“…You really had to be there…” When you hear something amazing on the radio your natural reaction is to try and share that moment. It may be a listener winning a big prize in a phone-in on Heart, or it could be an incisive political interview with a cabinet minister. Perhaps it’s the moment your favourite team gained promotion to the Premier League.
The academic David Nye asserts that, ‘A machine’s social reality is constructed, and emerges not only through its use as a functional device, but also through its being experienced as part of many human situations which collectively define its meaning’ (Electrifying America: Social Meanings of a New Technology, 1990. The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, p. 85). Nye was thinking primarily about the industrialisation of the USA from the 1880s onwards, but radio fits into the latter part of this period. Indeed, Nye’s book considers the years 1880 to 1940. So, since radio is just one such ‘functional device’, the logical conclusion is that – to use Nye’s words – its social reality emerges through the way it’s used in a whole range of human situations.
This would suggest that the radio can be thought of as different things to different people, and that radio programmes can affect listeners in many contrasting ways according to how and when it is heard. So, the cultural history of radio is not so much an account of the growth and maturity of broadcasting organisations, but rather the story of how people have made programmes – and how listeners have tuned in to them.
Susan J. Douglas, again taking the North American example, suggests we each have ‘modes of listening’ to the wireless, and these have changed over the decades as each generation has found new ways to engage with the medium (Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination, 2004, Minneapolis, MN, University of Minnesota Press, p.8). So, for example, we ‘tinkered’ with the cat’s whisker radio using headphones; we paid attention to stories on the radio during the 1940s and 50s, whilst rock ‘n roll radio in the sixties and FM AoR stations in the 1970s became background listening of choice.
As for me: I have BBC 5 Live on my bedside radio (Wake Up to Money, followed by Nicky Campbell always a favourite), with options later in the day to listen to BBC Radio 4 if I’m having a lazy afternoon and want to relax with some drama.
In the bathroom it’s BBC Radio Leeds – for the headlines, travel and weather. In the kitchen it switches between Radio 4 and BBC Radio Leeds. It’s as if each radio receiver is locked off to one station.
Susan Douglas (p.33) puts forward three types of listening: to the news for information; to radio drama (which she suggests is dimensional listening because we create the pictures in our head); and to music radio (when the hits bring back memories for us). To that I’d add wallpaper listening, when the radio is on in the background and no one is paying particular attention. It maybe in the factory, or in a shop; or perhaps it’s at home or in the car and you’re having a conversation, reading a book or checking your ‘phone.
Again, in my own case, I even have settings carefully devised for my radio listening when I’m out on the road. In the car it’s just four pre-tuned buttons only: BBC 5 Live, BBC Radio Leeds, BBC Radio 4 and Branch FM. And then there’s the little fingers who re-tune to BBC Radio 1, or Capital when I’m not in the car – oh, how can technology determine my mood in this way?
But listening habits and ways of listening change all the time. Driving makes radio a background soundscape, with my attention fading in and out. Mornings getting breakfast and preparing for the day ahead are similar: it’s the key facts I concentrate on, leaving the rest of the show as a pleasant background. In short, each morning I need to hear from my radio the confirmation that the world has not ended overnight. Beyond that, the weather and travel news are useful.
The Classic Serial on BBC Radio 4 is another matter: that’s concentrated listening, with no other distractions – unless I drop off half way through…
Susan Douglas (pp. 22-26) makes a series of very useful observations: that radio – unlike television – can allow both inattentiveness and a depth of concentration that takes us way down into our innermost thoughts. She says, “But we can’t really understand radio unless we also focus on its distinctive address to the ears and our own interiority” (p. 25). So, a radio show is not just the audio and the transmission, but also the way it’s heard by the audience.
What makes analysis of a radio programme more complex is that each one of us listens in different circumstances. While I’m snoozing to the Afternoon Play, you’re wide awake and paying strict attention. When I’m only interested in the morning travel news, it’s the news headlines and sport that you’re waiting for. I agree with Douglas that radio shows are not ‘texts’ in the conventional sense. Instead they’re joyfully complex. A bit like Clifford Geertz’s web of cultural and social connections… How do you listen?