The BBC century: what’s this thing called Radio?…

This article consists of some personal collections and recollections about radio broadcasting and journalism history.

There is here a degree of nostalgia, some sarcasm, and a visual representation of the decay of new technological ideas.

There is also sadness at recent announcements in the Autumn of 2022 about severe cutbacks to programming on the 39 BBC Local Radio stations.

It is upsetting to see a sector that I’ve spent so many happy, creative, years working in being dismantled. Mind you, it was always thus. I recall warnings of “salami slicing” back as far as the mid-1980s. My thoughts and prayers are with colleagues who now face a very uncertain time and are in fear for their very jobs.

As ever, this monthly piece of writing is a “personal collection”. Or perhaps in order to sound trendy these days that should say “curated collection”?

But first, a return – with a visual twist – to what has become a running topic. (Is that a running sore or a persistent meme? You decide, and take your pick.) It’s the subject of podcasting. I’ve consistently argued that this is old radio technologies dressed up in new clothes. Read this:

I think podcasts are based on the bread and butter of radio broadcasting: the bits we’ve been doing quietly for ages without trying to flog them with pastel logos and three-word shouty titles.

Podcasts are nothing more than features, short-form documentaries, packages, wraps, and not forgetting good-old head-to-head interviews and round-table discussions (that’s docos, ints and discos in the biz).

So, I ask again: why the buzz about the word “podcast”? Apart, of course, from the fact that you can listen to them again and again when you want.

But I hear you agreeing with me: that “listen again” thing spoils the fun of sitting down and listening to “linear” radio and getting surprised and delighted by a bit of serendipity.

You’d never get that if all you listened to was “true crime” podcasts. The algorithms in the subscriber feeds would keep dishing up more of the same or “similar/you may also like/just for you” nonsense that A.I. produces.

So, I was delighted to stumble across a real-life pictorial representation of my podcast concerns, about the term being old tech dressed up in a veneer of modernity masquerading as “trendy new radio”.

Look carefully to the paper slowly peeling off on the top right-hand side in this photo I took recently.

So, here it is. A billboard advert for GlobalPlayer. The site is on the way in to one of West Yorkshire’s major cities. It’s stuck between a railway line and a former petrol station. There’s a new drive-in Starbucks recently opened across the road. If you put the two Chris’s into a search engine you may get a clue as to which city this is.

To me, this billboard is the graphical retelling of the story of what happens when new technology begins to grow old.

It is as if this represents the emperor’s new clothes… just as I’ve previously predicted. And I may add at this point, à propos of the BBC’s plans to cut back Local Radio programming, the steady change to commercial local radio in Britain.

What from 1973 until the early 1990s was firmly established as Independent Local Radio has now, in the 2020s, evolved to be brands that are shorn of a FM frequency in their station logos to become syndicated, regional and national even.

Only the techno trickery of split jingles/adverts retains any veneer of geographic locality. Tony Stoller, a former boss of the regulator the Radio Authority and now an academic, has a lot to say about this in his book, Sounds of Your Life: A History of Independent Radio in the UK.

But to return to the discussion of what is podcasting… I note, from some recent academic reading I’ve been doing, that even the experts can appear to disagree.

A massive tome was published in the early summer of 2022 called The Routledge Companion to Radio and Podcast Studies. It’s almost five hundred pages, with a price to make you gasp in these straitened times.

You see, even in the title of this collection of essays I don’t think the editors are quite sure if podcasting and radio are the same thing.

For example, in chapter 1 Michele Hilmes (right) declares both are pretty much the same: they’re all forms of radio – albeit that podcasts can offer a slightly more intimate listening experience. Read her full article in order to follow her argument on this one. It’s an interesting point she makes.

However, Richard Berry – in chapter 40 (phew!) starts by saying they’re not the same. Read his first paragraph in this photo (left), which says:

“Let’s be clear from the start. A podcast is not a synonym for a radio programme, and whilst podcasting is an activity of the radio industry, it is not merely an extension of it.”

(c) Martin Cooper

Which all makes me think about where exactly radio is heading in this new technological dawn.

One fear I have is that the word “radio” may be consigned to referring to the use of mobile phones, drones, and walkie-talkies (if the latter is still even a thing). And despite all that, isn’t everything becoming wireless anyway instead? Eh?

Here’s an example of what is, I think, the gradual ignoring of radio. In an open-source e-book published earlier in 2022 from Goldsmiths, part of the University of London, radio is mentioned in passing many times. But – and worryingly – it does not appear in the contents page list of chapter titles.

You can download the book here. There’s also a print version available to buy if you prefer the feel of paper and print against your fingers.

The image on the right is the blurb on the back cover. You may need to enlarge it to read properly. It says the book,

“investigates the future of media industries and technologies (journalism, TV, film, photography, radio, publishing, VR, social media), while exploring how media shape our present and future lives.”

I’d like to take issue with the mention of radio in that list. I’m not convinced any of the essays directly address what could – or might – happen to what we currently know as “radio”.

The authors, quite rightly, ask whether “the future of media is to be driven by ideas or by platforms?”

And they do each go into some detail about print, TV, online and social media. Radio, however, is not given an equal prominence.

Overall, many of the essays here discuss “the media” as an agglomeration rather than as a complex sum of individual platforms, broadcast options, or even as the singular, discrete, often contradicting and conflicting parts.

For example, I would argue that generalising about “the media” is to miss the essential distinctions within the outputs in the field.

Take community radio. The essays mention community newspapers and community video projects, but not the audio version – of which there are currently more than 200 OFCOM-licenced stations in the UK.

So, community radio – by its very nature – is still a form of “media” but has little in common with, say, the commercial outputs of Rupert Murdoch’s interests.

With the lack of a definite discussion about radio as a broadcast platform therefore, the future appears to be ‘audio’. I’m not sure how I feel about that…

And if we’re talking about the demise of local radio as we currently know it, there’s a pertinent quote from one of the writers, David Morley, who discusses how a post-TV future may be constructed. He opens his essay with the line from Joey in the US sitcom Friends who asks, “But what does your furniture point at?” when he meets a girl who says she doesn’t have a TV set in her apartment.

This is a great joke, and unintentionally refers to the academic heuristic of Actor Network Theory: how the physical can determine our cultural habits and vice-versa. I’ve written about these things before: here and here, and talked about how my work is driven by thinking about stuff – and things (dontcha just love it when a boffin uses technical terms like these…)

The book, The Future of Media, is also worth reading for its considerations of matters of gender and race, which are contemporary issues of concern and debate in society, politics, and the media industries today.

In chapters 12 and 13 the authors discuss location-based audio on demand and how it can be triggered by digital tags. So, they give the example of a play set on a particular bus… that you can only hear by going on the bus yourself. Scenes in the drama start on your mobile phone as the vehicle passes key locations and RFID tags are triggered (you’ll need to read the book to find out). I conclude that there’s limited scope for such technical wonders: you’d have to travel it to hear it. Surely radio is about letting your mind take you places you’ve never been to by evoking words and soundscapes.

But it does remind me of an event at the esteemed Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival in 2007. I was working at the Uni at the time. There was a “music” event which involved “the audience” putting on special headphones and then walking around town listening to the RFs emitted from bank cash machines and traffic lights. Read this review by the Daily Telegraph‘s Ivan Hewett on the link here. (Warning: you may hit a paywall. Let me know.)

Both examples – for me – are audio; I’m not sure if either are respectively drama or music.

They’re definitely not radio in the established broadcast sense that I understand and love.

Indeed, the demise of radio has long been predicted. In 1994 an edited collection of essays was published called “Radio – The Forgotten Medium“. It’s not. Yet. But the next couple of years will be tough.

On the other side of this apparent slide away from traditional linear radio is a survey in October 2022 that suggests radio is still a trusted medium… across Europe (including here in the UK). That’s according to pollster Eurobarometer in work paid for by the European Commission. That suggests someone is still listening to what we put out.

And another thing that gives me hope is to look further beyond Britain’s shores. Indeed, it’s my feeling that radio is engaged with in different cultural contexts and manners in many other countries.

For example, I know Brazil well. At the time of writing, it is a place beset with its own political conundrums. But some years ago I was immediately struck by the use of radio in one city, Porto Velho. It’s the state capital of Rondônia.

It has strong historical links to the UK. A steam railway was built to get rubber from the Amazon forest out for export onto the world’s markets. Coal from Wales was taken there so that the trains could run. Read H. M. Tomlinson’s The Sea and the Jungle for his own account of a journey 110 years ago. And watch this short video I filmed on my first research trip.

The irony is that it was British botanists who took rubber tree seeds back to Kew Gardens and then created the rubber plantations of Southeast Asia. Within four years of the railway opening the Brazilian rubber trade collapsed and the line was, to all intents and purposes, redundant. It strugged on for the next few decades carrying mostly smugglers, missionaries and locals. You can read about it in my book, Brazilian Railway Culture.

Anyway, these days Porto Velho (the name is ironic: it translates as “old port”; in fact it’s neither old, nor really a port) is home to gold prospectors, illegal loggers and ranchers.

I recall a conversation with a politician in his kitchen once. As I was sitting down I saw out of the corner of my eye that his bodyguard had removed a pistol from his jacket inside pocket and had laid it carefully on the worktop next to him. Worrying.

The main shopping street is Avenida 7 de Setembro. Every shop, almost, hangs loudspeakers outside their doors – carrying a cacophony of radio noises across the pavement and out into the road. It’s either a joy to hear, or a public nuisance.

It depends on your view, but in the humid tropical heat of the mid-morning there’s nothing more inviting than spending 20 minutes inside an air-conditioned shop. I’d have no intention of buying, just an opportunity to relish the cool air inside. Ok, so maybe I’ll take that pencil. I thank you.

Public listening to radio still happens today, according to a Christian charity involved in healthcare and media work called Reach Beyond, which I actively support.

It used to be known as HCJB and has a long tradition of radio broadcasting: starting in Ecuador over 90 years ago. Today it has a large transmitter site in Western Australia, sending signals across to much of Southeast Asia, as well as other projects across the world’s continents.

This article from one of the organisation’s recent magazines shows that loudspeakers can still be used in places where not everyone has their own radio.

Cultural engagement with the radio is the subject of my new book, Radio’s Legacy in Popular Culture.

And, by the way, some good news. It’s now available to pre-order in paperback here.

The book featured recently in the in-house magazine of the National Union of Journalists – of which I am a member. My colleague, Tim Lezard gave the book a quick mention.

And I was also the guest-of-the-week on Matt’s lunchtime show on Revival FM, a community station based in Cumbernauld in Scotland:

If you want to read the first chapter of my book – about how listening to the radio has inspired hundreds of writers, pop stars, film makers and artists – it’s freely available here:

And finally, in order to keep informed about recent media developments I recommend listening to a podcast. Roger Bolton – formerly of the Radio 4 show Feedback – has now started his own. It’s called Beeb Watch… Here’s a link to the October 2022 edition:

Am I ready to recant all I have previously said about podcasts? Stay tuned. Click the “Subscribe” button to receive these monthly articles direct to your inbox. And thank you for your support.

By the way, take a look at the dateline at the top of this article. One hundred years ago to the day it all started on-air at the Beeb…

One thought on “The BBC century: what’s this thing called Radio?…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s