digital phases) and of 'digital radio-audio' can be explained. What claims are being apparently made? What are the conditions of its use? And as I have previously said, there is an especial need for 'naming the names' in this age of transition. Radio theory immediately acquires density from the fact that these needs have come to the fore.


Coda 2


Although the 'death of radio?' seems at first counter-intuitive as a phrase, I hope I have shown otherwise. Radio academics can no longer rely on the radio they know. Digital radio is not being always broadcast in the epistemological framework with which they are most familiar. This is an opportunity to think through into new areas, and to revise and rebuild.

I mentioned how endebted I am to philosophical investigations into film and the arts. The result of Francis Sparshott's thought-provoking philosophical investigation into dance is that dance's boundaries can be tested and that 'the elusiveness of current artistic dance … is illusory' (Sparshott, 1988, 81). Dance is dance, though 'practice and principles can be diverse' (ib.). That latter statement may fit radio as well, but the future apparently does not hold out a unity for radio. My conclusion is that radio may now be conceptually scattered. Radio is now profoundly problematic and that is a direct challenge to theorists. The synthesis of work on pre-digital radio may amount to a looser sort of theory of radio because the field of radio has changed; further, it may no longer be clear over what and where radio studies holds jurisdiction.

This also comes at a time when various postmodernist projects have challenged philosophical and theoretical discourse: that rules and concepts must remain constant once defined (Sim, 1992, 1). We are to be more sceptical of each of the claims and we might do theory better by doing it more reflectively. I have used some of the present state of radio theory as a test case and I have attempted a theory of theory, in some ways.




Coda 3

Radio studies


Radio studies is a branch of media studies and cultural studies. But it also extends - covering a greater stretch but the connections are there - into the humanities, especially for those of us located in drama and English departments, for those with a focus on the text itself, and also for those researching radio history and aesthetics. There is a tension across these networks and there are different protocols of research and peer-reviewing. I have written about this before (Beck, 2000b, Section 2).

It could be said that there are optimistic and pessimistic positions on this dispersion of radio studies. The pessimistic is that radio studies is not a discipline but a range of approaches to a (pre-digital) single medium experienced solely via listening, a mono-aural modality. And so attempts to discuss the nature of the subject area, its methods and goals of research are not doomed but must be 'middle-range' (see 2.1). While the optimists hope that radio studies can be kept more or less coherent, as long as it retains a focus. For example, David Hendy's final question at the end of Radio in the Global Age is what 'we need to keep putting to those who control [radio]' (Hendy, 2000, 240). But all must accept that radio's methods are those of other disciplines and will become even more so (the argument of this monograph).

Media/cultural studies is committed, perhaps over-committed, to particularities, always to seeking out differences - ideological, institutional, those related to gender and ethnic issues, ethnographic audience research, and also those between radio formats (genres). This work is imperative and it is unifying for 'hard' radio studies.

For radio historians, there is a further task - to analyse the fluctuating forces of continuity and change. The search can be frustrating if it blinds us, or rather if we do not hear, some perennial themes in the life-history of radio and audio. These themes are especially important in our transit into the digital age, and as radio and audio changes faster than our work as researchers. These changes are also important for those like myself, researching B.B.C. radio, in my case the drama.

Stressing continuity is helpful. There is a depth and persistence in the production and consumption of B.B.C. radio drama, for example, now into its eighth decade. Stressing continuity is also helpful in highly reflexive fields like drama, literature, philosophy and aesthetics, because they are constantly looking back and reworking. (I am grateful to Jordanova 1991 for a point relating to curriculum here.)


Coda 4

As radio/audio changes so rapidly now, the idea of continuity is also compelling. Radio historians have shown us something of this, and they have a lot more still to show yet about how listening and entertainment function across decades. So at a moment of undecidability (aporia, 2.5), I also stress continuity. There is a persistence about some patterns of listening, within certain cultures, and - dare one say it? - transculturally.

Radio studies, in various forms and sometimes under different names (creative writing, journalism, drama, virtual studies) is established with dedicated conferences - though not enough. A collection of publications shows that it displays itself as 'coherent' (Tacchi), systematic and respectable. This is the 'subject definition stage' (Introduction 9), though I have expressed doubts about whether all of the territory has yet been covered. I have then suggested that the digital age plunges radio studies into the 'reconfiguration' or 'reinvention' stage, and I have suggested this involves parallel work in what I have termed 'hard' radio studies and 'soft' radio studies.


Coda 5

Radio's boundaries have expanded and are being redefined, reshaped. Objects of the discipline are in flux now, and the subjects (listener, listener-viewer) also. Firm territory upon which we scholars are working is suddenly either disappearing or vistas are opening into the distance of 'audio', the virtual and the Internet, and automated music channels. I have termed this conversion (or passing?) the 'death of radio', though with a question mark attached. I have not prescribed the territory.

I hope I show that radio studies is not in a state of torpor and never has been. But to follow the argument of this monograph is to suspect the following: that radio studies can promise neither its academics nor its students a unified field of study for the immediate future, nor a firmly established methodology for testing the radio piece, the radio-like and the un-radio-like. At the least I have suggested that radio studies cannot remain in a state of innocence about the digital age and that it could now enter a moment of self-consciousness (reinvention?).

Coda 6

If 'soft' radio studies is to take off, it means more interdisciplinary projects, more diverse and eclectic, more pluralistic and more inclusive, and relating to its neighbours in cultural space (especially film, the visual arts and performance). There is the increasing push of image theory. All of these methodologies are launched from particular ideological angles, of course. And this is in addition to the work of 'hard' radio studies. Pressures of the academy are in the opposite direction with prestructured disciplinary boundaries.

Some of what Christine Gledhill projects for film in the essay collection, Reinventing Film Studies, could also apply to radio studies. She sees 'political stagnation of a grand theory based on ideological and subjective interpellation' (Gledhill and Williams, 2000, 3). And also 'postmodernism's apparent loss of grip on cultural politics' (ib). Hence my discussion of culturalism and its imperatives in Section 8. I have noted also Martin Barker's sharp warning about reception studies in film. Here is more:

... curiously, they end up having little to say about the films themselves. ... Either study [the film] as a 'text', with a possible meaning; or examine the varied history or responses which seem to suggest multiple, indeed changing meanings. Either deconstruct the Disney corpus for its ideological operations - which is only worth doing if someone somewhere might be conceived to be in receipt of the thus-discovered plague of reactionary forms; or undertake the difficult task, not yet even started as far as I know, of looking at how and why people enjoy Disney films, theme parks, merchandising, etc. This separation has become an opposition.

(Barker, 2000, 189)

Barker's solution - 'research needs to focus on enthusiasts for particular films' - shows up the gap between film's focus of study and radio, but is a hint in a useful direction nevertheless.


Coda 7


Radio practitioners, scholars and teachers sometimes deplore that radio has a history of neglect (radio a 'Cinderella'), and that there is a visualist tendency in common-sense talk about the senses, as also in theorising. (See Beck, 1999, 5.3 for discussion and Forrester, 2000, 23-6 and passim for a thorough-going analysis of this in psychology.). That 'Cinderella' complaint also applies to the study of sound generally.

I used to follow along with the 'Cinderella' plaint, but I do not now. My view is that for the purposes of my present tasks, it is more interesting to flag up this 'Cinderella' topos for a moment, but further, to see it as reflecting the neuroses of the radio industry (Beck, 1999, 1.4a). Also, that it is useless to explain why theorists in other areas - film, theatre, performance, psychology, anthropology, aesthetics, etc. - neglect radio and sound unless they really do neglect it. Perhaps they don't. Here are some examples: Michael Forrester's remarkable and inclusive Psychology of the Image (Forrester 2000); all the publications on the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology site; and Michel Chion, Gianluca Sergi, Murray Smith and others on the film sound track. (See Beck, 2000a, 2.2 for other publications on poetry and Renaissance theatre.)

Perhaps what has to be explained in the 'Cinderella' topos is a ritual of saying that there is neglect. Such a ritual parallels others in other subject areas. In Greek and Roman studies, it is a custom to lament the gap between philology (the main academic output) and study of the original performance of relevant texts (tragedy and comedy, philosophical dialogues). 'Cinderella' may also register an unease about the proper place of radio studies within media / cultural studies. And my monograph may give even more unease! A ritual such as this stands in need of explanation. It may once have served some purpose (rise of television? curriculum definition? research disquiet?). Not all rituals survive but those that continue to be performed must fulfil some function, if not necessarily the function for which they were instituted.


Coda 8

radio practitioners

There are other problems. Radio practitioners may at times claim a position of high seriousness but also do not feel they need to know what radio theorists are talking about. They may even feel they have a right to their ignorance. 'If it sounds right - it is right', some say, 'like the old violin-maker'. After all, Picasso groused that critics talk about form while artists talk about turpentine. John Wayne despised analysis of performance technique: 'I just act'. But when radio practitioners use a key word such as 'radiogenic', they are unaware of its history and its full meaning. I do not feel myself fooled by this.

Also, practitioners may attribute some negative aspects of radio and the media in the public mind - banality, conspicuous waste of resources, frivolous attacks on the political overclass - to the academy. All this contrasts with film and performance studies. (I have to praise, however, the patronage given by the B.B.C. and independent production companies to radio drama studies, and the ready access they have given to interviews and the yearly conference.) Some practitioners may claim that radio is to be enjoyed and esteemed for its own sake. That, after all, is the condition to which all art aspires. But it is a perilous condition.

Coda 9

Behind those voices so publicly contemptuous of 'media studies' lie a number of suspicions. One of them is a dislike - perhaps even a fear - of a cultural emphasis on abstraction. Radio is an industry that is so unlike film which has an extraordinarily large theoretical language shared in common. Radio sports few theoretical terms.

A field can be impoverished if it discounts styles of thought other than the concrete, though publications of the Radio Advertising Bureau show how far the concrete style can be effectively pushed. Some degree of integration with academic workers in the field can be encouraging. Here are some possible gains: (a) diversity of philosophy, (b) the 'naming of names' - so vital now in digitalisation, and (c) ongoing critical reflection. Again, the Radio Advertising Bureau is exemplary in its appropriation of that abstract reflection it finds useful.

An ongoing dialogue between radio-audio and the academy will press both to consider whether their cultures and practices, and the 'naming of names', are based on shared values, whether those values are legitimate, and whether any are outdated or arbitrary. That dialogue also encourages respect for radio history. The radio industry has too often practised what could be termed an organised forgetting, and also a way of reconstructing its institutional histories within present-day frameworks and to applaud current techniques. Radio is defined by its origins as much as film, but it is over to radio historians to publish yet more studies.

Coda 10

different games

The creative task of producing radio was and is never reducible to a producer's or a theorist's blueprint. Stanley Fish makes a telling point about practitioners and theorising, and typical of his richly provoking approach, he does this in a chapter about baseball players, judges and scientists, '... these accounts are not to be understood as recipes for their accomplishments'. The reason is, as he puts it, different games are being played. He adds:

... performing an activity - engaging in a practice - is one thing and discoursing on that practice another. ... the practice of discoursing on practice does not stand in a relationship of superiority or governance to the practice that is its object.
(Fish, 1989, 377)

And further:

Even if the skill one exercises in a practice is the skill of talking theory, this does not make the practice theoretical; it just means that in the judgement of the practitioner who wants to get something done, talking theory is one of the resources he employs in the course of doing it. Again, this does not mean that the skill depends on (in the sense of flowing from) theory talk.

Coda 11

In our teaching and lecturing, we radio academics have to do what those in the radio industry do not have to do, which is to join up two realities and more, speculation and the practical. In short, we deal with something distinct from technique (skill referring to praxis) and what happens in day-to-day broadcasting. That difference is the conceptual.

Fundamental radio terms which 'shape' or 'reveal' broadcasting and its technology are the means through which experience emerges, and they establish the conditions for high-level modes of explanation and speculation . And yet, the radio vocabulary of praxis, limited as it still is, forms the basis for our thinking about radio.

My 'game' (Fish) in this monograph has been to understand 'How radio makes meaning' and through the attention-grabbing slogan, 'The Death of Radio?', how radio academics can approach radio-audio in the digital age. For our futures, there has never been more need for the radio-audio industry to meet with our speculative research and pedagogy. The question remains - on what turf can the players of these different digital games meet?











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