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



Doing business as usual? The problems of radio 'essence' and on to radioworld


I guess some people never change, or they quickly change, and then quickly change back.
Homer Simpson



Every theory, even axioms which are the basis for logical systems, bring 'in their wake the vexed question of their own foundation' (Sim, 1992, 2). Stuart Sim goes on to say of the foundationalist's primary dilemma:


… there is proof, confirmation, evidence - and then there is what grounds proof, and is in itself incapable of being proved.


I have outlined my five approaches to 'What is radio?' and I have worked in parallel on radio-philosophy and the challenge of radio in the digital age. But there remains a minor problem. For me, this could check, to a degree, the 'provability' of certain foundationalist claims in radio theory. Not that they are axioms or part of a 'logical system' - Sim refers partly to mathematics and strict logic - but there is a warning in the quotation above.


Here is my problem. Is the use of a strict constructionist/anti-essentialist stance in theorising the evolution of radio and its specificities too restrictive? In my work so far, I have considered general questions about the universal properties of the organised patterns of sounds that constitute radio. The enterprise of radio-philosophy can be summed up as: How does radio make meaning? I looked at that especially in Section 6. So this Section of the monograph will survey, briefly, the 'hot' essentialist-constructionist academic debate in film and the visual arts (relevant to media) and in the philosophy of sex (relevant to the body, apparatus and phenomenology). I then move on to the deeper issue of ideology as formerly conceived and possible ways through in 'soft' radio studies. This then allows me to examine further my radioworld term. But I cannot pass over such a theoretical challenge to my work on the specificities (the various devices, modes, genres, techniques - Carroll on film) of radio in a strategic silence.



the absolutist-constructionist stance versus strategic essentialism


I sum up the general constructionist stance as: 'radio has no essence and takes different forms at different times of its history'. That is, radio is a contingent, historical occurrence, and its meanings lie in the particular contexts in which it is experienced and interpreted by its listeners. Tacchi gives a reasonable summary of this, placed in her argument about whether is radio:


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)


But applying a strict version of it might be a hindrance. I mean the strongest constructionist stance - the absolutist-constructionist stance, as I call it. It seems to me to pose problems in the whole territory that this monograph marks out.




Let me go further. This gambit seems to me, potentially, to block off further areas of debate and it is rather a cul-de-sac. It might undermine work on what Shingler and Wieringa, 1998, xiii call 'the inherent features of radio as a broadcasting medium'. (See my discussion 6.8 following.) The danger from constructionists (constructivists) is that they would dissolve radio into the variety of its manifestations; and this effectively blocks philosophical reflection on its evolution, its specificities and digital future. My aim is to make stable distinctions within the ambit of radio-philosophy.


I am aware that this section of my monograph is disputatious. What gives me confidence to proceed is that some film theorists have favoured qualified - what I would call - strategic essentialism or a qualified neo-essentialism or certainly strongly anti-constructionist arguments. It goes with 'piece-meal' research. The outstanding Edward Branigan is among them and in the prestigious collection of essays, Film Theory and Philosophy (Allen and Smith 1997) where he discusses sound in the Lifeworld (see below). Also Gregory Currie, Image and mind. Film, philosophy and cognitive science (Currie 1995) and Tarnay in 8.26 below. The same holds, in psychology, for Gibson's ecological approach to perception (Gibson 1966, 1979), and this is a strand in Michael Forrester's Psychology of the Image (Forrester, 2000, 21-3). Bryson's Visual Theory. Painting and Interpretation begins with the tension between representation as convention and representation as the essence (Aristotle) of art (Bryson, Holly and Moxey, 1991, 1)



The constructionist-essentialist dialectic


But I have to make some apology here and concede ground. There is a clear and foremost place, of course, for workable constructionist statements about being culturally and historically defined and constructed, not least because they function as a traditional debate protocol and within the academic curriculum. Essentialism has a number of philosophical usages (e.g., Plato's forms - philosophical realism, Marxism), but is mainly the position that some objects have irreducible (essential) qualities that are timeless and immutable. It has come under attack from poststructuralism, arguing that meaning is never completely ascertainable.


Essentialism would suggest that a phenomenon (as technology in discussions by Heidegger and Habermas, and, e.g., in Marx's fetishism of commodities) has a kind of unity that defies complexity and diversity, and its profound socio-cultural embededness. Essentialism is unhistorical. Such essentialisms fly in the face of recent decades of scholarship, a scholarship that has grown increasingly critical and fruitful. There is a clash between the essentialism of philosophy, and indeed many philosophers appear to be committed to this, and the anti-essentialism of the social science perspective. (Philosophy's prejudice against the concrete is, famously, an occupational hazard.) Spinosa and Dreyfus, in the context of philosophy and Derrida, describe fully-fledged essentialism as having 'repellent ethicopolitical ramifications' (Spinosa and Dreyfus, 1996, 36).





In the philosophy of sex and gender, for example, there are prevailing anti-essentialist (nominalist) arguments that sexual acts have no transcultural or ahistorical essence. There is no abstract and universal category of the 'sexual' or the 'erotic' applicable without change to all societies. There are only variable social definitions of the sexual among genders, classes and cultures. An analytic project founded on other than constructionist grounds is doomed(?) - though it is not totally excluded by some. I give this example because the study of sexuality crosses subject boundaries, from media/cultural studies to performance, the body and biology, and personal identity.


But views are conflicted. There is a dialectic. Another argument runs that there is:

… an essential even if narrow core to the sexual: an unchanging, culturally invariable subject experience of sexual pleasure.
(Craig, 1998, 329)


Forrester explains (of Gibson's 'affordances' or coupling of individual and environment):

Essentialist characteristics, such as gender, ability/disability, ethnicity and so on, are displayed as signs in our everyday interaction.
(Forrester, 2000, 11)




Carol Vance has argued that:


…to the extent that social construction theory grants that sexual acts, identities and even desire are mediated by cultural and historical factors, the object of the study-sexuality-becomes evanescent and threatens to disappear.
(Vance, 1989, 21)


In a discussion of Madonna and gender transformations in film, Ann Cvetkovich also poses a challenge:

… when drag and masquerade are invoked to exemplify a constructivist theory of gender, they may give rise to the misleading assumption that gender can be transformed as easily as a change of costume, an assumption that reduces complex social and historical forces to acts of voluntarist individualism.
(Cvetkovich, 1993, 159)


(Admittedly, I have only given snippets from these discussions.) I have introduced the example of the philosophy of sex and gender here because it deals with ontological and epistemological matters, also with 'apparatuses', and with emotion, the senses and cognition. These topics can be cross-referenced to radio theory.




There is a sort of compromise here between what I referred to above as the essentialist enterprise of many philosophers and the constructionism of the social scientific perspective. The 'essence' of, here, the sexual, is not made up of the few distinguishing features shared by all types of sexual/gender practices. But here is a possible way through my dilemma. There are constant determinations, or what James Gibson called 'invariants' (repeated-use instances). These features are not an essence prior to history. But they are 'abstractions from various historically concrete stages of a process of development' (Feenberg and Hannay, 1995, 62).


Affordances (Gibson and the ecology of perception), the coupling of individual and environment (phenomenology), repeated-use instances (Gibson) and constant determinations (Feenberg and Hannay on technology) - they are the mediating way between dangerous essentialism and the constructionist enterprise. They enable me, in my opinion, to go about my enterprise of philosophical reflection and to discuss 'the inherent features of radio as a broadcasting medium' (Shingler and Wieringa) without dissolving these specificities into the variety of their manifestations.






But I must pursue this debate further. Noël Carroll has strongly challenged some social constructivist views in film studies. This is a vigorously-argued and sustained polemic. It is part of his overall attack on grand master theorising in film studies (the 'Theory') and here also against contemporary academic scepticism about science. A lengthier quote is necessary:

Social constructivists and their followers in film studies, and elsewhere, like to say that science constitutes reality, putatively in ways that facilitate prevailing cultural agendas. But such talk of constituting reality is barely intelligible. If science constitutes reality, then how are we to explain the fact that scientific theories are constantly confronted by contrary data and anomalies? That is, where did they come from, if the scientific theory constitutes reality? In any case, social constructivism seems to totter on the brink of self-refutation. It claims to have discovered that all theories are culturally relative, but that discovery itself is a theory, one that appears to request transcultural assent. But why should we grant such immunity to social constructivism? That sounds really arbitrary!
(Carroll, 1996b, 60-1)


Carroll argues that aesthetic theorizing could benefit from thinking about scientific theorizing (a dialectical, incremental process), as a lead-in to cognitivism. Here is the nub for him. Cognitivist work is championed in Post-Theory. Reconstructing Film Studies (Bordwell and Carroll 1996) and Film Theory and Philosophy (Allen and Smith 1997).




This debate, between social constructionists (nominalists who believe that categories are created by humans for their own social purposes) and (my term) neo-essentialists (related in some way to philosophical 'realists' who believe that universal categories exist - constant determinations), has been described in some press publicity as the 'hottest debate in the academic community'. A mediated position is that behaviour is a product of complementary biological, cultural and personal influences. Another mediated position is that of strategic, qualified essentialism (my 'qualified neo-essentialism').


Under post-structuralism, larger categories of analysis, such as class and gender, have fallen out of favour. The general prestige of all truth claims has declined. New vantage points allow the interrogation of social life - and radio-audio for us - in more complex, dialectical and less linear ways. The polarity between essentialism and constructionism can be misleading, and is more supposed than some academic teaching routines allow.



Noël Carroll gives a warning on the relationship between an artist's style and the film medium, and then labours his way out of the essentialist scare and on to discuss the specificities of film. Again, with Carroll, a lengthier quotation is necessary:


This is not to deny that a close look at the medium by a given artist may suggest an avenue of stylistic development. It is only to deny a central premise of essentialism, viz., that the nature of a medium always determines what style is appropriate to it, i.e., that the direction of influence always only goes one way -- from medium to a determinate style. For not only may an artistic medium support several divergent and even "incompatible" styles, but style may determine the very shape of the medium, rather than vice-versa. However, even if we reject the nexus between style and the medium espoused by cinematic essentialists, we still may be interested in the residual question of whether film has an essence, or a set of essential features, or a set of necessary conditions that are jointly sufficient for defining an instance of film. Such an essence, of course, would not indicate anything about which stylistic choices are appropriate; essentialism, as described above, is false. But this does not preclude the possibility that there may nevertheless be some general features of film which, among other things, might help to distinguish it from neighboring artistic media.
(Carroll, 1995, 99)


That is just the neat intellectual foot-work that allows me to follow where Carroll leads and to work, as I have, on the specificities of radio (6.8 following), and on clarification (radio as against the other media, 5.2).




Gregory Currie is more direct and breezy, in his introduction labelled 'the essence of cinema':

Tired of the ponderous prescriptivism that dogged much film aesthetic (and, until recently, much aesthetics in general), film theorists frequently tell us they have put aside "essentialism". Why bring it back? My essentialism is not especially prescriptive: no more so than the claim that water is essentially H20. Films, like samples of water, have something in common that makes them films rather than something else. It's more than just being films, and it's more than just family resemblance. It's an essence, but knowing what that essence is doesn't help much in figuring out what films are good, typical or paradigmatic. Since the subject of this book is film, I ought to say something about the essence of film.
(Currie, 1995, 1)


Currie, however, also warns that claims about the aesthetics of film based on some supposed essence of the media can be 'very strained' (ib.). He goes on the discuss 'degrees of inessentialness' (6).




Here is a last look at the definition of essentialism. I give a glimpse into a tough attack on anti-essentialist positions in philosophy out of Derrida's deconstruction, in the article 'Two Kinds of Antiessentialism and Their Consequences' (Spinosa and Dreyfus 1996). This can be no more than a glimpse, because of the complexity of the argument. This latter is not pro-essentialist as such, but focused on the all-too-inclusive attack on essentialist thinking by Derrida. The start-up definition of essentialism and the scatter-gun charge of essentialism (against which Spinosa and Dreyfus argue) is the following. It summarises the use of essentialism as a scare word:


The term essentialism is used today as a charge against any thinker's work whenever the thinker takes his or her categories to be more stable than the imposition of temporary political tactics. And since acts of essentialist thinking are taken to be blind to difference, the "essentialist" behind the essentializing act of thought is criticized not only for faulty reasoning but also for the ethical lapse of becoming complicit in the exclusion of others. Such charges ought to be taken seriously, but, with essentialism used against any stable set of distinctions, the charge of essentialism seems more like a political smear than a cognitive claim.
(Spinosa and Dreyfus, 1996, 32)


They point out that even 'so thoroughgoing a neo-Nietszchean constructivist as Foucault may be accused of being an essentialist'. While, also, Derrida has involved many more than expected in his deconstruction of logocentrism:


So, for instance, a thinker who agrees that one may never achieve full clarity about the meanings of one's assertions but who nevertheless writes as though one may approximate such clarity would count, for Derrida, as writing within the
telos of essentialism or logocentrism.




The result is that:

… virtually any thinker will have to condemn him- or herself for essentialist thinking. In other words, we would have to give up some of our most robust intuitions that tell us that we can make stable distinctions with rational justifications grounded in something more than political tactics.


In the article, Spinosa and Dreyfus find their way to making such 'stable' distinctions, where 'stable' is defined as 'those [distinctions] that may sensibly be used without indeterminacy or undecidability in most everyday contexts. … They do not have a determinate use in all possible worlds.' (ib., 33)


So what is my conclusion thus far? I have assembled the views of various scholars along with their own endeavours on specificities, and film especially. I am encouraged by their strategies which I find rather unifying. Of course, to repeat, there are extreme dangers in essentialist writing, or writing, to use Spinosa and Dreyfus's term via Derrida, 'with an essentialist longing', and so demanding 'a determinate use in all possible worlds'.


I have surveyed some of the essentialist-constructionist divide, though admittedly in a selective way. I hope I have argued my defence. The divide is a current and lively debate in film studies, identity studies and psychology (due foremost to the work of Michael Forrester). Here is the nub. I find it is possible to engage in a discussion of the specificities of radio without - frankly - a strategic silence. On the contrary, I have mounted a defence of the whole endeavour, and I have engaged with the two theoretical rivals and how they impact on radio's foundationalist positions. I will follow this through below.




As a last example of this strategic writing, here is an excerpt from Edward Branigan's masterly chapter 'Sound, Epistemology, Film' (Branigan 1997). He claims:


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.
(Branigan, 1997, 99)


Of course, a discussion of that would take me in another direction. But it is work on sound such as Branigan's that I feel is needed for the future of radio studies. He is able to make detailed stable distinctions. I now need to broaden the constructionist-essentialist topic into ideology.





Carroll, along with Bordwell, is also famous for his attack on what he calls the 'Theory'. This is the aggregate of 'Lacanian psychoanalysis, Structuralist semiotics, Post-Structuralist literary theory, and variants of Althusserian Marxism' prevalent in film theory from the 1970s onwards (Bordwell and Carroll, 1996, xiii). Here he is on ideology:


But proponents of the Theory, on the other hand, presuppose that every aspect of cinema is implicated in ideology and that the cognitivist attempt to conceptualize some aspects of cinema as detachable from ideology is nothing but rank formalism. As I have already argued, this claim seems empirically insupportable. Nor is it conceivable that all cinematic phenomena are by definition political. Surely, the perception of cinematic movement, the recognition of the cinematic image, and the comprehension of narrative will have the same biological, psychological, and cognitive foundations in any humanly imaginable, nonrepressive, classless, egalitarian utopia that those perceptual and cognitive processes have in present-day Los Angeles. To stamp one's feet and to insist that every dimension of film must have an ideological dimension (by dint of cinematic ontology?) is simply dogmatic.
(Carroll, 1996b, 50-1)

Martin Barker, in his From Antz to Titanic. Reinventing Film Analysis, ends on this challenge:

... this means reminding ourselves that this is what films are: they are films. Not as tautologous as it sounds, this may remind us that films are not, without damned good reason, to be regarded as 'expressions of dominant ideology', or 'cultural expressions of unconscious tendencies', or etc.

(Barker, 2000, 193)

I find an interesting echo of all this in Michael Bull. He gives a warning about work on communication technology which 'often falls into familiar dichotomous theoretical and empirical frameworks' and so to a 'school of thought that appears to associate "agency" mimetically with subversion or liberation' (Bull, 2000, 14). He adds:

We require a theory of urban experience that is attentive to the historical and culturally situatedness of notions such as 'agency' , 'experience', the 'visual' and the 'auditory'. These categories, I argue, often have ambiguous experiential meaning attached to them and should not be used as coat-hangers upon which to drape either description or abstract theorizing.



I find this significant and not only an alert about restrictive practices within culturalism. I have said before, in Beck, 2000b, 2.4, that culturalism has important tasks. They are well-known and include deconstructing media institutions, considering the differences of race, ethnic heritage, class and gender/sexual preferences, and also the search for possible resistance (Gramsci). (I asserted, contra past culturalism, the value of textual reading, in Beck 2000b, even though showing how various the changes to meaning as theoretical frameworks are successively applied.)

But this culturalism is under some attack as in Bull, Barker and Carroll above. I work from a base in radio drama and in a drama department, and I note that the renowned Patrice Pavis has made devastating comments recently on some gender deconstructionism in performance theory. Pavis's article overall is a crucial rethink on drama departments' foundationalisms (Pavis, 2000, 70-1). David Bordwell, again in Post-Theory. Reconstructing Film Studies, comments:

Doubtless culturalism instilled in media academics a sense of empowerment. By studying movies and TV shows one could purportedly contribute to political struggles on behalf of the disadvantaged.
(Bordwell in Bordwell and Carroll, 1996, 11)





Carroll, in the same volume, sees a further problem, which has a particularly American twist:

Fear that one will be denounced as politically incorrect - as racist, sexist, classist, homophobic, etc. - intimidates generally liberal scholars in such a way that they refrain from speaking out honestly about the extremely poor quality of much of what passes for argument and research in the humanities today. Instead they complain in hushed tones among themselves. ... theoretical discourse requires open channels of critical communication, not repression
(Carroll, 1996b, 45)


He refers to fears about critiquing concepts like the glance and the male gaze.

But this is not a period of total relativism. It is one also of demystification and liberation, including from holism in theory. It is not as if political interests are a contamination. For some practitioners and radiowriters, the media must seek social change (Watson and Hill, 1997, 2, on 'Action research' and Gronbeck et al., 1991, vii-viii on liberation, therapy and pleasure in cultural studies.) Ideology is what makes social reality and culture works intelligible, and criticism is also about how to read politics, hegemony and counter-hegemony. Here is a thoughtful quotation from an essay on digital technology and theory in the context of massive recent change, entitled 'Cybertheory', and it has come even more into its own:

Neither Marx nor Saussure can easily cope. By now this information revolution is no longer a matter for speculation or spectatorship even by literary academics, but deeply constitutive of the position we occupy precisely as academics and also as citizens.
(Sharratt, 1993, 9)




Do we rebrand teachers as cultural workers for a radical democracy? Compare Edward Buscombe in an article of 1974 reprinted in Alvarado et al, 1992, 42. He says that understanding television is a prerequsite for public control, though it will not in itself bring this control. And here are other thinkers offering a radical critique of postmodernism:

... it could be argued that this 'postmodern' ideology is itself a product of the anarchic liberalism of the new right, disguising prescription as description when it declares modernism to be played out and artistic experimentation and ideological critique outdated ...
(Collier and Geyer-Ryan, 1990, 1)

But moving some decades on, here are Christine Gledhill and Linda Williams in the introduction to Reinventing Film Studies:

Dominance locked film studies into an unproductive binarism of progressive versus reactionary text. The political point of film analysis was to separate the progressive from the ideologically contaminated or the retrogressively nostalgic. Now the reinsertion of the body and the affective into film reconceives the social, cultural, and aesthetic as equally significant but distinct factors, mutually determining but not reducible to one another. This suggests for some that ideology as formerly conceived is no longer useful as the basis of a totalising theory of film (Chapters 6 and 11), while others argue that a way of reconceptualising the relation of films and the political is urgently needed (Chapters 3, 5, and 20).
(Gledhill and Williams, 2000, 2)

This is where, refreshingly, 'soft' film studies leads the way out of this 'unproductive binarism' of dominance.



Of course for each critical article or book, there is an analytical method and a politics that determines what we see and why it matters. There has been a move into 'more relaxed and pluralistic alignments' even though there is the charge of being 'unpolitical'. Gill Branston in Gledhill and Williams goes on to ask a stunning question:

How … do our offerings improve upon the best cultural journalism?
(Branston, 2000, 24)


Here is Ron Lembo in Thinking through Television:

I look critically at cultural studies and argue that, while it is certainly the most sophisticated of analytical approaches to the study of television, it, too, fails to capture adequately the sociality of use. In the case of cultural studies, however, this has more to do with the emphasis that analysts have placed on a power-resistance model and, within it, the role that identity is believed to play in the formation of cultural practice.
(Lembo, 2000, 12)


What is the middle way for 'soft' radio studies? One also has to heed the compelling argument of Philip Agre in 'Designing Genres for New Media: Social, Economic, and Political Contexts':

[T]he most significant questions surrounding the emergence of new media pertain precisely to their role in encouraging or discouraging democratic values. … The rapid proliferation of new media, however, may call for a new type of analysis.
(Agre 1998)



So how far does an engaged interventionist analysis go, noting the balanced warnings in Gledhill and Williams? Here is some more exemplary balance. Shingler and Wieringa, 1998, xiv acknowledge in their own book, On Air:

... we have found it necessary in various instances to be critical of some of the positive claims that have been made: for instance, on the subject of radio as a democratic and emancipatory medium. Balance has once again been our objective here.

There are a few other items to throw into this debate. Consider the provocative stance of Pierre Bordieu that cultural value, like the value of culture, is primarily the product of those who participate in cultural life (Bordieu 1984). (This is the avant-garde cultural strategy.) Or should one take up a neoliberal position on the promotion of market forces in culture?

Here is my position. I must explore and question, rather than conceal, political and social affiliations, but only where these are relevant to the theory held. It should cause no surprise to observe that particular political values, interests, and preferences of groups and researchers, not only set the agendas but may influence the results and their interpretations.

This is another way of saying that better research is self-reflexive, including for those involved in quantitive research. Judgements should be based, less on broad propositions than on the pragmatic, evaluating how particular techniques work in specific radio texts or strands or genres. However, I do not see it as my task, as an academic working in radio, to intervene actively in controversies about the funding and status of current output. Work published and debate in the forum of the academy should suffice. I do not automatically go on the defensive about radio and radio drama. (Beck, 1999, 5.1)




So in line with what I find sympathetic in Post-Theory, I argue that subject-focus, publicly evidenced and acknowledged, is to be valued. No analysis can be conducted from a neutral, objective standpoint. There may however be a slippage between this and the constructed listener, who hypothetically interprets and appreciates the radio text. Here is Bordwell on the 'constructed reader' of the film text.

[Critics] create identificatory roles around which the reader's emotions can crystallize. One such role is that of the constructed reader, a kind of parallel to the rhetor's own persona. The other role is that of the 'mock viewer', the hypothetical spectator who responds in the fashion best suited to the critic's interpretation.
(Bordwell, 1989, 207)

In the classroom, when I play illustrative excerpts from early wireless drama, features and documentaries of the pre-1970s, I get interesting feedback from students. Sometimes they find the styles of these performances alien, and the B.B.C. 'patrician' dialect, for example, poorly expressive and indeed, laughable. By trying to acknowledge history, and the aesthetic standards of decades so different from our own, I and my students are brought to understand that aesthetic judgements are not unchanging. And that the demands of radio 'new historicism', my other field of research, bring into question my acts of cultural interpretation and selection, and why I assign value to some wireless plays, rather than to others.




As Carroll does in his publications, and as in the postmodernist self-conscious 'game' of personal academic display ('first-person writing'), the observer-analyst is an explicit part of the story and the researcher's role should not be hidden. I acknowledge my own ideological base, briefly. I have a fairly straightforward neoclassical economic perspective which enables me to come at culturalism's concerns from a non-Marxist angle, and to emphasise individualism, pleasure, choice and dispersion in radio. My search is for the logic of this broadcasting field where we seem to be dealing with the exchange of symbolic goods, in the popular view of listeners - goods for which, in their opinion, they do not give payment in exchange, except for complaints about the B.B.C. licence fee.

Radio seems to be a symbolic, non-economic system, however we as academics, journalists and activists demystify its production, exchange and surplus value. It is a continuous factory-like creation, with two faces, the economic (visibly in the broadcasting of commercials and complaints about whoever reigns at the B.B.C., for instance) and the aesthetic (the giving of pleasure and especially at the high production end which has the capital of prestige).




Radio is mass consumption with the contradictions this entails: the multiplication of models, the diversification of series, marginal product differentiation (B.B.C. Radio 3 approaching at times Classic FM), apparently optional differences (computerised music playlists), constant stimulation of a personalized demand (address to the singular listener, suture techniques, phone-ins), increasing democratization and individualism (new tiers of radio stations), the mixing of economic interest and symbolic representation of the citizen, and seeming novelties.

Radio is also ephemeral, and those with a base in Marxism and sociology often shy away from accounting for the attraction of the ephemeral. Their overarching class perspective predisposes them to ignore the importance of cultural values generated by individualism. The 'shop window' aspect of radio, popular and high-culture, spurs new aspirations of the public at large by making available, virtually, new consumer products, some of them its own or with 'tie-ins' to its own.

DJs, presenters, even weather men and women, are allowed to inscribe radio's products with their 'signature' (to use Bordieu's term from his discussion of haute-couture and famous designers), a device to endow the goods with top-up value. Radio directors, producers and management, by contrast, belong to a secret world of the non-broadcastable. They do not donate their 'signatures'. They do not 'speak'.



And in another part of the radio arena, interest groups of radio listeners have an investment in doom-laden prophecies of an economic and cultural downward spiral, 'dumbing down', etc., and are regularly getting ready the lifeboats but not yet jumping in. For their status positioning, they operate as if the B.B.C. were a symbolic, non-economic system, responsive to a small - in relative terms tiny - number of self-referring citizens and licence payers, while they, in turn, fail to dent the armour of the commercial stations. (See Shingler and Wieringa, 1998, ix-x on neglecting to recognise radio's costs).

So overall, my message is to guard against an analysis of radio as a mere exemplar of underlying social or political situations. I now turn to the second part of this Section, my radioworld term.




'Relatively radio'

Once again I look for help to 'friends' in film, the visual arts and anthropology (as mentioned in 2.1) and as employed above. In Noël Carroll's first essay in his collection, Theorizing the Moving Image, entitled 'Questioning Media', it is argued that there is nothing 'essentially' cinematic or 'medium specific' that distinguishes film from the other arts. (In 8.6, I have referred to an earlier discussion, arguing the same, in 'Towards an Ontology of the Moving Image' (Carroll 1995).)

So, he argues, not looking to the medium, we should attend to 'the various devices, modes, genres, techniques, and mechanisms of film, even if they are not referred back to some conception of the essence of cinema' (Carroll, 1996, 2). Certain devices are 'appropriate' to film, rather than essential or defining. This is a sort of squaring the circle for me, as will be discussed shortly. It is a very weakened constructionism, as Carroll 1995, which I described as neat intellectual foot-work. It enables discussion of the specificities of film, as also the affordances and determinations of 8.9. (I also quoted Gregory Currie on his own non-prescriptive essentialism (8.11; Currie, 1995, 1).)

A possible solution arrives from Hertzberg, reviewing Carroll, and it is comparative in approach: that we regard films as 'relatively cinematic' (Hertzberg 1997). So I have suggested of radio that we seek clarification, that is, we define radio as against other media and art forms (my second overall approach, 5.1). Hertzberg also argues of film that 'any attempt to discuss the medium in isolation from its history is incoherent'. That is a point well taken for radio studies.



Tarnay on essentialism (film)

I have an ally in Laszlo Tarnay, in his review of Carroll, 'The Rear Window of Essentialism' (Tarnay 1997). Tarnay also reviewing Carroll, first warns of 'the problem of essentialism' in defining film but moves swiftly beyond this to what I would term 'heresy' (in Ross's sense - 2.5). These cinematic devices are such that 'no proper treatment of movies can dispense with them, let alone the fact they call for "essential" clarification'.

Tarnay continues:

Methodological essentialism, indeed, but essentialism anyway. I am not saying this must be necessarily wrong, provided that the basic ideas are clarified.

As outlined above, Tarnay is not alone in this new brand of essentialism. So discussion of the 'various devices, modes, genres, techniques, and mechanisms' (Carroll) of radio, for us, are 'essential' to the extent that they are in repeated use in many contexts of radio. That is the circle that Carroll was trying to square for film, while Tarnay more resolutely announces: 'essentialism anyway'.



Second definition of radio

I favour an open-concept approach. So a fuller definition will be attempted now. What is radio? It is the commodification, institutionalisation and history of radio works, the uses of listeners-in and their radio schemata, radio's articulation through its practitioners and specificities (various devices, modes, genres, techniques, features, domains, performers), and the radio apparatus (broadcasting and receiving), and its zones or consummatory fields. There is not a radio essence, but there are repeated-use instances of radio and these are 'relatively radio' (borrowing from Hertzberg 1997). Many, especially practitioners, have felt that paradigmatic or classic radio works such as 'Under Milk Wood', and practices such as music radio's 'Morning Zoo', are part of a definition.




'Real' definitions are not attainable?

But in the spirit of the dialectic, some cold water could be thrown on what has just been attempted. Prompted by Morris Weitz's ('Art, Language and Truth') open concept of art in the Artworld (Danto's term), in turn borrowed from Wittgenstein, we could argue that 'real' definitions are never attainable (Shaw 1999).

There is not some function common to all radio works. Radio lacks an essence though there is an interdependency upon one another of a set of practices - repeated-use instances and determinations - in the network of radio or what could be called the Radioworld.

To argue at a more theoretical level, we have two choices. By deduction, we can come up with some satisfactory foundational propositions about 'What is radio?' that we can justify and are valid. That is the task of radio-philosophy reflection. Or do we work by induction? - more and more examples of radio works, technologies, commodifications, receptions and listenings-in. We must be careful these latter do not violate the norms of inductive logic. Otherwise, we face the logical impasse of infinite regress. And crucial as this inductive work is, it cannot alone satisfy. It would dissolve radio into the variety of its manifestations.




Open concept of radio

With such radical changes in broadcasting technology and with more imminent, it is best to keep to an open concept of radio. This can be emended over time and extended to objects, texts, works and broadcasting that it did not apply to previously. Radio of today and to come bears a family resemblance between paradigm cases (in the UK, B.B.C. history across some eighty years, and commercial radio formats, for example) and new arrivals (Internet streaming, interactive radio). We can still keep to the idea of 'relatively radio'.

The closed concept - in defining this, the Euclidean triangle is the usual example - is not emendable. Its conditions cannot be emended without thereby generating a new concept. However, it could be that a new 'radio work' or 'radio' technology or future use of 'radio' will arrive which has nothing in common with paradigm radio works or technologies of the present. It is more or less un-radio-like - Music Choice automated music channels, as I have argued. How 'open' is the open concept of radio to be in the future? Who knows? Let new generations decide.




So this Section's conclusion remains as given above. 'Relatively radio' enables us to link what is to come, perhaps, with paradigm radio instances from the past and the present, including Internet streaming. It crucially allows us to be inclusive about the many ways that radio listening-in occurs today.

Medium specificities resist traditional essentialism as such, but allow discussion of repeated-use instances in the Radioworld and the compelling idea of continuity, especially in the UK history of broadcasting, and of 'family resemblances'. All this makes for a more elastic concept of radio with greater evaluative criteria than that perhaps offered by traditional constructionism.

The strict absolutist-constructionist stance is, I argue, a danger twice over. It may offer a cul-de-sac to argument. It is primarily a deconstructive strategy that is destabilising; and it could systematically negate each single affirmative gain in building the specificities of radio.

Such is the 'banality' (Baudrillard) of radio mass broadcasting, that aesthetic quality cannot be sited centrally in a radio definition, but only in some of its genres (radio drama, music, etc.). In our repeated encounters with radio, there is an interesting equation between the familiar and what is original and innovative.

'What is radio?' asks a fundamental question but there is no systematic answer matching the vast, ongoing radio product. So this monograph has sought to balance five approaches. New technologies are a spur to radio theory-building. My definitions of 'What is radio?' allows some room 'under the arms' so to speak, for future growth, when more digital radio theorists can hope to do better.




To Coda




 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 6 - Specificities of radio

 Section 7 - Relatively radio - radioworld






 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 :

Read more about: radio and film
Secure SFTP on the planet Go FTP FREE Software