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


SECTION 6 Specificities of radio


All sounds are transitory and cease to exist once generated.
Ferrington, 1994, 'Exploring temporal relationships'

... [radio's] programmes exist solely in terms of time: that is, it's heard and then it's gone; and what has gone cannot be retrieved by the listener unless they have recorded the broadcast.
Shingler and Wieringa, 1998, 37-8

For behind these many, and perfectly valid, questions lies one which is harder to answer, but which these particular questions in the end all assume
- the question how films

Barker, 2000, 4 in his From Antz to Titanic. Reinventing Film Analysis



6.1 How does radio make meaning?

Everybody knows that digital technology will change the world (and radio), but nobody knows just how. I move on from my previous approaches - apparatus theory (no. 1), clarification and reception (nos. 2 and 3), and I draw closer to how radio makes meaning and to the processes of representation themselves. I have called the approach in this section 'the specificities of radio' (no. 4 ). These specificities are some of the normative codes of radio. They perform, it could be said, a delimited set of jobs. And they help explain how radio gives and withholds information, explanation and understanding. Part of the link in the chain of my argument here is that these specificities pass on from analogue radio to the digital, or that that is most likely. I discuss four specificities: the hierarchy of sound, the 'economy rule', sonic continuity in broadcast, and the verbocentric in radio. Obviously these are not all.


In my introduction to this, I range more widely. Part of the task of core radio theory is to ponder the relationship between what radio broadcasts and what radio seeks to represent. How does radio make meaning? As previously in this monograph, film theory helps us investigate how radio is both a shaper and translator of the 'extra-radio world' (term explained below in 6.3). David Bordwell has given a full discussion of 'meaning' (interpretation, comprehension of textual cues) in Chapter 1 of Making Meaning. Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema (Bordwell 1989) and goes on, outstandingly, to outline four levels.

My introduction here also helps me to discuss these specificities from a more confident theoretical base and the discussion from here on in becomes more of the essay (attempt), as promised, in radio-philosophy. I work here, for example - and with thanks - alongside David Hendy's chapter 4, 'Meanings', in his Radio in the Global Age (Hendy, 2000, 148 ff.). He talks of a 'general meaningfulness' in the radio 'text', and his exploration is of 'these meanings and their collective meaningfulness', and 'our sense of what radio is for' (148). He covers reception (effects), listeners' uses, friendliness versus alienation, Crisell's semiotic approach and codes, and Scanell's discourse analysis of radio talk. I work in parallel with all of this great achievement in radio theory, rather at a step back, looking at foundationalisms which I do not take as given.




So I must ask a couple of basic questions within radio theory, especially on that crucial relationship between radio and meaning. Film-philosophy, as a model, centres on film and meaning (Bordwell 1989). These questions concern radio reception theory.


Here they are. How does radio evoke coherent, recognisable worlds for the listener? What are the relationships between what is broadcast - newsreading, interviews, chat, sports commentary, radio drama, music - and reality? How is radio both a shaper and translator of what I term the 'extra-radio world' (6.3)? (As can be already seen, I now search for some newly-coined terms in which to discuss this.) How do the broadcast 'representata' (the semiotic term and as used by Tarnay 1997, see 5.7) become 'concretised' (Roman Ingarden's term, Ingarden 1973) in the listener's imagination? How do these 'representata' become applied to the listener's own existential situation?


The following quote describes the constant processing and reference to the Lifeworld that goes on in the cinema audience, and it equally applies to radio:

[The filmgoer] must draw nonstop upon the incredible diversity of perceptual knowledge that we ordinarily and untendentiously assume we have about actual things and processes.
(Freeland, 1995, 50)


Of course, film spectators apply, in this meaning-making, the normative codes they have derived from filmmaking practices. Also, I have already mentioned in 5.10, the schemas (schemata). They are frames or scripts that the individual audience member refers to from their own acquired knowledge, memory and experiences (Branigan 1992).



6.3 reality/Lifeworld and the extra-radio world - pro-filmic event - extra-radio world

Again, I strive to find workable terms for those connections between a media text and its reader. I will discuss (a) reality and Lifeworld, (b) the pro-filmic event (from film theory) and (c) my coinage to match this, the extra-radio world, and (d) referentiality. And I will warn that the terms are not stable.

(a) Reality, long debated, and as a short-cut definition, is the 'simply there' and:

This reality of everyday life does not require additional verification over and beyond its simple presence. It is simply there, as self-evident and compelling facticity. I know that it is real.
(Berger and Luckmann, 1966, 23)

Reality is the extralinguistic 'reality' that constitutes the space that determines man's existential condition. It is discursively shaped, of course:

[R]eality is something we construct … something that results from the interaction of what we bring, and the world we bring it to.
(Gramont, 1990, 1)

For 'reality', I prefer to use the Lifeworld, the sociologists' term. I also refer to the listener's own existential situation.

(b) The next term is the pro-filmic event. Film studies employs the convenient 'pro-filmic event' for what the camera shoots (Sweeney 1994). There is also the 'extra-cinematic event'. So one talks of the pro-filmic reality, in the case of film documentary, and of the plausibility of the fictional pro-filmic world (King, 1992, 35).

(c) My coinage to match this is the extra-radio world. As I say, this is on the example of the pro-filmic event and the extra-cinematic event, and it seeks to meet a similar need in radio theory. The extra-radio world is the term for what radio 'shoots', so as to speak, or records and collects. It designates all that is captured by the radio microphone 'out there' and all that is captured - now - digitally (sampling and treatment). It is the world to which listeners have access through production and broadcast. This also enables me to speak of radio and the extra-radio (again on the model of the cinematic and the extra-cinematic).

So the extra-radio world covers both the actuality of the Lifeworld (e.g., interviews, newsreading and chat) and then on to entertaining fiction. Like its film equivalent, it is a term to pin down all that the microphone is pointed at. There is a slight contradiction in that it has a hint of deriving from the production stage of radio, and there is the post-production stage also to consider. Most of the data that radio collects for broadcast is still through the technology of the microphone and the rest comes from digital sampling etc. My term uses 'world' rather than the 'event' of the pro-filmic event, and does so because the film term deals much more with narrative fictional film and also because I wish to link with another coinage of mine, the 'radioworld' which I introduce in Section 7. Also the 'pro-' of the film term suggests the visual use of the apparatus, with the 'mise en scène' laid out in front of the camera lens. My 'extra-' hopefully covers all the formats (genres) of radio, and both the microphone and digital collection of data.




However, these terms are neither stable nor self-evident. The way the film camera photographically records the pro-filmic scene is problematic and much discussed (e.g., Rothman 1988; Bordwell and Carroll, 1996, 312). The pro-filmic event is 'a category capable of being as stable and decided or as elusive and ambiguous as you like' (King, 1991, 45). So I do not suggest that my 'extra-radio world' is a stable term. It opens up all sorts of problems of representation, of the radio apparatus, of iconicity and symbolism, and of transparency. (See 5.6 for transparency - 'mirroring' the Lifeworld.)


The transition to the digital further destabilizes both terms - the pro-filmic event and the extra-radio world - as the mode of media production radically transforms itself due to computerisation. This is obviously more so in the digital film process by comparison with analogue filming and film cutting. There is also the metaphorical and/or iconic link between the camera and the eye (Rothman 1988). Plus, the manufacturing process often shifts very substantially to the film post-production stage, as in the current 'Star Wars'. So much is computer generated. The filmic image no longer 'resides' in the camera. Chris Morris's comedy sketches 'Blue Jam' from B.B.C. Radio 1 are somewhat comparable. They are examples of destabilisation of normative codes and a reliance on post-production. (See References for Morris on the Internet and downloadable sound files of his sketches.)


And as the mode of production changes, so also must foundational theoretical questions and key terms. I have delayed a little on film theory here, because I suggest that radio theory can benefit from such parallel work. Note to 6.4



6.5 referentiality

(d) My next step is to pin down a further term for the relationship between what radio broadcasts and the Lifeworld, or how radio possesses a reference. I have already made use of 'referentiality' as a term for this (Beck 2000a) and explored it in relation to radio drama's 'mise en scène'. (Referentiality originates from the theory of the novel.) As applied to all the media, referentiality is the final stage of a text's reception, in the mind of the reader. It particularly points to the connections the reader makes with his or her own Lifeworld, that is, his or her own existential situation.




I would argue that referentiality - how radio and all the media possess a reference - is even more potentially unstable in the digital age (as mentioned above in connection with the previous terms). The separation between, say, radio or film, and the events which surround them is no longer so certain. Issues include convergence of technology (1.10-11), the 'disappearance' or 'invisibility' of the apparatus at times and for some (4.8), and the move out of analogue in the production stage with greater resources put into digital post-production stage. There are also the examples of the 'un-radio-like' to be discussed in Section 7.


Then there is the evolution in the apparatus itself, already discussed in Section 4. An analogue radio, like the kitchen radio or the traditionally British Roberts-made radio, had, before the digital age, a 'metaphysics of presence'. I borrow this phrase tentatively from David Phillips' discussion on photography and referentiality:


… photography is a metaphysical project founded upon a desire for presence secured through an unmediated transcription of the real. … The claim that a photograph is a substitute for actual objects (once present to vision but now absent) is evident from the earliest accounts of photography.
(Phillips, 1998, 155)


Of course, I am aware that radio does not have such traditional claims to representation as photography. It does not customarily claim to be 'an unmediated transcription of the real' nor, as broadcast sound (transparency 5.6), does it 'readily replicate an eidetic [visual] perception' nor does it traditionally claim to be 'a substitute for actual objects' (ib.). But the term, the 'metaphysics of presence', is compelling enough as a means of pondering on the radio apparatus and referentiality, that is, the relationship between what radio broadcasts and the Lifeworld. I merely point to these problematics in referentiality as a project for future work, outside this monograph.





So these terms, stable or not, have been covered in my introduction to this Section: (a) reality and Lifeworld, (b) the pro-filmic event (c) the extra-radio world, and (d) referentiality. Also, I briefly followed up my discussion of the apparatus in Section 4 with the 'metaphysics of presence' of the radio receiving apparatus. I also make the point that radio listeners apply, in their meaning-making of the broadcasts, those normative codes that they derive from radio's practices. These are the subject of the remainder of this Section.

6.8 specificities

There now follows an investigation into what Shingler and Wieringa, 1998, xiii call 'the inherent features of radio as a broadcasting medium'. In his chapter 1, Crisell surveys such similar topics as sign-posting, frame and boundary, blindness, liveness of radio and the present-tense medium. I have not done justice to discussions in these two books here, along with Hendy. But I now add my list to these - not a complete list - of the specificities of radio:

hierarchy of sound
the 'economy rule'
sonic continuity in broadcast
the verbocentric


6.9 specificities - Shingler and Wieringa, Crisell, Hendy, Branigan

First I have to justify my listing of these four specificities. What are they? They are repeated-use instances across radio; and although this is my claim, I operate, as I have said, with the confidence that there are similar theoretical manoeuvres - the listings in Crisell, Shingler and Wieringa, and Hendy.

I am influenced also by the effective and surprising work being done on sound theory over the boundary, so as to speak, in film studies, and in particular, Edward Branigan's chapter in Allen and Smith's Film Theory and Philosophy, titled 'Sound, Epistemology, Film' (Branigan 1997). Branigan comes up with confident theorizing about sound in the Lifeworld and sound in the film sound-track which I find refreshing and inspiring. He points out that sound appears to come to us directly from its source, and that puts us somehow into contact with that source (96, 107). It implies continuous motion between us and the source. Here are some quotes and obviously, this is not the occasion for a discussion:

When we hear and name a sound, however, the identification remains incomplete. (98)

Sound draws our attention to a particular motion-event and thus achieves a greater 'intimacy' than light because it seems to put the spectator directly in touch with a nearby action through a medium of air which traverses space, touching both spectator and represented event. (98)

Therefore describing sound as a temporal process would seem merely to confirm its status as secondary to light. We think of sound as filling a rigid space defined by light much like water fills and responds to a glass. Again, what appears ephemeral (and liquid) is likely to be represented in the form of a verb or adjective. (103) These few quotes from a formidable argument are enough to illustrate that one can follow in Branigan's lead.

So the specificities (repeated-use instances) of radio I argue for manifest across many individual instances of radio programmes. They suggest some universal properties of the organised patterns of sounds that constitute radio. They constitute, I claim, material for coherent concepts that can be consistently diagnosed across broadcasting. This is similar to what sociologists call reliability.

There is one main objection to this claim of mine - the constructionist model. It lies within the quotation I placed, strategically, at the head of this monograph:

Radio can be said to have certain characteristics, but the evidence suggests that radio is what history says it is: it has no essence since it has already taken, and continues to take, different forms. Radio is what it is at a given time, in a given context of use and meaningfulness.
(Tacchi, 2000, 292)

So the very discussion of radio's supposed specificities knocks up against a heavy charge: one is arguing for an essentialism within radio. I answer that charge in two ways. Firstly, in this section, I detail some of the specificities. Secondly, in the final Section 8, I deal with what I take to be the more extreme stance, that is, the 'absolutist-constructionist stance' (my term).

6.10 Subjectivist and objectivist (philosophical distinctions)

Let me take a step back here and look at theory-making, again from a philosophical foundation. I bring in philosophical distinctions of the subjective and objective, as used in aesthetics. An objectivist theory would claim that value, aesthetic or otherwise, somehow resides in properties of the work (piece) itself, such that any reasonably competent observer would find them. So in my 'What is radio?' search, that would involve, at least, apparatus and technology - my discussions in Section 4 (apparatus theory) and Section 1 (digital technology).

Traditional objectivist approaches assume that description and perhaps also interpretation are 'neutral'. That is, that there is one and only one correct interpretation (Battin, 1989, 33-37). But of course, in our choices of those features upon which to focus in a description, we are making determinations of which properties are most important. Should we focus in on the analogue/digital contrast?, or valve to transistor to digital?, or institutional aspects of broadcasting? or format radio? Go down this line and there are a seemingly infinite list of properties. So the objectivist approach - closed-concept, 'neutral' and focused on the apparatus - is unwelcome.

Alternatively, there is the subjectivist theory. This involves reception theory and 'What uses do people make of radio?'. The subjectivist approach is that value, aesthetic and otherwise, is a matter of the psychological effect on, or the attitude of, the observer, varying considerably from observer to observer. So radio is what fits into the radio schema of listeners-in, considered as individuals (5.10). This seems more acceptable.

Here is my justification. Medium specificities resist essentialism as such. As a focus of investigation, they allow very necessary discussion of repeated-use instances in broadcasting. As mentioned, there is excellent precedent. Crisell, 1994, chapter 1, masterfully summarises the characteristics of radio as a blind medium and this is further developed throughout his work.

6.11 No 1: Hierarchy of sound

This audibility principle, which I call a hierarchy of sound, is defined as follows. There is a strict layering of sound events in radio, especially in talk radio, based on two principles: exclusion (or filtering) and balancing. A range of sound events, in comparison with real-life interaction, are excluded as, for example, performers' voices are foregrounded and the background is neutral - typical of the talks studio and many radio drama dialogue scenes. To adapt to my purpose here one of Altman's observations on film - quoted shortly below - radio sound scale does not match with real-life image and sound scale. In real-life interaction, we quantify what we see and hear in the measures or scales these senses suggest.

As phenomenological philosopher Merleau-Ponty observes of the figure-and-ground structure (see the next section):

.... objects form a system in which one cannot show itself without concealing others. (Merleau-Ponty, 1945/1962, 68).

So 'showing' salient sound events on radio - most often speech - involves excluding from representation many potential others.

6.12 object-background separation

The second principle in the hierarchy of sound is strict object-background separation, strongly balancing the different events in a figure-and-ground structure, usually from different and contrasting domains. Examples are atmos or wild-track or music bed balanced well below speakers, avoiding the masking of sounds and sound confusion for the listener. (Shingler and Wieringa, 1998, 54 following discusses this.)

The radio principle, as opposed to the film sound track, is that there is less or minimum superimposition of sound events in their different layers (usually from different domains) and maximum control. When there is mixing, as in a music bed beneath dialogue, this is swiftly established at the top of a scene, and faded under and out - often in about eighteen seconds.

Radio is much less to do with the combining of sonic elements, though obviously music has its own pleasurable aural excess. Altman, 1992, 61-2 comments of film that, in refusing to match the sound scale with the image scale:

... the continuous-level, low-reverb sound track comforts the audience ... for it identifies the sound we want to hear as the sound that is made for us ... the better to draw us into a fabricated narrative.

So thanks to Altman, we could say that radio listeners identify the sound that is made for them as the sound they want to hear, according to radio's differing genres. It is another of the ways in which radio offers 'comfort'.

Note to 6.12

6.13 No 2: Economy rule

Bordwell, 1990, 270, in his survey of the film soundtrack, uses the categories of 'sparse' and 'dense'. He means either the use/over-use or the under-use of film's sound features. It is obvious that radio is predominantly 'sparse' or ascetic - certainly speech radio. For me, this becomes radio's 'economy rule' and as with the other characteristics of radio listed here, it is foundational. Radio filters out or excludes many sound events by comparison with the sight/sound media, and also by comparison with the many sound events in the Lifeworld. This is obvious to any radio interviewer working in the open air. Radio's 'filtering-out' is necessary to the medium, as I investigate below. It could also be said that radio degrades multi-modal data.

Radio's 'economy' is an obvious contrast to the instantaneous plenitude of the film sound track. (See Chion, 1994, 55 for film's plenitude.) This can be usefully observed in radio drama. Here is Jerry Stearns on 'Using Sound Effects' in radio drama:

Usually in a recording studio the object is to reproduce the sound as accurately or as cleanly as possible. In radio theater, and particularly in sound effects, recording technique often depends on the "degradation" of sound. You are changing the sound to establish and maintain the picture you want to create in the mind of the listener.
A. Sound effects should be used sparingly. Too many effects, or too much of one sound, will alter the attention of the listener away from the story, and will slow the pace of the action.
(Stearns 1995, 'Using Sound Effects')


Here is another example of the economy rule in operation. Radio can only represent part of real-life talk. It must exclude many of what are called extralinguistic or paralinguistic aspects - non-verbal behaviour which is non-vocalized. This 'deep speech' includes: looks, eyeline, gestures, head nodding, foot and hand movements, body-to-body in space and subtextual information. Within these communication markers are signals of emotional states, and the expression of self and relationship. Note to 6.14

Consider what happens in the talks studio during an interview. The face-to-face interaction includes paralinguistic markers but what is broadcast is restricted to conventional symbols in the language of spoken words. Of course, the interviewer's skill is to interpret these 'invisible' markers as part of the broadcast. Radio can make some compensation for its self-necessitated economy and I have investigated this in radio drama. Actors must embody (my term) deep speech into the dialogue, representing physical movement, presence and subtext (Beck, 1997, 61, 86-7), and the playwright includes description (ib. 84-6) of such markers. Of course radio talk includes 'umms', 'oohs', laughter, gasps and suchlike, vocalised paralinguistic markers, as text and subtext.


More filtering-out occurs in radio's use of the music domain (in drama, packages, beds, establishing a mood, signposting, stings, commercials, etc.), especially by contrast with film. The authority on film music is Claudia Gorbman, and in her wide-ranging discussions (Gorbman 1987 and 1998), she explores how greatly music signifies. It is useful to consider some of her points. Music behaves as an 'ancrage' for the listener (or binding-in technique - Gorbman's term 1987, 24, and see 4.10-11 for my use of this). Sometimes it establishes 'historical and geographical setting, and atmosphere through the high degree of its cultural coding' (ib. 44).

Music also, again following Gorbman, offers many opportunities for establishing locations and contexts, for emotional underscoring, 'mickeymousing' (mimicking characters' actions, named for the cartoon character) and motifs. So in view of all of these uses, it could be that music potentially offers many ways of extending beyond the vocal domain in radio and so giving further pleasure. But what we have is a significant underuse of the music domain. What we observe in radio is the operation of a countervailing principle, which I term the 'economy rule'.


One aspect of radio being a relatively sparse (Bordwell's term) medium is, at times, in radio drama above all its genres, its inability to serve as spectacle. Being verbocentric (see below) and so totally committed to dialogue, it is humanist in its programme. In some of the best of radio plays, critical reflection is not impeded by spectacle, as can happen in film. So the economy rule is a trade-off: the gain is the foregrounding of dialogue, with its interest and human warmth, while the loss is in radio's 'mise en scène', in the range of its genres and in its display of its domains. Radio represents through talk or fiction dialogue, rather than imposing a possible critical distance or agreement between performer and 'mise en scène', and asserts rather than 'showing' (film's depicting) simultaneously. For example, reactions of the addressee cannot go along with the speaker, and cannot share the same space and time.

6.17 Sonic continuity

The other principle I wish to add to those already outlined here (hierarchy of sound and the economy rule), is that of sonic continuity. This is the constant need to fill the sonic space of broadcast. It is also the 'nowness' of radio, its orderly unfolding, duration and succession. Note to 6.17 It is also the linear, non-reversible manner of broadcast and it is tied, of course, to meaning-making. Our processing of radio data, especially that of speech, is along the horizontal axis. The voice stream cannot be 'mis'-treated without damage to meaning. Speech must be complete, whole and integral, and not just verisimilitudinous. It has a temporal articulation.

The 'nowness' of radio is even more emphatic because radio's representation of time is by time itself - automorphically, that is, its very 'materiality' guarantees to listeners that it is what it is. A sentence in talk lasts so many seconds and its broadcast representation lasts just that long too.

Dominique Nasta also makes the claim that sound dialogue forces real time upon the film screen as it takes the same time for a sentence to be uttered as it does in real life (Nasta, 1991, 45). Radio is not only linear, ongoing from moment to moment, but in speech radio, the tempo of talk and dialogue dictates all. Indeed that is the 'atomic clock' of all radio - the rhythm of talk. The degree of mediation in words is irreducible. Radio cannot be shifted to another time construct - it is uniquely time-bound to the moment-to-moment of talk.

So also, to take sound effects in radio drama, the creaking of a door and the pouring of a drink (if in the continuity style of realism); and so also a song and music.

Again, the macro structure of radio differs from film and TV with their edited shots. Verbocentric radio (see below) imposes the fixed 'shot', in its ongoingness, as opposed to film's sequence of edited shots; and the space of 'seeing' is the space of sound voices. Radio demands sections of longer temporal continuity, such as four-minute music tracks, radio drama's scenes, the five- or even eight-minute interview in the magazine programme, the half-hour panel comedy show, and the turn-taking of speech.


A link could be made with one of the fundamental theoretical debates about film's structure and the work of critic André Bazin, active from the end of WW2 to 1958 (Bazin 1967; Buckland, 1998, 21-2). He believed that film's aesthetic core was the long shot, the unedited gaze of the camera onto the world before its lens. Radio is Bazinian, in this limited sense, in its sonic continuity. The microphone has a 'thereness' and a 'meditativeness', again to borrow from this debate (often posed as Eisenstein versus Bazin). Radio, by its affordances and by predominant styles in its high production genres, most often eschews manipulative editing. While basic, live, production radio stays locally stable and has the value of real-life time. It is single 'shots'.

Such continuous 'nowness' means that radio data must deal with the faltering dynamics of perception over time. Information is degraded along the horizontal axis. The ongoing, everyday flow of radio resists closure, especially, for example, the closure of fictional narrative film in the cinema.

Radio broadcasters not only live in fear of dead air, for in the non-signifying silence the listeners might move elsewhere (Shingler and Wieringa, 1998, 54), but there is a constant need to fill the sonic space. The house style of each radio channel will decide this - busy music beds under news, weather and traffic of a popular music station, where there is a need for an unbroken stream of the same music types through the twenty-four hours.


By contrast, consider the (surprisingly) long and expectant silences on B.B.C. Radio 3 during a live concert relay, in the gap between the end of the announcer's introduction and the commencement of the performance. This silence is full of signification and replicates, for the listener, the position of the audience in the performance venue. It is part of what I call 'listening to the listening'.

Radio has a fear of stasis, of a silence that could almost signify death; and particularly in the case of popular music stations, there is the need to keep the audiences 'bathed' in distinctive sounds. So the style of many stations is to annihilate the silence with a high degree of sonic cohesion and an ongoing tempo.

There is one genre, radio drama, where the impulse towards sonic continuity at times can perhaps contradict the needs of some stretches of dialogue, though of course this relates to the skills of the playwright. Every exchange between play characters has its hidden subtext, the unspoken emotions, instincts and wishes that truly motivate what is uttered and that sometimes contradict it, but which cannot remain unrevealed to the audience. 'Playing the subtext' is part of the skills of every working actor and it takes especial nuances, phrasing, paralanguage and pacing on the part of the radio actor to realise the full potential of his or her role.


But whereas film and theatre acting allow the actor to 'live in the pauses' as it is called, and to allow the subtext to emerge, often through visual devices of the face and minor body movements, and through the reaction shots of film, radio has no such recourse. Subtext must be built into what is uttered and into the pacing. (It is not lost.) Sonic continuity demands that silences and pauses be not extended or too frequent. So at times, with a demanding script, and with some adaptations from stage plays, one gets the impression that a radio performance is too rushed, that it has not 'found the moments' (as actors term it), and that some subtlety and shading have been lost (Beck, 1997, 104).

Let me draw a contrast with other performance media. Stage action is limited or framed by the physics of movement for human bodies within the scenographic 'mise en scène', and in film, movement can take place anywhere on the screen's illuminated surface, while not infrequently our attention is directed to off-screen 'sights' and sounds. In painting there are different models of perspective, Renaissance or not, and the point of attention resists gravity, and can be searched and re-searched by succeeding saccades or glances or the eye. Each of these media make what could be called different cognitive-kinaesthetic demands.


Radio's time within the 'sight'-sound-time-space-movement-perspective dynamic is organised firstly through language (radio is verbocentric), and secondly through the sound centre, most often the fixed sound centre, whether this is as simple as balancing voices at microphone position 2 for a talks studio. (Position 2 is my term for closer to the microphone than the conversational position.)

The time dynamic, at the pace of the word, dictates how the listener takes up cues from the radio data, depth cues, verbal, etc. - the linear, slow, constraint of language. (See Miller, 1995, 2c for cross-cultural studies of verbal patterns.) The words-per-minute rate is roughly 140 (very fast, but intelligible if articulate) to 90-80 (noticeably slow and deliberate).

Communication, particularly through speech, requires temporal continuity, along the horizontal axis as introduced above. In structuralist terms, radio's signs are divided into two dimensions or 'axes'. The vertical axis is the paradigmatic (selection and mixing across genres) and the horizontal axis is the syntagmatic (an orderly combination or chain. A sentence, or a syntagm of words, is the best example of the syntagmatic. Processing it is the pragmatics (meaning and purpose) of talk. Radio as a medium depends especially on syntagmatic relations, being both temporal and sequential, for the most part.


So radio is mostly 'unmixed' syntagmatic, especially basic production. In high production radio (e.g., radio drama), though, there is combining of the dominant horizontal axis (syntagmatic) with the vertical (paradigmatic). The listener's mode of thinking has less in common with visual thinking because experiential wholes, meaningful patterns, result from structuring forward and retrospectively backward along the horizontal axis, so, for examples, processing whole sentences or phrases in radio talk - the pragmatics of talk. Meaningful wholes or gestalts result less from a quasi-visual mode of processing - comparison, superimposing, inversion etc. Radio pragmatics (meaning of talk) are not recoverable as in broadcast. Broadcast is a once-only experience.

Radio listening-in time is more akin to Henri Bergson's 'durée' (duration) - an experience of the world as a flowing, inseparable continuum that cannot be divided into a sequence of individual moments of apprehension. (Bergson was concerned with the spatialisation of time (Bergson 1946).) Radio production flow, especially in format radio, in the main resists being sectionalised, though there is 'counter-flow': those many boundaries, such as commercial breaks, news, idents, etc. Opposing Bergman's philosophical construction is physicists' time - time as a linear continuum of instants and the ordering of non-simultaneous events.

Radio is nowness, relational time. It is opposed to physicists' absolute time. (Events in this latter category of time seem to have a very brief stay in the present.) So radio is caught between linearity and the fragmentary, and is understandable on a single hearing. (See Silverstone in Gronbeck, 1991, 148, on Ong and secondary orality.) Radio mixes its 'durée', the on-flowing experiential, with the temporal real-life, for it represents the temporal with the temporal. Compare the following on time in film. Gerald Mast:

The cinema is the truest time-art of all, since it most closely parallels the operation of time itself. (Mast, 1977, 112)

Consider also Currie, 1995, 103: Film is a strongly temporal art; it cannot but represent time by means of time.

So radio's 'durée' is intensely concerned with conveying immediacy, the moment-by-moment quality of experience in forward movement. Radio's performers are 'there', doing time.

In this section on time in radio (6.17 onwards), I have looked at radio's 'nowness', and the constant need to fill the sonic spaces of radio.


But as part of this discussion of what radio seeks to represent, one must recognise, I claim, how radio ruptures and fragments the sounds of the extra-radio world. All mediation is selection, of course. Thomas Levin urged the film critic 'to recognize the violence done to sound in recording' (Levin, 1984, 56). (This is a long debate on the film soundtrack theory - transparent 'reality' of sound versus a recognition of its constructedness - going back to Béla Balázs in 1930.)

But radio reserves many spaces for absent content. As with television and film, we have the phenomenon of the rapidly disappearing radio text or event. (Dance also, of all live performance, is obviously disadvantaged in analysis by its 'disappearance'.) Photography and its predecessor, the camera obscura, have the quality of fixing a visual scene, of making it graspable. But not so the aural. The radio medium has for listeners this 'now-here-now-gone' quality. Radio constantly pits itself against claims for the film apparatus's ability to reveal and 'fix' the world, pro-filmic events, and confirm its 'thereness'. The radio events exist only in motion, only in a serial passing, temporary and fragile, and the fact that a sound event decays and is driven out by another accentuates this further.


There is a contrast here between the pre-history of wireless (gramophone, telephone and Electrophone) and that of film (camera obscura, Daguerre, Diorama, stereoscope, etc.). Early photographic work of Muybridge recorded movement imperceptible to the human eye. Unfortunately, pre- and early wireless technology was too primitive and had too narrow a bandwidth similarly to offer new revelations and what was normally beyond the human ear. Its marvels were in the novelty of the technologies and in displacing live performance from its original place and sometimes time, and reproducing it. But it is part of the texture of radio to magnify the feeling and meaning of a moment.

6.25 Radio is verbocentric

Radio's focus is mostly on words. It has its established auditory hierarchy through its domains and in speech radio, of course, the vocal domain is the principal. After that comes either - depending on the house style - music, and then sound effects (atmoses, effects, etc.). Intelligibility of words is the most important and this is especially obvious in radio drama (Shingler and Wieringa,1998, 38-9, Beck, 1999, 1.9b; Beck, 2000b, Section 1). Rarely does a radio fiction confound the narrative effect with sounds and silences from domains other than speech.

Radio is the-something-that-can-be-spoken and language, after all, is the 'tool of tools' (Vygotsky). The human voice has warmth, diversity and expressiveness (McLeish, 1994, 7 quoted in Shingler and Wieringa, 1998, 38 - also quoting Arnheim, 1936, 29).

Radio offers the vocal stream as knowledge and pleasure - the pleasure of knowing through language with the incitement of more. The means of knowing is the means of pleasure. The degree of mediation in words is irreducible and the voice stream cannot be 'mis'-treated without damage to meaning. Radio is obtrusively and so recognisably humanist - that is its ontological proposition: being in the extra-radio world is guaranteed by its radio figuration in the voice and so avoids a decentring.

The dominance and complexity of the verbal domain on radio necessarily results in the relative simplicity of other domains when balanced against it. So, for example, music underscoring dialogue occurs only very rarely. This complex versus simple mix is found frequently in cultural artefacts. The ongoingness of talk and fiction dialogue, its concatenation, imposes a tempo and a seeming unity. But at its most dominant, in a radio drama, words can describe (hyperexplicate) the action.


Radio drama characters are more likely to operate on each other verbally than physically. This is especially so as the sound effects of bodily motion in themselves - mostly rustling of clothing, and paralinguistic grunts and squeals, typed by Watson and Hill, 1997, 158 as non-verbal vocalizations - fail to signify unambiguously and unaided by description, for the most part. So nearly all of radio's performers are liable to be highly articulate: presenters, phone-in hosts, and play characters. They concentrate emotion and conflict in language. It is interesting to compare professionals versus amateurs in sports phone-ins, especially B.B.C. Radio 5 and Talk Radio phone-ins, typically after soccer matches, where the 'game' is floor-holding, verbal description and display, and status competition, often by insult (a pastime known as 'flyting' in medieval literature).

Most of radio drama's gestures in time, space and motion are verbal. We find usually highly articulate characters in genres in which the characters are normally articulate also. (I cover this ground more fully in Beck, 1999, 1.9b and Beck, 2000b, 1.2-3.) Insights from Wittgenstein, with his emphasis on language games, provide a general insight into radio's talk. Here is Wittgenstein on the importance of verbal communication in real-life interaction:

... without language we cannot influence other people in such-and-such ways; cannot build roads and machines, etc. (1968, no. 491)


One main postmodern concern is how we are constituted by language and how we constitute it ourselves, and further, that deconstruction can lead to an uncertainty of language. Indeed, such is the love of language in theorizing, that some contend that nothing is knowable beyond the play of language itself. Language constricts and emphasises that it stands for some thing. The term verbocentrism that I have used here derives from the concept of a centre from which meaning emanates, and the 'verbo-' is from 'verbum' (Latin), similar to 'logos' (Greek), the word, the text as the guide and trial of human culture.

Wittgenstein however argued against verbocentrism:

The origin and primitive form of the language game is a reaction; only from this can more complicated forms develop. Language - I want to say - is a refinement, 'in the beginning was the deed'. (Wittgenstein, 1968, no. 401)

The fuller philosophical context here is what Wittgenstein called the 'linguistic turn', where language became a central topic in philosophy.


I claim that the radio world's game is anti-Wittgensteinian. Speech acts on radio are the word and the deed, gesture is subsumed into language, we play at influencing the world through language. Radio gives the 'linguistic turn' to culture. So many of radio's language games are familiar from commonsense practices of our world. It is not often that we meet with an experimental or avant-garde radio piece which is epistemically distanced from the radio mainstream or which attempts to discover new patterns of verbal perceptual intelligibility in nonstandard ways, or which acknowledges the inadequacy of its verbal structures. But to do so is to attempt the counter-cultural in a medium where this is attempted nearly always (?) in the domain of music.


In this Section, I have looked at some of what I have termed the specificities (normative codes) of radio - hierarchy of sound, the 'economy rule', sonic continuity and the verbocentric. My parallel radio-philosophy investigations are within the overall problem of how radio makes meaning. I have introduced the extra-radio world as a term and looked at how radio possesses a reference or a relationship with the Lifeworld (referentiality). I now move on to study the un-radio-like.


Note to 6.4
Radio drama is fiction and represents the imaginary, the 'not-now and the not-here' (Gramont, 1990, 4). Its playworld is a 'fictive heterocosm' (ib. on film). Fiction is 'distinguished not by the nontruthfulness but by the invention - the made-up-ness - of their stories' (Fleishman, 1992, 20). But fiction, too, realises its references through recourse to human experience ultimately, and calling on its readers' own existential situations.

Back to 6.4


Note to 6.12
The sound perspective in this predominant type of radio 'standard production' (Beck,1997, 128-9) can be compared with the figure-and-ground of Renaissance painting as I have already discussed (Beck, 2000a, 'Perspective'). Radio perspective is organised around a sound centre in terms of the sound picture (explained in Beck, 1998, 1.12), and also what I term a point-of-listening, if one orients oneself within the listener's aurality (ib.).

Of course, there are radio stations, especially popular music stations, whose house style is to generate excitement. Traffic reports, weather and news on these, for example, are 'fussy', a closer balance with a jingly, busy music bed, and an 'allegro' radio text tempo.


McLeish, 1994, 234 draws a telling comparison between the theatrical backdrop and radio drama's atmoses with the significant difference that radio sounds must be 'refined and simplified' as the radio environment can more quickly become cluttered (quoted and discussed in Shingler and Wieringa, 1998, 57-8).

Back to 6.12

Note to 6.14
Extralinguistic/paralinguistic behaviour is studied in discourse analysis, and by field anthropologists, and in part under the headings of proxemics (body-to-body relationships) and kinesics (movement). See Elam, 1980, 62-9, 78-83; Aston and Savona, 1991, 111-2; and Watson and Hill, 1997, 44, 94, 121, 158. Partners in conversation instantly and unconsciously assimilate 'deep speech' markers as expressive carriers of messages about interaction. They form part of the whole sound-silence patterns of talk and are also used to secure one's own turn at talk. See also Goodwin, 1981, 29-33, Heath, 1986 and McNeill, 1987.

Back to 6.14

Note to 6.17
Stephen Heath and Gillian Skirrow discuss the 'nowness' impression of television although little of the television product is actually live:

...where film sides towards instantaneous memory ('everything is absent, everything is recorded - as a memory trace which is so at once, without having been something else before'), television operates much more as an absence of memory, the recorded material it uses - including the material recorded on film - instituted as actual in the production of the television image.
(Heath and Skirrow, 1977, 55-6)

Back to 6.17

To Section 7





 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 5 - Approaches through clarification and reception theory

 Section 7 - Relatively radio - radioworld

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





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