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



Sound and listening


Excerpt from David Pownall's radio play, An Epiphanous Use of the Microphone. In the British Broadcasting Company's headquarters, Savoy Hill, director-general John Reith and the actress Cathleen Nesbitt, are planning the first Shakespeare production in 1923:

REITH: .....Where the Word is sent forth so nation can speak unto nation. Though radio cannot appeal to the eye, it is made of visions.
NESBITT: Yes, Major.
REITH: Visions for the inner eye. Have you thought about all this?
NESBITT: Oh, yes! I'm very conscious ...
REITH: News, sport, endless opinionated conversation, dance music, cookery... is that all we're here for? What about what's best in you, in me, in the unborn?
NESBITT: The potential is enormous.

(Pownall, 1998, 28)




First summary definition of radio

So with those doubts out in the open, in this section I move into my main discussion. I will give my first definition of radio and this leads into the nature and ontology of sound (3.2) and a typology of radio listening (3.4).

I must mention however, Francis Sparshott's doubts about any summary definition - in her case, of dance and art, and she particularly warns against a context-free formula :

No possible statement that purports to sum up in a definition what dance is (and hence what is not dance) could possibly sum up the purport of all such generalizations [made by people]: being made on different context-bound principles, they are inherently unsummable. The most one could manage would be an account of the ways in which such contrasts and emphases typically vary. This whole matter has been explored in depth for over a century by the most acute philosophers and linguists. Any theorist who simply puts forward a general definition of dance in this day and age is showing crass ignorance and insensitivity.
(Sparshott, 1988, 189)

Here is the first summary definition of radio to be attempted in this monograph. Radio is a representational, single-modality, broadcast medium and the one thing distinguishing its representations is that they are aural. (See Crisell, 1994, 3-16; Shingler and Wieringa, 1998, 31-8; Hendy, 2000, 5.) They range across a wide spectrum or soundscape, sound events from music to speech and to silences. Radio is a one-to-many, one-way communication path, while radio on the Internet allows users to send and receive messages, and so is interactive in that sense. And subject to Sparshott's warnings, a definition of radio must also depend on the strategy of 'profiling' (Sparshott, 1988, 195) , relying on people's perceptions, uses and recollections, and their criteria of 'reasonableness' and also paradigm cases, and therefore induction - of all the kinds of radio that one can think of.

Some questions immediately arise. Are these radio representations like pictures, 'sound pictures'? And/or are they like linguistic signs - the language model? (Film theory went through a 'film is language' debate from the 1920s onwards - a partly semiotic assumption (Dyer, 1998, 5; the 'linguistic analogy' in Nowell-Smith, 2000, 16).) Or should radio theory plunge deeper into the nature of sound itself, as that is what radio trades in?



Ontology of sound (Roger Scruton)

So onto the ontology of sound. The philosopher Roger Scruton, in The Aesthetics of Music, began by arguing that sounds are not objects, neither properties nor qualities of things, and that the presence of a sound is established by how things sound to the normal observer (Scruton, 1997, 6-7). This is an intriguing point, which I will take up. (I am aware that it is controversial.) Scruton also said that sounds are either events or processes (9).

He also emphasised, for music, the acousmatic experience which is key to broadcasting. This is the situation in which a sound event is separated entirely from its cause and is heard acousmatically, as a pure process (9). (The Glossary offers help on various terms used here.) These are disturbing ideas when transposed to radio theory (5.5, 5.7).



Uses of radio

Now on to broadcasting. Radio is meant to be heard. It is cheap, sometimes perceived as costless, and consumed in vast quantities. It is part of the taken-for-grantedness of everyday life (Crisell, 1994, 7; Shingler and Wieringa, 1998, xiii; Hendy, 2000, 2). It is inexpensive, often undemanding and it is convenient, often partly time out from practical activities. It is suited to disconnected use, with frequent interruptions. This could be even more true of Internet radio, where the invitation to move on is only a click away, and work on a multi-media computer is multi-tasking, by its nature. On the other hand, a traditional part of radio's allure is its freedom from choice, for many listeners stick to one channel. As has been observed of television, it can be a respite from an active world (Robinson and Goodbey, 1997, 312). Radio, like television, is enjoyable to talk about with others (Tacchi 2000b) and talk radio is valued as educational.

Jo Tacchi, working as an anthropologist and with applied investigative studies, has surprisingly and successfully extended our well-trodden approaches to radio reception theory (Tacchi 1997, 1998a, 1998b, 2000, 2001). Radio is used to maintain or alter mood, and is part of different domestic soundscapes (Tacchi, 2000, 291). Different senses are involved in articulating private identities and notions of sociality (Tacchi, 1998b).

We are concerned with the everyday, common-sense experiences that people have with radio. Indeed, taking a prompt from Ron Lembo's sociological study of people and television (Lembo 2000), we could consider, in the examples about to be given, how radio listening becomes a ritual practice for people, and what participation in this ritual means in the long run, in the continuous use of radio as an indispensable part of living everyday life. Lembo stresses the sociality of TV viewing (Chapter 2). Hendy usefully emphasises that listening (in the Lifeworld) is an 'inherently social act' (Hendy, 2000, 120, citing Douglas, 1999, 30), though of course, audience research shows that radio listeners are mostly individuals. Radio when broadcast, ceases to be the property of the radio station and becomes subject to the competing choices of the listeners - it is 'put to use'.



Typology of radio listening

So here is a typology of radio listening, though not complete, of course. You can listen to a radio station on the following range of receiving apparatuses, one or two of them no longer 'wire-less' broadcasting, and you can be sited within such different 'listening zones' (Beck, 1998, 10). You can listen to an old valve radio which dominates the sittingroom, or you can be driving a car and therefore without even glancing at the radio controls, and the speakers are behind you. You can be wearing almost weightless all-in-one earphones that seem to plug directly into your brain and do not impede your movements - a 'natural' prosthesis to your body? You are shopping and there is an in-store own brand radio channel, or, in a USA telephone queuing system, you are forced to listen to a large business's own DJ. You can also be strolling along the Brighton promenade (on the south coast of England) and hear from loudspeakers the 'smallest radio station in the world'.

There is also live-streaming down the Internet - the starting point of this article. An early UK example was the former Talk Radio's sports radio which began on 24 May 1999 (then It was described in the launch promos as 'the Internet sports radio station' and 'basically sports radio, except instead of listening on your trannie in the garden, you can download it from anywhere in the world - Karachi, anywhere' (Talk Radio, UK, 1999, May 21). There were reckoned to be 10 million connected to the Internet in the UK at the time of its launch.




The Internet, of course, and bi-media ('hear-view') radio on satellite, involve more than one medium. On satellite TV, and therefore on the sight/sound media, you can view-listen to a radio studio with presenter(s) and technicians. For a period in 1999, on Europe's Astra satellite, Chris Evans presented the morning pop music show on Virgin Radio (Sky 1 satellite channel 8.30 am - 9.30 am). The digital Telegenova Sat channel from Genova in Italy (on Eutelsat 13 degrees east, 381) shows two radio pop presenters (with the url The most regular satellite example is Domian on German station WDR, Tuesday to Friday 12 midnight to 1.00 am, British time (Astra analogue 11.053GHz). And these are only some examples of listening-in. Nicky Campbell on B.B.C. Radio 5 joked: 'But with the web cam [on the B.B.C. Internet site], people are watching us all over the world. It's no longer radio!' (B.B.C. Radio 5, 4 April 2001). In an article in The Guardian to launch her new book, B.B.C. Radio 5 presenter, Fi Glover, joked on the e-mail advice she had received about her appearance while broadcasting and on her posture:

One of my many reasons for coming into radio was the opportunity to slouch and use offensive hand signals … Does it add anything to [the programme] Sunday Service on Radio 5 Live to know what I look like? … Invariably, it doesn't.
(Glover 2001)

The main point it seems to me, from these and some other remarks on the studio web cams, is that radio broadcasters wish to reinforce their professionalism in the face of technological change but above all, as they must, to exchange pleasantries. As the B.B.C. training in 2001 emphasises - 'radio is friendly'.

Priestman comments:

… the very reason why many radio enthusiasts are suspicious of web radio, because they fear that the requirement to interact visually weakens radio's unique identity and heralds its take-over by TV. On the other hand studio webcams may be a bit of a curiosity and they do support the idea that radio is about presenters working live in real studios, though it is difficult to imagine actively watching one for any length of time.
(Priestman, 2001, XX)

The Virgin Radio example was the most elaborate, with three cameras in operation and cross-editing. Others such as Domian are simply the presenter on headphones talking directly to the camera in a phone-in, or one camera side-on to the operating desk, as in the Flemish RTL1. So do we need a whole new defining criterion for the radio 'medium' and its hybrid aspects?

I note Michael Bull's warning, in his fascinating sociological study of users of personal stereos, Sounding Out the City. Personal Stereos and the Management of Everyday Life. He says that more empirical work is needed on use of apparatuses, and 'how new forms of communication technologies are incorporated into the daily lives of users', as '[i]nvariably, analysis is impressionistic and anecdotal', prone to stereotypical descriptions of uses and users (Bull, 2000, 12).



Aural paradise and listening as a secondary activity

For each of these listening zones (my term) in the examples above, the listener physically occupies a given optimum position which is often stationary, but can be mobile. Again, Bull is helpful for us, in analysing personal stereo, user and space:

I demonstrate the ways in which personal stereos become a critical tool for users in their management of space and time, in their construction of boundaries around the self, and as the site of fantasy and memory.

As opposed to walking around an art gallery, you are not required to explore possible listening positions. Once you tune in, production is the 'ideal ears' for you, the aural paradise (Beck, 1998, 12.7).

I argued there that the radio director's task is to construct for us an aural paradise. Every element broadcast totally signifies in this world of the single modality of listening. There is complete aural 'focus'. Nothing is out of 'shot' as opposed to the visual plenitude or even confusion on the cinema screen and in the Lifeworld. The radio director operates as 'ideal ears' in an ideally constructed sound universe. Part of the pleasure of attending to a radio play, for example, is that the director and playwright provide our way-finding and mental geography for us (Beck 2000a).

Ecological anthropology has also given us the concept of the aural niche: each sound-producing being in the Lifeworld battles for its own distinctive ecological niche in the dawn chorus, etc. In radio, there is usually no battle, but an environmental economy and efficiency, and total aural fulfilment. Indeed, I would argue that there is too much neat niche-sorting in radio drama.


Your listening zone is your 'consummatory field', to borrow from discussion of the visual arts and art galleries, and you are positioned as a listener, through various suturing or 'binding' devices, which seek to position the listener (Beck, 2000, 3.3 and see Glossary for these latter.) Again, 'ideal ears', 'aural paradise', listener-positioning and suturing devices are topics that I have attempted to introduce into radio reception theory.


Active and passive listeners

Broadcasting and production enable the listener to experience the sound stream balanced in correct proportions. If listening is a secondary activity, it could be that sound events and other competition from real-life interaction cause 'noise' (the signal-to-noise ratio) and disattention. The degree of concentration of the radio listener is a regular topic of discussion (Crisell, 1994, 137 for example), and television studies similarly take on the issue of the 'lower degree of sustained concentration' in its audiences (McQueen, 1998, 7 citing Ellis 1982).

Could it be that for many listeners, radio is a largely passive experience and that most do not change channel unless provoked? And that as radio theorists, we do not acknowledge sufficiently the passive aspects of radio reception? Are we nudged by the concerns of the 'neurotic' (Shingler) radio industry, as I have suggested in another respect (Beck, 1999, 1.4a on Shingler and Wieringa, 1998, 75)?

Bruce Owen emphasises how some television on the Internet is found to be 'highly interactive', requiring 'as much focused attention as work or active sports' (Owen, 1999, 8). Owen pushes this further and suggests that interactive Internet television may actually be less appealing to people if they must invest more energy and imagination in it (11). Would this apply to Internet radio use? Would Internet radio not be a suitable point-for-point substitute for conventional radio? Owen also makes the telling point that many people are unwilling to learn to programme their VCRs. So would they transfer to the Internet as an entertainment format (12)? A comparison study between Internet radio use and Internet TV would be interesting.

This brings me to the end of a typology of radio listening (3.4-5). I have given my first summary definition of radio (3.1) and made use of Scruton's ontology of sound, especially the concept that sound is established by how things sound to the normal observer (3.2). I have considered the topic of radio listening as a secondary activity and how the director's task is to create an aural paradise and be the listener's 'ideal ears' (3.6-7).



To Section 4





 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 2 - Theoretical Challenges
 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'





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