Radio is a technology that has been central to the age of electronic mass media. Its trajectory of development, public acceptance, use for political and entertainment ends, influence on policy, technological manifestation, integration into daily life and routine, as well as its place within popular culture all contribute to its importance as an iconic symbol of 20th century modernism and progress. The 21st century has, arguably, not been so kind to the medium. Not simply challenged on the grounds of its ability to inform and entertain, radio has seen direct competition from internet services, podcasts and other streaming media and music delivery forms that emulate its output. However, to position radio as an old technology battling newer and more numerous media forms from the digital age is to both misunderstand digital media and radio itself. In fact, the notion of “radio itself” is incredibly problematic.
Other authors have attempted to define radio, and have variously described it as a secondary medium, an interpersonal medium, an intimate medium and even a blind medium (Crisell, 1994). However, I believe that the essentialist nature of these categorisations misrepresents radio. My central argument in Radio in the Digital Age is that this vague, essentialist misunderstanding of radio as a medium directly contributes to the difficulties experienced in its adaptation to the digital environment in which we find ourselves.
Radio is a term used to refer to very different (though related) phenomena. A radio is a piece of reception equipment that sits on our kitchen bench or in our car dashboard, allowing us to receive and listen to audio programming. Radio is a method of transmission via electromagnetic spectrum over “radio waves”. Radio is an institutional form and a type of organisation that employs staff and creates economic value for its stakeholders. Radio is a category of media content with its own characteristics, aesthetic conventions and tropes (radio drama, radio documentary, radio interview…). Radio is a series of professional practices and relationships… and so on. Generally speaking, analyses of radio tend to single out one or two of these aspects for investigation, and claim these to be “radio itself”. Or worse, they don’t distinguish and so switch between these different aspects of the medium so that (for instance) a reflection on the phenomenon of podcasting may be conflated with the development of DAB or grouped in with the digitalisation of radio studio practice, and spoken about as if these were a single process acting simply upon a single subject.
Radio in the Digital Age acknowledges this complexity, unpicks the different aspects of radio and, with a nod to McLuhan, employs a broadly Media Ecology approach to explaining the effect of technological shift on the medium. In doing so, it describes a degree of marginalisation (though not ‘death’) of broadcasting, and acknowledges ways in which radio work, radio content, radio technologies and radio culture can find a new place within a digital media environment. Importantly, this book will pay particular attention to the relationship between broadcasting and popular music, and not disproportionately prioritise speech programming nor the meanings of radio ‘texts’ as so many works on the subject appear to. Music is central to the story of radio, and that relationship is a key one that continues into the digital age.
Above all, this book is intended as a simultaneously optimistic, reflective, scholarly and pragmatic work that seeks to reveal ways in which the medium can thrive and is already flourishing, as well as draw out lessons that those who experience the digital age as a challenge can learn and act upon.
It is published by Polity Books, and was released in November 2013.