Why Technology Is to Blame for 100 Years of Radio… Probably.

This is the second in a series of articles about the technology behind radio. In this episode, amongst other things, I’ll be taking issue with the word “podcast”.

Read on to find me turning into a grumpy old codger as I winge about how this word has become an umbrella term to denigrate aspects of radio’s creative forms. It is, sad to say, the audio eqivalent of the emperor’s new clothes.

In the previous article I discussed the importance of the staff in the engineering section – and honoured their unsung enthusiasm. Part three considers microphones. Subscribe by clicking the link on this page: at the bottom if you’re on your mobile, on the right if you’re using your laptop to read this.

But right now, I’d like to start by considering more of the physical stuff in the studio, the apparatus room, the server room, the transmitter, and even the receiving gear you’re listening on.

In fact, here I’m going to be talking pretty much about anything except what goes out on the radio. I’m a broadcaster and I’ve spent all my life in front of a microphone. But there’s so much more going on in radio. Here’s a selection of my thoughts about the technology.

Firstly, imagine this. You’re the newly minted Corporation in charge of Broadcasting to Britain. You’ve probably been renting a temporary place, the top few floors of an office block down by the Thames on the seamier side of the Savoy Hotel. Walk down there today and you’ll see echoes of what I mean. Added to which, one hundred years ago the river had a particular stink all of its own. Some things have changed. Thankfully.

Anyhow, you’ve now recently built a new radio headquarters at the top of Regent Street.

It’s really swanky. It’s the national hub of your operations.

So, in the very first yearbook you celebrate the achievements of the art-deco designers, the builders, and the visionary leadership of the radio organisation itself.

This is such a special moment; historic indeed.

So much so, that you print a picture of your air conditioning system. Hmm.

It’s on p. 82 of the BBC 1932 yearbook.

That’s like me showing my visitors the central heating boiler at home, the tumble drier outlet, and the electricity meter earthing arrangements.

And then expecting them to be really captivated by it all. 

And in case you ask: no, I’m not. (Picture deleted)

But wait. My feeling – as an academic, a cultural historian, and a radio broadcaster – is that technology is actually really important.

Without air-con, for example, three hours in the studio doing a live show can be a struggle.

Trust me; I’ve done that and felt the sticky over-heated irony of playing a track from Stevie Wonder’s LP Hotter than July.

“My only friend through teenage years” © 1984 R. Taylor & Queen

Here’s two unintended consequences of technology to think about.

Firstly, dub reggae. It started in the late 1960s in Jamaican recording studios when technicians realised that they could turn up the echo and reverb to create weird spacey sounds.

And perhaps, as well, they thought that they didn’t need to bother the vocalist too much? Read about other musical mistakes here, in this brief article: https://espresso.economist.com/43aedd03a8f3006ff06dcb6ddd5df17d

It’s not what the tech gear in the Jamaican studios was designed for – but it sounded good.

Sometimes driving a reverb and a delay unit to the limit is needed in order to be able to discover new musical frontiers.

Here’s a dub version of one of my favourite reggae tracks. I’ve featured it before – as the original song. But this is in a league of its own. Ah, this takes me back to the late 1970s…

Or how about dub’s influence on British folk roots music? Here’s John Martyn – and an example of what happened when he sat down to have lunch with Lee “Scratch” Perry. Listen to how he cranks up the echo, the delays and the distortion. Ed Sheeran: no contest.

And secondly, consider that the gramophone player was designed to only go forwards. After all, who wanted to hear Bing Crosby sing backwards? (My grandparents detested Crosby and, I think, would’ve preferred if he’d just kept his mouth shut.)

Then there’s also the handful of backward-lyrics conspiracy theorists of course… https://www.ecollegetimes.com/5-famous-backwards-messages-on-records

But for a generation of radio presenters from the 1950s onwards, it was common to stop the motor at the exact start of a song, and then wind the platter back a quarter of a turn for an LP and a third of a turn for a 45rpm single (back-turns are approximate and depend on the gear your using in your on-air studio).

A few years later, in the 1970s, club DJs could “scratch” vinyl in order to create a whole new genre of music – and countless lawsuits for copyright infringement, ensuring steady work for lawyers. Sadly vinyl scratching is now pretty much a thing of the past, with the newer digital CD club units that struggle to attempt to mimic the physicality of vinyl manipulation.

All this was possible because the turntables used in radio studios as well as by many professional club DJs were often Technics SL1210 Mk2s. These were direct drive, which provided a moderately reliable fader start for the radio, could be rocked back and forth, and had pitch adjust too which helped to synch the beats in the club setting. Leaving the needle in the groove was a technological error that spawned a cultural phenomenon. Mistakes in music – it’s a genre thing…

“We can’t rewind, we’ve gone too far” © 1979 Downes/Horn/Wooley & The Buggles

Mark Coleman, an American journalist, writing in 2003 about the development of the recorded music industry, had some concerns.

He was worried about how technology had taken over the music biz, as it moved from 78rpm to 45 and then LP – and onwards to CD and now mp3 streaming.

To paraphrase Mark (Playback, p. xiii), my concern about technology’s dominance over actual content would be the same, only applied in this instance directly to radio. Now that we’re well into the 21st century it is the advances in radio technology that are threatening to overshadow the radio itself.

For example, I’d like to suggest that “podcasting” has come to be a catch-all buzzword for what we once variously called “packages”, “extended interviews”, “documentaries” and “built programmes”.

During my time from 2000 to 2018 teaching the art of radio journalism at a number of English universities I, typecasting myself as some old stubborn hack, taught “podcasting” as if it were “package-making”. Which, of course, it is.

It’s like – in the world of cookery – when one chef is instructing novices how to make “baked sausages in pancake batter” whilst another insists on telling their students that today they’ll be making toad-in-the-hole. I stand by my teaching methods.

As to “podcasting”, the only difference is the technology of dissemination. Instead of timed delivery on a broadcast transmitter the audio sits on a computer server waiting for the listener to choose to click a mouse or touch a mobile phone screen. The artistic content has become obscured by the technology.

One example of the hardware crossover, and the persistence of “legacy technology”, is the millions of FM radios embedded in mobiles – particularly in parts of Africa and Asia. In the UK you’ll have to search hard for a mobile that has a FM tuner built in.

It’s old-school technology, and of course it doesn’t use your data – which is probably why the British phone companies aren’t keen to have mobiles with “free” FM receivers included.

Having said that, Nokia still sell their original basic mobile – with a FM receiver built in… And it’s very popular outside Europe.

Technological determinism – a phrase to love and hate

Let me put some academic theory behind all this. I’m going to quote from a PhD thesis by Christine Verguson. She was formerly the film/video archivist librarian at the BBC in Leeds. I was her tutor for her doctoral research about the cultural and oral history of the Corporation in West Yorkshire. You can download a full copy of her PhD here.

https://eprints.hud.ac.uk/id/eprint/23523/

On the subjects of journalism and tech determinism, Christine writes (p. 24)…

“Some recent studies have led Henrik Örnebring to ask why technological determinism is so prevalent amongst journalists who ‘in general seem to view technology and technological development as inevitable, impersonal forces that directly cause many of the changes taking place within journalism’.”

And,

“Örnebring concludes that, while technology does not exist outside of society, modern journalism emerged from the industrial revolution and continues to be shaped by wider technological developments: ‘New technologies are adapted according to existing patterns, and these patterns are in turn shaped by a long historical process that has served to naturalize the dominance of technology over journalism.’”

(Henrik Örnebring, ‘Technology and journalism-as-labour: Historical perspectives’, Journalism, 11 (2010) 1, 62 and 63).

So, tech determinism is all about how impersonal, inanimate, stuff rules our lives. Perhaps the robots have already taken over, eh? Er, no.

Christine Verguson goes on to mention ANT. No, it’s not one half of a British light entertainment TV presentation duo. Instead, it is a way of thinking about how technology affects what humans do. For example, studies have been done about how the layout of desks and computer terminals at a nurses’ station in a hospital ward affect the work that is carried out, and the order in which it happens.

Think about it: at home do you always keep the teabags, instant coffee and sugar close to the kettle? Are the mugs on the way back from the fridge so that you can fix yourself a hot drink with the minimum of physical movement? That’s ANT for you. Actor Network Theory, to give it its full name.

In a similar manner (when we’re not working remotely during a pandemic), a radio newsroom comprises physical areas such as the bulletin newsdesk, the sports desk, the production desks, and the reporters’ hot-desks. These are more than likely all facing towards the news editor’s desk. He/she is therefore the physical centre of attention – the designated person in charge of the news flow. The layout of the furniture helps to reinforce that superiority. Christine Verguson says (p. 24),

“Using Actor Network Theory (ANT) Emma Hemmingway has explored the role technology plays in news production, focusing on the BBC regional newsroom in Nottingham. She argues that previous media analysis has failed to explore media practices: ‘Instead the umbilical chord binding process and product is severed and a separate interpretation of the product grafted on.’”

In other words, we’ve been analysing news output without considering the inputs.

You can read more in: Emma Hemmingway, 2008, Into the Newsroom: Using Actor Network Theory to investigate the construction of news, Routledge: Abingdon, Oxon). Hemmingway is herself a former BBC journo turned academic.

So, in radio journalism the development of the soundbite, the two-way, the wrap, the rant, the donut and the as-live are all results of advancements in newsgathering technologies.

Which is an excuse for a clip from the Channel 4 British TV comedy series Drop the Dead Donkey (1990-98). Watch to see how the physical surroundings create the comedy. It’s somewhat in poor taste, but it’s ANT in action, if you will.

By the way, drop your answers in the comment box below to the two spot-the-lyric quotes in this essay. Next month I’ll consider microphones…

3 thoughts on “Why Technology Is to Blame for 100 Years of Radio… Probably.

  1. All intriguing. You’ve made me rethink the podcast. And introduced me to Drop the Dead Donkey, which I knew of but had never seen…

    Like

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