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


SECTION 5 Approaches through clarification and reception theory


Second approach - clarification
Third Approach - reception theory
Defining digital radio production


I now move to my next two approaches - clarification, or defining radio as against other media, and reception theory. They relate to each other because a definition of radio also depends on the uses that listeners make of it.

I do not push my argument in as extended a way as the previous sections, although some weighty issues are touched on here. I make four points. I argue that the 'vehicle' distinction between analogue radio and digital's four formats of delivery is not the whole solution (5.10). This rounds off the strand in this article on apparatus theory. My main advance is the proposition that 'radio is what radio sounds to the normal listener' (5.10) and I take this rather as an axiom. (It is so useful in cutting through to my other points.) It is a link into my discussion of reception theory.

Clarification is only treated shortly and mainly through the advantages of digital production and broadcasting over analogue (5.2), with a segue into paraproxemics, or the greater interpersonal intimacy apparently afforded by the digital (5.5). And my fourth and final point is on digital transparency (5.6).


5.2 Clarification

Clarification of course, is a linked step further from radio apparatus theory. As a topic, it raises these issues: To what extent is the technological nature of the medium a determinant? Does the digital radio format yield a different answer from analogue? Of course I have confined the issue of clarification here to the broadcasting vehicle distinction. Any further work along this path - Internet-only radio stations, say, versus mainly FM-AM stations is very much the task of 'hard' radio studies. (See Introduction 3.) This further and extensive work would involve content and institutions - object-study (Introduction 1) - and culturalist matters of policies and representation.)

A 'locus classicus' for clarification is John Ellis's Visible Fictions. He began by comparing the characteristics of television with cinema, highlighting the differences and illustrating how the medium dictates the nature of the material made for it (Ellis 1982; McQueen, 1998, 7). As I have said, I will not attempt this for radio and my approach right now is through the advantages of digital broadcasting as a vehicle. Christopher Priestman points out that with the spread of Internet radio, for the first time we have to define analogue radio and radio in total as against the newcomer (Priestman, 2001, 2), but that:

… digitalisation does dissolve the boundaries between our traditional media of print, radio and television in terms of their transmission. (ib., 14)

5.3 Advantages of digital technology
Digital radio technology needs definition first. It brings the following and more: much more control, speed and efficiency in production and post-production, accurate storage and retrieval up to the limit of the hard disk(s), choice, unblemished dubbing, ability through sampling and treatment to create sounds unheard and unblended before, multi-layering of sound, accuracy in 'placing' a sound event in the overall plan, a new 'vision' of the sound plan in onscreen editing, speed in inserting segments, 'scoring' music, and the ability to extend or to shorten (through sampling and treatment) to fit the required space without distortion.

In production, sound can be produced at virtually zero distortion, while frequency range can be extended to maximum capacity (Sergi, 1998, 159-60). Digital sampling and control in the film soundtrack have brought about revolution after revolution. Ben Burtt, sound designer to 'Star Wars', talked about his 'organic' soundtrack, as opposed to that which is electronic and artificial. He drew on raw material from the real world and he is quoted on his ability to make the effects 'vault to a film's foreground', literally telling the story (Carlsson, 1998, 'Sound Design of Star Wars'). But all these digital wonders do not apply, of course, in radio broadcast for the majority of listeners - the 'kitchen radio' problem.


5.4 Digital shift in aural allegiances

Discussing this topic previously, I mentioned how the digital age has shifted the human sensorium and its workings, referring to McLuhan's concept (Beck, 2000a, 'Reception theory in the digital age'; McLuhan, 1967, 68). When listeners hear the quality of digital on satellite, cable, DAB and the Internet (though only if with DSL bandwidth), this demands not just a shift in aural allegiance, but new strategies, and new relationships with the apparatus. These are new modes of production, transmission, and reception.
Radio has always been transmitted over great distances and separated audiences from producers. In this respect it resembles the electronic text. But the detail and quality of digital sound in some ways brings the listener closer. This is an obvious discovery for first-time listeners to the digital.

Take the case of a magazine programme such as the regular friendly fare on B.B.C. local radio or B.B.C. Radio 4's 'Woman's Hour', 'You and Yours' and 'Front Row'. The 'you-ness' of the speakers and direct address are now heard in novel close-up, so as to speak. Even in-breaths are experienced, along with all the vocal 'colour' (an important term from radio drama) and interaction of dialogue in interviews, etc. There are just more sonic clues to pick up on. Of course this depends on individual response and expectations, the active audience thesis (Watson and Hill, 1997, 2), but the difference is measurable, if that is acceptable, in terms of the physics of sound. Put the wav files from a digital signal and that from an analogue recording on the computer screen and the differences are there displayed.

5.5 Paraproxemics

It is also appreciable in another way, that I consider key to reception theory. The digital allows a greater intimacy in terms of paraproxemics. This concept refers to the apparent interpersonal distance between the audience and TV's or radio's performers. Watson and Hill define paraproxemics as 'the way TV handles the space between people, echoing and simulating the real-life use of space' (Watson and Hill, 1997, 166). (For convenience, and with reference to performance and dramaturgical theory in sociology, I refer to all those on radio as performers.)

So TV echoes and simulates the real-life use of space through studio sets and scenery. There are also the sequences of close-up, medium and distance camera shots. TV makes 'eye contact' with the viewer, with shots from eye-level, and with conventions for the familiarity of close-ups, while there are medium shots for authority figures (McQueen, 1998, 128). The TV screen is a kind of extended retina for the viewer. And paraproxemics has been taken up, for example, in the study of soap operas.

Radio 'presence' also parallels the spatial zones - intimate, personal and social. Dialogue constantly gives depth cues, particularly in magazine programmes, interviews and radio drama. For example, the male DJ uses closeness to the microphone (positions 1 and 2) and the result is base tip-up or increase in the base tones of his voice. He is - almost - 'in-your-face'. As a listener, I am constantly measuring how close I am to radio's performers. The microphone is also at 'eye contact' position, in regular close-up, even with authority figures. I introduced some of these ideas in Beck 2000a, and referred of course, to intertextuality across the media (Beck, 2000a, 'Mise en scène').


5.6 Transparency

So far, I have defined the added extras that digital production and broadcast bring (5.3), among which are further paraproxemic effects (5.5). I am in pursuit of my limited second approach, clarification, or defining radio as against the other media. Another way into this is through the question: How transparent is digital radio as a medium? Or, does digital broadcasting diminish our listening awareness of radio as a synthetic medium? Should the coming of digital radio shift discussion of the topic of radio transparency?

To claim that a medium is transparent is to claim that it 'mirrors' the Lifeworld. This absolute version of transparency is 'impossible' (Stephen Heath quoted in Hill and Gibson, 1998, 60). Of course the listener who takes radio's 'representata' (see Tarnay below) as a literal transcription of the world, as actual occurrences, is so untypical as to be beyond reckoning. Allen and Smith, 'What is Cinematic Representation?' discuss:

... the implausible idea that we routinely entertain false beliefs about the status of the image, mistaking representation for referent. (Allen and Smith, 1997, 39)

But the coming of digital radio and its 'crystal clear sound' (so advertised on the LBC site allow radio more transparently to reproduce, for example, actuality in features and news packages. The same goes for all of radio's formats - music, talk, plays, stories, sport, readings, prayers, etc. Music is now at CD quality.

5.7 Transparency effects

We can talk therefore of transparency effects and the degree to which radio might become a 'perfect' analogon of reality. Listeners are licensed, to a degree and in various ways and by various radio formats, to take up the impression of having direct perceptual access to events in the Lifeworld. An example is through the excitement of a sports commentary. Listeners are also licensed to access the fictional worlds of radio plays and readings.

So digital transparency raises many issues of representation, including the fluid interpretative boundaries that radio affords in its hybridity (Introduction 14) and intertextuality. For digital listeners, there is more of that mysterious abstraction and evacuation of the radio apparatus, in some (most?) people's experiences and at some times. Again one must note Bull's strictures on the imperative for more empirical work on how listening is done (Bull, 2000, 12; 3.5).

Transparency is a position where the listener is both least mindful of the synthetic aspect of radio and also the least committed to the radio apparatus as mediating the extra-radio world. The apparatus is felt to be intermittent in its working and is, of course, linked to listener's identification. This is suspension of disbelief. Along with this comes cultural-work disavowal. This is where the listening subject knows very well the truth but all the same believes its opposite. Transparency is the impression of radio 'framing' without loss.

5.8 The Scruton question - Listening to a CD and broadcast - the same?

I have now pursued the topic of clarification (or defining radio as against the other media) through a list of the advantages of digital production (5.2), paraproxemics (the greater sense of interpersonal intimacy, 5.5) and a greater licence for transparency effects (5.6-7). Two crucial arguments are ahead. I argue that the vehicle distinction between digital and analogue is not the whole solution (5.10) and I look at the definition of radio for the ordinary listener (5.10).

We are back to Roger Scruton on the acousmatic experience (3.2), which he emphasised was key to music and to broadcasting. An acousmatic sound event is one which is separated entirely from its cause and is heard as a pure process (Scruton, 1997, 9).
Scruton asks what is the difference between hearing a music track on a CD and the same when broadcast (Scruton, 1997, 221)? Do we get the impression of 'the same again' (109)? (This poser of a question was raised in 1.7.)

Tarnay in 'The Rear Window of Essentialism' can offer some help here. My point is that focusing on the vehicle distinction is not enough and so I can come up with a reply to Scruton. Tarnay was dealing with images in two visual media - photography and cinema. He found ways to argue, contra Carroll's Theorizing the Moving Image (Carroll 1996), that there is a distinction between a still image in a photograph and freeze frames on film:

It is how we cognize that relation, not that we expect it to move in some future instant. Carroll is confusing a property of the medium (i.e., moving in the sense of being projected) with an element of the representation (i.e., motion). The reason may be his anti-semiotic stance in which he does not distinguish between sign vehicle and its possible *representata*. (Tarnay 1997)

Substitute analogue and digital for Tarnay's photography and cinema, and I suggest that a path through the Scruton conundrum is possible.

5.9 'Vehicle' distinction not the main solution

I think that this helps to link the two leading questions in my article: 'What is radio?' (apparatus theory, among other things) and 'What uses do people make of it?' (reception theory). If we focus on the medium (the semiotic sign vehicle) - ONLY analogue radio or ONLY digital radio or ONLY Internet - we do not move very far with analysing content (semiotic referents or 'representata').

This is my main point against Eryl Price-Davies' valuable and initial point against Internet radio being radio. He depends too greatly on the vehicle distinction. Note to 5.9
We are back to the main problem of 'what is radio?'. Focusing on the medium in itself is technologically reductionist, I claim here. The vehicle distinction between analogue radio and digital's four formats of delivery (satellite, cable, DAB and the Internet) is not the whole solution to the problem of radio representation. In Aristotle's terminology, it affords neither a sufficient nor a necessary cause. It does take us usefully deeper into the investigation, though. One can listen-in - hopefully - to radio's performers and music, all of radio's articulation (features, genres, domains, performers), on each vehicle without degradation of broadcast data. There are attendant circumstances which can affect this, such as 'dirty' stereo reception and Internet buffering (4.7). These provoke disattention and throw the format of delivery into the foreground of the listener's mind.

5.10 Radio is what radio sounds to the normal listener

Sounds are what sound to the normal observer (again Scruton, 1997, 7, as in 3.2). Similarly, Francis Sparshott says that we all know what music is, though we differ about the status of marginal cases, and it could or should not be encapsulated in a summary statement (Sparshott, 1988, 188). This is useful and almost to be considered as an axiom for reception theory. I suggest here, as a forward step in my argument 'what is radio?', that radio is established by what radio sounds to the normal listener. I will now argue for this, but without gaining for myself enough assurance to make it one of my identity conditions for radio. I will go with the proposition as far as I can. I think it merits interest and it raises also the issue of the implied audience in radio theory and analysis.

We build for ourselves an intelligible construction of radio. The present shape we give to our thinking about radio is part of the process whereby we make ourselves in our culture. I am dealing here with the scope of practical reason, a common understanding in a social world in which we participate as different individuals.

Perhaps, just perhaps, there are all possible points of view, appropriate to different sorts of radio. But we may feel that radio is sharply delineated, a very recognizable component in the world in which we live. A person who did not know what radio was would be in some way monstruous. We all know in our daily experience what radio is, insofar as we all speak a language that articulates a life in which radio is a meaningful part. So here, I wish to make the point that 'what is radio?' is partly an exploration of a domain of practical reason, a common understanding in a social world in which nearly all are radio consumers and some are regular enthusiasts. We speak out of a common understanding, as - to repeat - that understanding is formed in a social world in which we participate as different individuals.


Further, I suggest there is a conceptual and practical unity to radio, and radio is not a puzzle, not a concept that can be dissolved. Although there are parts of radio use, programming and apparatus that are now dubitable (e.g., un-radio-like), most of the 'radio evidence', if I can put it in that common-sense way, is highly confirmed. To doubt the common-sense approach to radio as a whole, because various items within radio-audio are now becoming highly questionable, is to commit what logicians call the 'fallacy of composition'.

I admit that if 'radio is what radio sounds to the normal listener' is an identity condition of radio, it is not especially interesting. As I said above, I do not offer it as one of my five identity conditions (Introduction 16). It could be that radio is radio because the listener says it is so or because the broadcaster says so, and it is hard to make much out of such claims. (See 2.8 for previous discussion of this and George Dickie's Art and the Aesthetic for a knock-down argument on this (Dickie, 1974, 93-4).) However, I appeal to two further lines of argument here.

Firstly, there is the 'active audience' thesis, that across all media, the reader has more control over the text. Note to 5.11 So on this approach, the radio listener is paramount in deciding 'What is radio?'.


My second line of argument comes from film reception theory. Edward Branigan's Narrative Comprehension and Film (Branigan 1992) has been greatly influential. The film viewer/listener uses perceptual processes based on individually acquired knowledge, memory and experiences. These are organised in 'schemas' or schemata (frames, scripts). Of course this top-down process, as it is termed in cognitive psychology, is a way of organising the Lifeworld too and its forms of cultural knowledge (buying groceries, making a meal, eating at a restaurant, going to the movies, etc.).

On the personal, conceptual level of the listener-in, 'radio' corresponds to his or her preexisting, categorising radio schema (using Branigan 1992). For example, listening to London's LBC via digital satellite could well be in 'crystal clear sound at home' on the £199 Wavefinder perched on the computer, as advertised on the website ( and in the station's idents (June 2001). If that corresponds to the LBC listener's schema of radio, then it is radio and of course, that radio schema is constantly updated.

It will take a longer discussion in Section 7 for me to investigate the radio-like and un-radio-like aspects of Internet radio and automated music channels such as Music Choice. The radio schema of all listeners is being currently redefined by UK advertising campaigns for digital equipment and for audio channels on Sky's Digibox.

However Bordwell's work on reception theory in his Making Meaning (Bordwell 1989) and Kristin Thompson in Breaking the Glass Armor: Neo-Formalist Film Analysis (Thompson 1988) have been interestingly critiqued by Martin Barker on the issue of the implied audience (Barker, 2000, 36 ff.). My 'radio is what radio sounds ...' implies a lot and is in danger of being confuted. Barker quotes disapprovingly from Kristin Thompson when she says:

[I]n accounting for the effects of films on spectators, critics need not go to the opposite extreme of dealing with reactions of actual people. The notion of norms and devices allows critics to make assumptions about how viewers will be likely to understand a given device.

(Thompson, 1988, 26)

The danger is that with the abstract viewer 'an elitist assumption may have slid in ... a nice figure for film theory, but ... surely a hollow, straw person' (Barker, 2000, 37). Here is Barker further:

If actual people are not to figure, why do film analysis? (ib.)

However Barker also argues that film 'generate a role into which audiences may (or may not) enter ... the implied audience' (ib.). So my point about radio being defined by listeners' activity has to respect Barker's strictures about the critics' implied audience.

My two lines of argument for the axiom 'Radio is what radio sounds to the normal listener' will have to do for the moment, because the greater part of my argument is in Section 7 and the challenge of the un-radio-like. Of course, appeal must be made to ethnographical studies of the new technology, and the broad sweep of them must lie in the future. Till then, my axiom, that 'Radio is what radio sounds to the normal listener' is a palliative rather that remaining in a state of undecidability.

Note to 5.12


5.13 If radio is used as radio, it is radio

So let me see how far my thesis has progressed at the end of section 5, where clarification and the vehicle distinction predominated as topics. The short-cut answer to 'Is Internet streaming radio or not?' and such problems is: this article has not ruled it out yet.

Yes, part of the definition of radio is to do with the structure of the medium and its technology, the vehicle, within its historical continuity. But this is not, in itself, the one necessary-and-sufficient-condition. That is where I disagree with Eryl Price-Davies' astute posting.

My view is that there is no action-neutral approach to the main question. In other words, 'What is radio?' must be twinned with 'What uses do people make of it?'. This latter forms the third of my five approaches - through reception theory. If those who listen-in either to Internet radio, or to an audio channel on satellite, etc., use these as radio, then it is radio. (This is an extension of Scruton's axiom.) The alternative, that radio is defined only by 'wireless' broadcast, is technologically determinist and, as will be argued from what follows, reductionist. It chimes with what I have labelled as Luddite and technologically retroist tendencies in some radio theorists (Beck, 1999, 2.4-6 on Wade 1981a and 1981b, and Raban 1981).


5.14 More on reception theory

Listening-in to radio is a perceptuo-motor process, occurring in the human and his or her environment, a unit consisting of listening zone with radio apparatus, wired or wireless, all interactive. This interactive activity is one key to what defines 'radio'.

In this section I have dealt with the second approach (clarification) by defining digital production, and by considering paraproxemics (the apparent interpersonal distances between radio and its listeners) and transparency effects. I answered the Scruton question, 'Is listening to a CD and to a broadcast the same?', by maintaining that the 'vehicle' distinction is not sufficient. I moved on to the third approach, reception theory, and suggested that radio is what radio sounds to the normal listener. I also suggested that if radio is used as radio, then it is radio, but this must be taken up again in Section 7, in the studies of MP3 files and Music Choice.


Note to 5.9
I have myself reservations about the semiotic model and extensive detailed studies using this. Here, however, it is useful in its foundationalist distinction between vehicle and referent. (My line is semiosis not semiotics.) This point of Tarnay's also resists one of the dogmas of semiotics - the autonomy of the signifier. The danger of this latter, in its semiotic application, is that it is anti-representational.

The semiotic model has been heavily critiqued in relation to other media. Allen and Smith in their discussion of 'What is Cinematic Representation refer to:

... an uncritical and idiosyncratic use of semiotics-loosely allied with anti-illusionist, modernist aesthetic practice-was wielded as a weapon to combat the purported illusionism of the image. (Allen and Smith, 1997, 39)

The following quotation sums up the objections specific to radio:

To think of programmes as texts and audiences as readers is to mistake the communicative character of much of the output of radio and television. In particular it fails to recognize the liveness of radio and television, their embeddedness in the here and now (their particularity) and the cardinal importance of context and audiences. (Scannell, 1991, 11)

One can point out that radio's signs are motivated and cannot be deftly separated one from another. To place radio's signifiers within code systems (Crisell, 1994, 43) depends on a sometimes impossible sorting system (knowing what the codes are in the first place, why that code and not another?, why any code?). As for structures, these can depend on certain constricting and long-standing radio traditions (genre, the magazine programme, music). Not all material things are translated into signs.

It could be argued that the 'thinginess' of the material world (Duns Scotus' 'haeccitas') may be resistant to language and signification, and may be independent of these. (That is central to the enterprise of Samuel Beckett's nihilisation of language and radio's features in his radio plays, and some of postmodernist performance dance, to give a current postmodernist example.) Nor are signs immediately available to consciousness for selection and insertion into the system of signification, and for decoding. The famous binary-oppositions system of semiotics can conceal other hierarchies. Yet the very reason for semiotics' efficacy (in its classic period of the 1970s) is the promise of a 'science', objective categorisations and an all-embracing hold on culture (Metz, 1974, 56ff.). Semiotics also focused on decontextualized and isolated texts.

Back to 5.9


Note to 5.11
There is less faith now in the self-evident legibility of texts and objects, and a greater sense of the formative power of the observer, and his or her own contextualizing role, etc. Within cultural studies, readers have been granted more or less control over the text. There is the Morley model of 'preferred', 'negotiated' and 'oppositional' readings, but always through a relationship to the dominant ideological system. (See Morley 1980 on ethnographic aspects; Hall 1977 and 1980 on ideology; Watson and Hill, 1997, 71; and Watson, 1998, 54-5, 74-6.) The goals of a particular text's producer may succeed or fail depending upon reader-response reaction, governed by relevant social and historical conditions. The reader supplies the social and cultural knowledge, and irony is not accessible to everyone (Martha Rosler).

Back to 5.11


Note to 5.12
An overemphasis on ethnographic studies in the case of film has been savaged by Collins, 1993, 2:

... empirical research concerning an audience's reactions and viewing patterns... [is] an ethnographic imperialism which rejects interpretation of anything except audiences, and simply abandons any notion of critique …

Bull also warns about the gap between the 'typical' user and the individual:

The pressing need for proper phenomenological ethnography in studies of everyday life has been called for in the recent work of Silverstone (1994) and Rojek (1995). This misses the main objective of a phenomenological analysis which aims to articulate the qualitative nature of everyday life without limiting itself to localized description. The ethnographic material is used in order to go beyond the individual into structures of use which are then related to the wider social and historical characteristics of society. Not all personal-stereo users are the same. Indeed it is a central concern of this work to dispute the notion of typical users found in previous research. People use personal stereos like many other forms of communication technology for a variety of reasons and in a variety of circumstances. … For this reason the analysis will focus upon topologies of use rather than a typology of users.
(Bull, 2000, 11)

Back to 5.12



To Section 6


 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 3 - Sound and listening
 Section 4 - Apparatus 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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