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


SECTION 2 Theoretical challenges

2.1 'Friends' in film and the visual arts

So having looked at the four systems for delivering digital radio signals - satellite, cable, DAB and the Internet - it is now time for the main topic: Internet 'radio' or not? Radio or not radio or 'death' of radio? A little bit of help will be looked for from 'friends' - theory of the visual arts, a subject area which deals with an ongoing identity crisis itself - 'creative chaos' (Cheetham, Holly, Moxey, 1998, 1), and also film theory. Richard Allen and Murray Smith's Film Theory and Philosophy (Allen and Smith, 1997) warns members of the academy rigorously when a theory area, so to speak, gets too big for its boots and becomes too much of a bricoleur. In other words, they condemn a facile pluralism across a range of newly colonised theoretical strategies (not their words). There has also been much ado about slimming down to 'middle-range' studies from 'grand', 'master-narrative' theorising, as in David Bordwell and Noël Carroll's Post-Theory. Reconstructing Film Studies (Bordwell and Carroll, 1996, xiii). This middle range (or level) 'moves easily from bodies of evidence to more general arguments and implications' (ib.). (Also Tarnay 1997.) David Bordwell, in Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema, had already demonstrated that many claims arrived at through film analysis depended on arbitrary moves, rhetorical figures and unsubstantiated claims (Bordwell, 1989, chapter 1).

The new anthology edited by Christine Gledhill and Linda Williams (Introduction 9) attempts to distill 'really useful' problems and issues for the future, and is aptly named Reinventing Film Studies (Gledhill and Williams, 2000). It begins with 'Really Useful Theory' and 'Why Theory?', and covers also mass culture, aesthetics, the 'return to history', and 'the end of cinema' in the global, multi-media age. So there is friendly help available to radio studies, perhaps, in cross-disciplinary areas, but also foundationalist anxieties which have not yet surfaced in radio theory publishing.

My use of visual arts theory is mostly in section 7 and my coinage of 'radioworld' (7.11-12), influenced by Arthur Danto. He attempted to find concepts and terms that would cover all artefacts.

What can theory claim to do? Here is some of its relevant scope. It can 'describe, explain, and predict phenomena' and be 'explanatory', asking 'What is happening here?' (Hanstein, 1999, 63-4). The descriptive aspect is important when 'nothing or little is known about an area of inquiry' (ib, 64). Of course a theory must have internal consistency and agree with the empirical evidence. Let me also make some links to the extensive discussion in film studies. Bordwell and Carroll 1996 refer to 'applying theory' and the 'theoretic passion':

[Theory is] general hypotheses about how best to explain a definite phenomenon, argued as proposed answers to a specific question … exemplary claims … (Bordwell and Carroll, 1996, xiv)
They also warn:
Both subject-position theorists and culturalists tend to shy away from inductive, deductive, and abductive reasoning.. They rely upon remarkably unconstrained association. (ib., 23)
Noël Carroll adds this:
We should countenance as film theory any line of inquiry dedicated to producing generalizations pertaining to, or general explanations of: filmic phenomena, or devoted to isolating, tracking, and/or accounting for any mechanisms, devices, patterns, and regularities in the field of cinema. As already remarked, this inquiry may transpire at many different levels of generality and abstraction and may take as its objects things as different as cutting practices and industrial contexts.
(Carroll, 1996b, 41) Note to 2.1

The descriptive aspect (Hanstein above) is now further demanded for radio-digital audio - for the tasks of describing, classifying and naming. So I have given a short list of the advantages of digital technology (5.3-4) in my section on clarification of radio as against the other media. Hence also the impulse to coin new terms, since otherwise 'something is being lost' (Hanstein, 1999, 64).
We are particularly aided by differences from analogue production, especially in the genres of radio drama and the radio commercial. There are both losses and advantages still in the digital age, whatever the similarities in overall patterns and protocols.
I discuss the predictive aspect of theory just below in 2.6.

2.2 Pluralist approaches and radio-philosophy

This article does not emerge with a systematic answer to 'What is radio?' (Hanstein's first claim of theory - to describe) or to 'What is happening here?' (explanatory). (I have already explained my own exclusions in Introduction 17.) Rather the article ponders: How we can go about discussing what is radio? What are the methodologies for this? - plural approaches to a pluralist radio industry. So, in sum, the project here is an attempt at radio-philosophy. It could count as the first - halting - self-identified essay in this.

Radio-philosophy does not consist of calling in the philosophers to tell us what to do or how to proceed. One exasperated academic remarked of such an enterprise in 1970s-1980s 'new' archaeology, that colleagues would believe anything told to them by a philosopher (K. Flannery quoted in Shanks and Tilley, 1992, 33). Film theorists, such as Allen and Murray, Friedland, and Bordwell and Carroll, have themselves confronted the relevant literature, entered debates and established positions. The difference is one between a theoretically-philosophically informed statement or search - as for 'What is radio?', and one that is not so arrived at. Also, the theory/data relationship has to be conceptualised.

Foundational issues of radio theory have already been established in works of incontestable value, indeed of brilliance, and these books have covered the 'wh-' questions of philosophy - what? why? etc. (See Introduction 23.) The books include Strauss and Mandl, 1993; Crisell 1994; Shingler and Wieringa, 1998; Hendy 2000; Barnard 2000; and Guralnick 1996 and Crook 1999 on radio drama. (I give apologies, as I have only mentioned some works here.) So my claim to a radio-philosophy investigation is not meant to detract from what has been already achieved. Rather it allows a moment to stare over an abyss which is growing deeper (according to our colleagues in film).

2.3 'Death' and critical discourse

Some have prophesied the 'death' of film and the 'death' of the camera down in that abyss, due to the digital age and the Internet (Friedberg 2000; Beck, 2000b, 3.1.1). (Philosophy is constantly said to be at its end due to recurrent 'heresies'. See Ross, 1989, 1-3 and on Heidigger, and Sim, 1992, 1 on Derrida.) Does that include the 'death' of radio, as mentioned above? Others, postmodernists too, have warned of the death of theory, and in a less extreme way, urged the need for each subject area to revisit foundational elements in its 'core' theory. In the spirit of a Socrates type of philosophy, one could ask: What does theory-making offer radio in this digital age? Is there what is termed a 'Kuhnian paradigm shift', lumbering towards us and waiting to be born? (Thomas Kuhn recognised in the history of science that every so often there are major changes, revolutions or breaks. A novel paradigm emerges which bypasses rather than refutes its predecessor (Kuhn 1962).)

But before that, some more worries about that theoretical abyss. We often, 'faute de mieux', use metaphors about sound (Bernstein, 1998, 21), music (Scruton, 1996, 86-96, referring to the claim in Cook 1990 that musical analysis was essentially metaphorical; Zbikowski 1998) and radio. These concepts are some of the basic building blocks of radio theory. Concepts are mental images of phenomena (Hanstein, 1999, 66), and, in radio, they are not as articulated, specific and definable as would be wished (again referring to Hanstein's useful discussion on theory). However, these radio and sound metaphors or instances of symbolic language or model-as-metaphor strategies are useful also. They draw comparisons between areas we understand and those we understand less, and suggest connectedness. Examples are 'colour' in voice and in sound events, spatial metaphors, the 'chain' of broadcasting, 'blindness' and 'invisibility'. (I have, however, warned about a visualist tendency here (Beck, 1999, 5.3).)

Radio has not a descriptive, critical, artistic and theoretical vocabulary as evolved and precise for its many tasks as we would wish (Beck, 2000, 3.3 referring to Arnheim, 1936, 17 and Guralnick, 1996, xi, among others, and Sergi 1998 on film sound).

Fortunately, the 'digital' is more than a buzzword in radio studies as evidenced by Hendy's pioneering survey work on this (Chapter 1 of Hendy 2000). We need more naming and mapping, so that the 'digital' becomes more than a placeholder, a marker, for these new phenomena. But perhaps elements of radio's enormous output cannot be 'enfranchised' (Arthur Danto's term) by theory?

2.4 'Radiobility' ('radioworld')

There are further depths of worry, at least for the author of this monograph. My theory 'tools', assembled here, may not be up to the job. Radio, as a concept in the mixed analogue-digital transformations of now, and across all the formats, might not have determinacy. This latter term, from philosophy, signifies having defined limits, and such an unequivocal, irreducible meaning that all objective members of a group in dialogue on the topic will come to the same conclusion, regardless of differences in their emotional responses.
Hendy astutely comments:
… radio can sometimes be an extraordinarily dynamic medium - changing too quickly to let us 'see' it properly.
(Hendy, 2000, 6)
Jo Tacchi usefully coined 'radiobility' for all that is radio (or similar):
By radiobility I mean the technical ability to be radio, or to be radio-like or 'radiogenic'. (Tacchi, 2000, 292)
I have ventured on 'radioworld' previously, for the enormous set of all the particular instances of radio (Beck, 1999, 1.5; below 7.1). The point to be made here is that all the instances of 'radiobility' or 'radioworld' across the media, may resist our traditional concepts of formal analysis.

2.5 Aporia
Subject areas, and especially philosophy, go through periods of disruption. A 'heresy' in philosophy, for example, demands that each work is read anew and the tradition redefined (Ross 1989). Aporia, or undecidability, may be a useful term to ponder here, for an instant. It is the opposite of determinacy. It is the moment in a philosophical movement, but also in other areas, when there are unconquerable obstacles in a tradition's understanding of its own intelligibility (Ross, 1989, 3 mainly of metaphysics). As thinkers, we are at a disadvantage or loss. Indeed the original Greek meaning of 'aporia' is a place that it is 'difficult to pass through', 'strait', and also - 'aporetic' - of a person, 'being at a loss', 'perplexed', 'lacking'. Note to 2.5

The result of a period of aporia in philosophy is either a 'termination of thought' or a 'heresy' (Ross) - in other words a break-out from a present tradition. This should also force research out of a 'comfortable chair'. (This is Miller, 1994, 34 on cultural studies and - specifically on his subject area - 'finding new ways to deal with new objects, rather than taking second-hand techniques and people to protect academic space'.)

I have delayed on this business of aporia because it is in the philosophical mood of this monograph and also because writing radio theory now is conflicted, I claim (against the optimism of Tacchi 2000). Radio is 'dynamic' (Hendy), so that it at once signifies for an individual listener, and also can escape signification in the enormity of what is broadcast across the media.

It is interesting what I am perplexed - 'aporetic' - about (and there are a few others along with me). It is the dissolving and fragmenting limits or borderlands of radio (Internet 'audio-on-demand', 'hear-view', etc.). Theorists on architectural space, on the body and the virtual, for example, are similarly aporetic about borders.

To go beyond the issues of this monograph for a moment, I mildly suspect that a future area of anxiety may be a politics of radio representation beyond the 1970s routinised approach to stereotypes - e.g., gender and diversity. (See Nowell-Smith, 2000, 16 for some refreshing thoughts on this in film, and also on the limits of 'finding meaning' in film exercises for students.) Another problem area for the future could be the limits of radio referentiality (Beck, 2000a, Introduction).

So overall, a moment of aporia in such a philosophical essay (attempt) as this is to acknowledge that theorising about radio is not about the truth; and that though our understanding can come to grips with technological change of the past, present and somewhat, of the future, it is without a degree of finality or closure.

2.6 Summary

So pursuing aporia, I could risk pretending at times that I understand all of radio's output, and that I understand more than I actually do. Let me sum up on this. Aporia in radio theory is a welcome visitor, especially in a time of reconfiguration and reinvention (Introduction 8). It recognises the - at times - ambiguity and indefinability of radio as a category of analysis and synthesis, and the ensuing interpretative anxiety that this arouses, certainly in 'soft' radio studies (Introduction 11). It could be that the instances of 'radio' today and to come (Tacchi's 'radiobility' and my 'radioworld') may be too broad to yield themselves up to our presently familiar theory tools. The radio and audio data exceed present theory right now, or so I argue.

And further on the future. Some theory-making can claim to have predictive powers, to indicate 'how phenomena are likely to react in given situations' (Hanstein, 1999, 63) or 'What will happen if?' (65). We cannot now rely on our radio theory-making, empirical studies or empirical methodologies to link present causes with future effects. Hanstein also calls this predictive aspect 'chaining forward and back' (63).

Present research cannot generalise much about the future and must be constantly nudged forward by technological advances. Teaching strategies are also in a process of change, not least in naming courses - 'digital audio' rather than 'digital radio', for example. Word substitutions are an indicator of dynamic change.

Hanstein also points out that the 'function of scholarly research is to generate theory and to test theory' (65). She adds:
Theory-testing research tests the adequacy of existing theory by developing evidence to test the hypothesis set forth by a particular theory. (ib)

I hope that both Jo Tacchi, to whom I cannot give enough credit for her original thinking, and this essay show that such theory-testing is needed and that radio theories are appropriate for testing. On the cheery side, broadcasting is about communication and any expressible information is, in principle, expressible in many ways, including through general hypotheses and abstract argument. And repressing foundationalist problems now is the way to ensure that they make their return.


It may seem counter-intuitive to ask such a basic question as 'What is radio?'. If there were no more to radio than a variety of radio programmes, identified as 'radio' by their occurrence in a 'radio' context, there might indeed be no place for a theory investigation that goes beyond object-study and culturalist issues, as this monograph attempts to do. But the digital age propels us into the 'radio' search because 'radio' is now in need of theoretical articulation.

'Anything can be radio'. This is not the same as saying 'anything is radio'. If everything is radio, the fact that any particular phenomenon - e.g. Internet only radio - is radio could not be very interesting. If anything can be radio, the interest lies in the conditions in which the radio possibility was realised. Philosophy is eminently interested in the conditions in which 'anything can be - ' e.g., radio or a painting or music or dance. The conditions get more interesting if they go beyond 'radio is radio because the listener says so' (though I have a go at that in 5.10), or 'because the broadcaster says so'. Things get more interesting when conditions such as the five identity-conditions I suggest (Introduction 16) are involved, and when a culturally dominant group produce a consensus.

In this Section, I have looked at some of the tasks of theory but also at confronting the unknown and the future - the digital age. So, a period of disruption is marked by undecidability or aporia. With that generalised foundation, and recognising rather a step backwards into my aporia, Section 3 engages with specific topics.


Note to 2.1
Art history also has a relationship with the 'master discipline' philosophy. Cheetham cites John Nelson: 'Philosophy, history, law, literature, economics, anthropology, sociology, and psychology. . . each thinks that its rules or procedures of inquiry come fundamentally from philosophy' (Cheetham, Holly, Moxey, 1998, 20).

See  FILM-PHILOSOPHY - online journal
Here is the list of some of the philosophical areas covered: Greek philosophy; medieval philosophy; early modern philosophy; the Enlightenment; 19th century German philosophy; 19th century British philosophy; 20th century German philosophy; 20th century Anglo-American philosophy; logic/critical thinking; ontology; philosophy of mathematics; philosophy of language; philosophy of time; philosophy of science; philosophy of religion; philosophy of education; philosophy of technology; philosophy and psychology; philosophy of mind; epistemology; aesthetics; feminism; social and political philosophy; the self and personal identity; applied ethics; and moral philosophy.
Of the many discussions of media and theory, the Introduction is useful in the following - Freeland, Cynthia A. and Wartenberg, Thomas E., eds., 1995, Philosophy and Film, London: Routledge.

Back to 2.1

Note to 2.5
Aporia is also a term known, in recent literary criticism, via Jacques Derrida's deconstruction theory (Derrida 1976; Agger, 1991, 113). Referring to a text, it serves to reveal its lack of determinacy, and how unlikely is the achieving of a definitive reading. Aporia here is the moment for the reader or decoder in which the illusion of determinacy collapses. This is a concept around which many visual artists have worked through the centuries (Piranesi, 'trompe l'oeil', parody in post-modernism) and playwrights such as Tom Stoppard, as in his 'After Magritte'.

Back to 2.5


To Section 3





 Introduction - Digital - coming soon to a radio near you

 Section 1 - Radio - How Do We Know We Hear It If We Can't Define It?

 Section 3 - Sound and listening
 Section 4 - Apparatus theory

 Section 5 - Approaches through clarification and reception theory

 Section 6 - Specificities of radio

 Section 7 - Relatively radio - radioworld

 Section 8 - Doing business as usual? The problems of radio 'essence'





 Alan Beck's SITES





This site is 'Radio Drama - directing, acting, technical, learning & teaching, researching, styles, genres'. See INDEX to navigate also.  Complete curriculum of scripts, techniques (acting & directing & post-production & genre styles), advice, sound files - effects and atmoses (with no copyright and so free to use), detailed script commentaries, etc.

Academic material on this site is Creative Commons License Alan Beck is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

Learn about radio drama on this site along with my book - Beck, Alan, Radio Acting, London: A & C Black ISBN 0-7136-4631-4 Available on Amazon. CLICK HERE.

To the WELCOME PAGE for Alan Beck's sites. See more of Alan Beck's work.


Any opinions expressed in this site are the personal opinions of the owner of the site. IF YOU HAVE COMMENTS, PLEASE EMAIL TO :

Global View of radio and further information concerning theory
The Fastest FTP Client on the Planet, GoFTP FREE