This is not radio…

…it’s a blog. Even this recording of me reading this blog – I reckon – isn’t radio:

(Audio Credit: Martin Cooper (c))

But out in the far reaches of the Internet (I’m not convinced it needs a capital letter) there’s a forum where the meaning of the word ‘radio’ is still being thrashed out. The debate has been going – on and off – for the best part of twenty years. And as technology’s changed, so has the nuance of the discussion.

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The radio-studies group on jiscmail.ac.uk describes itself as, ‘A forum for academics, teachers, researchers and broadcasters’. It goes on to say that, ‘Radio is a neglected medium’ and, ‘the list invites discussion on research, policy, programme making, teaching, broadcasting, audiences, access to archives, publishing, and raising the profile and status of radio.’

In May 1999 list-members debated whether ‘internet radio’ was really what could be called ‘radio’, it not being broadcast over FM, AM, short-wave or the nascent DAB.

Almost 19 years on, in March 2018, list member Janey Gordon reignited the discussion. She observed that since 1999 the internet has become ubiquitous: ‘now so common it has lost its capital I’ (and on that point, I agree). Also, audio content and technology has advanced in the past couple of decades.

The response from list-members was varied.

One said that radio has conventions – established by the likes of the BBC, and other national broadcasters around the world, where ‘the microphone represents the sights and sounds for the listener.’

Another thought that ‘radio’ should be defined by the listener: ‘Radio is whatever users perceive themselves as listening to radio’.

Yet another contributor said radio is any audio created by a person to be listened to by strangers. That might, they reckon, include podcasts, but not things like Spotify – which lacks that vital ingredient: human intervention.

So, streamed web stations which provide automated wall-to-wall music are out. Or are they?

Indeed, the very idea of podcasting has thrown up some differing views. Firstly, podcasts are on-demand and not live – which can make them seem one-to-one instead of broadcast material. And whilst the content and techniques can be similar to radio (think a five-minute package for BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour, or a 15 minute built radio programme – again, think of the BBC Radio 4 features at 09.30hrs), there is often less production control in many independently made podcasts.

According to some list-members podcasters should be excluded (they ‘often just broadcast to their own demographic, and talk to their friends in studio…’). Yet, on the other hand, does radio need to be ‘broadcast’ to lots of people at the same time; does it matter if the audience chooses when to listen (or to listen-again?).

And then again, does all this navel-gazing really get us anywhere? Yes, because we need to know what we’re analysing and writing about. To call something that’s made of metal with a long wooden handle used for digging the garden by its proper name, I need to know the physical properties of such an implement. Otherwise I’m wasting everyone’s time. And before you ask, a spade is not radio either; although the metal part could be used to enhance an aerial used to receive medium wave stations if you so wanted.

One list member, James Cridland, said: ‘Radio is a shared experience with a human connection.’ I, for one, like that idea because it identifies radio as both a social and a cultural thing. And beyond that, I’m going to suggest that there is one piece of equipment that marks out exactly what radio is.

It’s not the transmitter – since what does ‘broadcast’ mean, and what on earth is ‘wireless’ these days? I also hold that ‘radio’ can neither be defined by the broadcasters nor by audiences alone. It has to be somewhere in the middle. I therefore choose the microphone. It is through this technology that the human voice of the broadcaster is captured, processed, and transmitted. It is the link between programme maker and audience. It has remained unchanged in one hundred years, even as ‘platforms of delivery’ have altered the way radio works to get where it’s going. No, all along the microphone has remained the defining, iconic piece of technology that sums up exactly what ‘radio’ is – and always will be…

2 thoughts on “This is not radio…

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