Beck, Alan, 'You've Got to Hide Your Love away: Gay Radio, Past and Present', chapter 8 in Crisell, Andrew, ed., More Than A Music Box. Radio Cultures and Communities in a Multi-Media World, 2004, Oxford: Berghahn Books

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This chapter is reprinted in Radio : Critical Concepts in Media and Cultural Studies, 3 vols, ed. Crisell, Andrew, Routledge, 2009

Excerpt 1


As a closeted pop fan in the mid-Sixties - an age when gay men were still imprisoned - my loneliness was compounded by the relentless boy meets girl message of every lyric of every song I ever heard or ever bought. The message of 'You've got to hide your love away' reflected my own terrified paranoia.
Tom Robinson introducing the Sony-award winning 'You've Got To Hide Your Love Away', a radio feature on B.B.C. GLR (Greater London Radio) 26 December 1996

What draws together the following instances of 'gay' radio?: Leonard, Lord Forth in one of the first wireless plays broadcast from London's 2LO station in 1923 ('Five Birds in a Cage'), the songs of 1930s-1940s bisexual crooner 'Hutch', the wartime comedy series ITMA, Julian and Sandy on the comedy 'Round the Horne' (1965-1970), 'The Killing of Sister George' (stage play in 1965, film in 1968 and radio play in 1978), singer David Bowie, the latest phone-in on lesbian and gay (l/g) partnership rights, a new out-gay DJ on B.B.C. Radio 1, and the Triangle Radio Network - 'America's only Gay Radio network on the Internet'. What defines 'homosexual' 'gay' or 'queer' radio through the decades? Is it because it is heard as such by the gay listener? Is it because the gay listener's pleasure is paramount? What 'gay listener' and 'lesbian listener'? And is radio gay because of the performer? Or gossip? Queer is today's inclusive academic term which resists the either-or of gay/lesbian. We can also talk of radio's 'homosexual' (pre-1960s liberation) period. It was a time of sexual censorship also of revealing and concealing, when sexuality could be uncategorisable.

As well as giving some account of B.B.C. l/g radio, this chapter will consider the problems of studying gay radio. Not the least of these is the disappearance of 'ghetto' radio (by and for a l/g audience) from the B.B.C. 'Ghetto' has gone international by moving onto the Internet - today's technological solution for those who can afford it. The Internet offers cheap niche broadcasting, narrow-casting to a community however dispersed, the one-to-many that defines radio, pioneering do-it-yourself and marketing. Is this the solution?

Overall, radio with a g/l content falls into the following categories: (1) 'ghetto' programmes run for a gay audience, (2) popular music, (3) mainstream discussion-tied-to-phone-in on an issue, (4) magazine programmes such as 'Gay and Lesbian London' and now to be found on the Internet, (5) personality interviews, (6) radio drama, (7) radio comedy, (8) targeted commercials, (9) news items, packages and features, and (10) g/l-operated stations, and now on the Internet. This chapter cannot attempt an international history of l/g radio, especially in the USA (Capsuto 2000, Johnson and Keith 2001), nor can it survey popular music, the great bulk of l/g programming. Radio is fleeting entertainment and often leaves not much behind for the researcher. It can be a matter of luck if recordings exist and are in accessible archives. But radio drama is a promising area because of the extraordinary B.B.C. script collection surviving in Caversham; and the choice of stage plays adapted for broadcast also provides a site, as does the tradition of UK theatre, for the 'formation of dissident sexual identities' (Sinfield 2000, p.1).

A first need in research is to parallel the story of l/g rights, from hostility and suppression of homoerotic material until the 1960s and to today. Euro-American society heavily penalized sodomy - nonprocreative sexual acts. This was countered by gay liberation - the Stonewall Riot in New York in 1969 marks a key date while the quote above from Tom Robinson is evocative - and reforming legislation. Then there are the twenty years of HIV/AIDS, and queers and post-queers, and possibly into the mainstream. (See Jeffrey-Poulter 1991, Weeks 1989 and 1991, and Watney 2000.) So it is from homosexuals to post-closet gays and lesbians, and to queers and mainstreaming. Add to this the B.B.C.'s ways of regulation, right back to the card handed to wireless artists in 1925 ('No gags on Scotsmen, Welshmen, Clergymen, Drink, or Medical matters.'). There is a comparison here with British theatre censorship, up to the abolition of the Lord Chamberlain in 1968 (de Jongh 1992).

The first instance of gay radio cited above is my particular response, my gay response, to the satirised Leonard, Lord Forth in Gertrude Jennings' 'Five Birds in a Cage'. This vivacious 35-minute satire was broadcast on 29 November 1923 from London's 2LO (Savoy Hill), adapted from the 1915 stage play. (A full analysis is in Beck 2000.) The 'Five Birds' are characters from the top and bottom layers of society, and the 'Cage' is a stalled Underground lift. Leonard is constantly attacked by the sexually predatory Susan, Duchess of Wiltshire:

So useless. So very, very useless. You're nothing but a shop window. You have a straight nose, you have a manner, and - well - you look intelligent, but what use are you? If I had married you how ashamed I should have felt! What a failure as a husband! Worse than my first!

Leonard is not just emasculated but as good as outed. While the Duchess in the 'Cage' makes advances to bricklayer Bert, Leonard is only apologetically genial to Nelly, a millener's assistant. Leonard may have been played 'straight', and as there is no recording, we will never know. This 'well-dressed, good-looking man', as the script describes him, is a bumbling and finally good-hearted aesthete. For me, the centre of his characterisation is that he is a privileged pre-World War 1 homosexual and now on 1920s wireless, when it was chic to be 'queer' for some (Woods 1998, p.5). This is in at the birth of the B.B.C. and under its notoriously Calvinist general-manager, John Reith. It also shows the hurdles of analysing radio in its 'homosexual' decades, before gay liberation. Evidence is fragmentary. But it can be enough to unsettle the listener's decoding of homo/heterosexuality.

Dealing with objections by many heterosexually identified critics to Shakespeare being 'gay', Gregory Woods argues that what matters is if the sonnets are amenable to being read by a gay reader as such. The 'reader's pleasure is paramount … a potential gay text is a gay text' (Woods 1998, p.9). Of course Woods also recognises the dangers of a 'trans-historical and cross-cultural unifying definition of gay culture' and the need for careful theorising. There is no universal gay or lesbian viewer/reader/listener. (See Sinfield 2000, p.347.)

Another definition of gay is through performers. In that same 1923, one of the first wireless actors in Savoy Hill was Ernest Thesiger (1879-1961), 'witty, skeletal … by far the most eccentric gay actor around in the 1930s and 1940s' (Bourne 1996, p.17). He became famous as the Dauphin in Bernard Shaw's 'St. Joan' in 1923, and as Dr Praetorius in the American film, 'The Bride of Frankenstein' (1935), for his book, Adventures in Embroidery (Howes 1993, pp. 838-9), and as sewing companion to Queen Alexandra. Accounts of the cultural contribution of artists such as John Gielgud (brother of Val who was to be so influential as B.B.C. director of drama from 1929 to 1963), Robert Eddington, Gwen Frangçon Davies, and composers of the range of the Pet Shop Boys, Benjamin Britten, Aaron Copland and Hans Werner Henze would not be complete without their radio broadcasts and commissions. (See Queer Noises (Gill 1995).)


....... the next advance is to higher-order theorising. Since the pleasure of the gay listener has already been established above as a principle, though more of that will be explored below, the need is to extend radio reception theory to where, frankly, it has not yet reached. What of pleasure, desire, the body, shifting identities, cyber communities? How does radio seek to generate bodily pleasure? Can radio audience studies reach to queer uses of radio, beyond the urban and to those who are not out (public)? Above all, can the study of queer radio hitch its wagon to queer theory?

The answer is yes, but there are worries. A main problem is that so much queer theory in film is linked to the visual. An example is the male 'gaze' and associated psychoanalytic theory. (There is not space here for definitions and controversy over 'gaze' theory. See Chandler's useful Internet links.) The same worry applies to appropriating any visualist theory.

The greatest contribution of the 'gaze' to film studies is that it has enabled discussion of the gendered construction of narrative and gendered positioning. So, if the 'gaze' is about oppressive ways of seeing, are there oppressive and analogous ways of radio listening? These would be of use to queer radio theory. The answer is probably not, from this theoretical angle anyway, and mainly because the 'gaze' is an unacceptable first principle, or point of deduction, for radio. It is visualist and there is no getting around that.

Let me chase radio 'gaze' theory through to its unacceptable conclusion for a moment and also recognising that for some film theorists, the 'gaze' master-theory has been discredited anyway. I have to follow a rather dense argument here. If an attempt were made to transpose a Laura Mulvey-de Lauretis-Phelan (see Chandler) type of 'gaze theory' to radio's language, for example - and that has not been ventured - then 'radio gaze theory' would impose itself even more severely on radio theory and text analysis. I mean even more severely than in film. Suppose radio is to follow film along the same Lacanian path. Then language itself, being phallocentric, could be argued to coerce a radio listener identification, with a position of male antagonism towards women. Mulvey's male looking and female 'to-be-looked-at-ness' of film would become radio's male hearing (the constructed and coerced radio listener - male or female) and female 'to-be-heard-of-ness' on radio. That is, either female speaking in phallocentric language or female silence. This will not do. It is unconstrained master-theory association, in linking 'gaze' with radio. Frankly, if one starts from a proposition which is a contradiction in itself, anything can be deduced and there is no chance for coherence in argument. 'Gaze' theory just will not do for radio. The foundations for the gendered constructions of radio must be sought elsewhere. For queer radio studies, the search may well be in the pleasure of ear-to-brain contact, in the erotically ambivalent and in what suggests sexual deviance. Gesture, eye contact and dress are 'absent' and the radio display is one of voice, but only primarily. There is a contradiction. Voice reveals a male/female binary and is this irreducible? Does the radio voice contradict the possible deceptions of drag?

Queer studies is often engaged deconstruction and a search for possible resistances with consequent empowerment, and 'a sustained political edge' but with 'huge problems of methodology' (Stacey 1996, p.389). Interestingly, queer radio research hits against what is presently thinkable and unthinkable in radio studies itself. It is a hint of a broader struggle over how to deal with radio's meaning, with the huge and dispersed output of broadcasting and multiple uses of radio, and with the significance or insignificance of radio style and aesthetics.

'You've Got To Hide Your Love Away' (26 December 1996), referred to at the top of this chapter, was a pinnacle of g/l radio broadcasting in the UK. Starring the bisexual pop star Tom Robinson, best known for his 1976 hit, 'Glad To Be Gay', this was a witty guide to gay songs from the 1920s onwards. It won the top UK Sony Award for Robinson and for producer Matthew Linfoot. Here was confident mainstream entertainment, educational too and an hour in length. Music has long been an activating force in l/g culture. But since this programme, there have been surprising changes and disappearances. Tom Robinson was broadcast on B.B.C. London, on G.L.R.'s weekly 'Gay and Lesbian London', which started in March 1993. This was a weekly community programme, sophisticated entertainment, and a hit due to its outstanding and charming presenter, Linfoot. It was axed in 2000 and G.L.R. (Greater London Radio) itself became London Live. Also, B.B.C. Radio 5 dropped its regular 'Out This Week', a more serious magazine half-hour, broadcast nationally from February 1993 to March 1999 (a total of some 150 programmes).

There is now no regular g/l-focused programming on UK radio outside some community station output (as Greater Manchester Radio's 'Gaytalk'), an odd RSL (restricted service licence for a month and a 2-mile radius), and some activity for Pride (Mardi Gras) across summer, and International AIDS Day on 1 December. It has been out from 'ghetto' programming and into the mainstream, and the millennium marks a neat watershed. There is no loss of visibility or diversity, especially on the music scene. (Wahid Ali has won a licence for a future digital London station, 'Purple FM', for dance music.) And then there is television. Crucially, gays and lesbians have discovered their niches on Internet radio too, an impressive international network.

On radio, g/l political and cultural issues are handled routinely, and sexual identification has entered what the media labels lifestyle. The Nicky Campbell B.B.C. R5 phone-in coinciding with London's Mardi Gras is now typical (29 June 2001, 9-10 am). In the studio were gay spokesmen Terry Sanderson (journalist) and Michael Brown (former Tory MP). Only two anti-gay callers were put through. When Paul in Bury asked 'How many gay people are there in Bangladesh?', presenter Nicky used a put-down silence, and then said 'We're just counting'. The much-admired Campbell was following B.B.C. Producer Guidelines in 'taste and decency' where sexual orientation is not to be a vehicle for prejudice. 'It is not the rules that have changed, so much as people's confidence', explains Victoria Stewart, Executive Producer on Radio 4, and previously a skilled co-presenter on 'Gay and Lesbian London'.

This reflects l/g politics in the UK - first the 'suffragette' period of claiming rights, identifying and then celebrating a sub-culture (especially 1970s-1990s), and on to the rise of the pink pound, age-of-consent at 16, and diversity. On the other hand, some anti-gay legislation such as Section 28, the 'Bullies' Charter', still remains, along with religious bigotry. There are fresh alarms about the rise of HIV infection among young gay men and generally, about risky behaviour.

UK campaigning issues - e.g. partnership and family rights - are now staider. Along with the mainstreaming and domestication of l/g politics, the zest and outrage of the 'suffragette' decades have passed away from UK radio. The camp has gone too, except from comedy, though it has exponentially increased on British television. Most g/l spokespeople speak like bureaucrats, which in fact, those who are funded are. For example, diversity and sexual orientation counselling in the workplace has substantially replaced HIV/AIDS awareness as an 'industry'. While g/l programmes lost out by the millennium, so also did most ethnic community programming (Jewish, Asian, black). Instead came the management principles of flow (no more half-hour segments for B.B.C. R5 and local stations), integration (management talked of de-ghettoization) and personality presenters. The 'straightening' of gay politics and culture means that l/gs only get the microphone when they are a problem (gay marriage?) or an issue (Mark Ravenhill's play 'Shopping and Fucking'). The dialogue is only straight-to-gay, l/gs interrogated by a 'taste and decency' presenter. Gone is the gay-to-gay chat, the camp, the transgressive. A sanitized return to radio's 'homosexual' period? Queer radio may have translated itself to the Internet but has it lost its sense of place?


Finally, there is another masterpiece. Derek Jarman's 'Blue' (1993) is a 75-minute film - famously, cinema audiences are faced with nothing on the screen but monochrome blue, also a simulcast television and radio broadcast, and a CD. It will be discussed as a radio drama and audio work here. Jarman, filmmaker, painter and poet, died of AIDS in 1994 and 'Blue' combined a diary of his advancing blindness with stories and allegories around 'blue'. Typical of his integrity as an artist, Jarman refused the hero role and countered AIDS-correctness of this second decade of the pandemic: 'I shall not win the battle against the virus in spite of the slogans like 'Living with AIDS'. The virus was appropriated by the well so, we have to live with AIDS while they spread the quilt for the moths of Ithaca across the wine dark sea.' The specificities of his AIDS-related illnesses are almost overwhelming. But the 'blueness' of this invisible/blind audio piece resists determinacy. Author and listeners are blind together, and Jarman is both present and absent, and finally absented by his death. Ultimately, he faces the 'death beyond death' (to use the French historian Michelin's phrase), the fate of having memory and life extinguished and eternally forgotten. But 'Blue' counters that and offers a new cultural script for dying. Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter are the best known among radio dramatists for linking the listening experience with a blind character. 'Blue' takes this further, as listening, knowing and not-seeing lead the audience through a transcendent experience.

So to end, here are some more puzzles. From the 'homosexual' phase of radio, we look, particularly in music, drama and comedy, for fragmented vocal gestures of irony and exaggeration. These latter conceal and compensate for what cannot be named. Early homosexual identifications do not match with post-closet identities. While today, B.B.C. radio comedy can even make fun of the fear that homosexuality might go undetected. And for the future? More work needs to be done on how radio makes listeners susceptible to queer pleasures and fantasies, but also on how the aural delimits all sexualities. And moving on from restricted, routine-like discussion of stereotypes, how does one identify or prove sexuality on radio? Need gay radio confine itself to positive or accurate images? Is there a gay radio aesthetic? Is coming out to stay the dominating topic, no matter what the pretext? Across news, phone-ins and music - think of rap - there is still the tension between free speech and hate speech. But what of the easy assumption that l/g representation must of itself be progressive? Listing is key to research but so also is higher-order theorising.

There is the loss of 'ghetto' programmes on the B.B.C. to balance against the growth of gay radio on the Internet. B.B.C. producer guidelines ('taste and decency') may seek to protect l/gs against misrepresentation. But the resulting blandness fails to recognise that queerness is an enigma and a disruption, and that it functions as such. Internet gay radio is predominantly American. Does that propagate a generalised (i.e. imperialistic) gay paradigm of the emancipated and commodified, from coming out to the pink dollar? Queer sensibility transmits to listeners all the more questioningly and singularly in the best of music, radio drama and comedy. Derek Jarman, facing his blindness in 'Blue', asked his listeners: 'If I lose half my sight will my vision be halved?'.


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