Since radio broadcasting was launched shortly after World War I, it has served two culturally different, almost paradoxical, functions in relation to its distribution. On the one hand, it turned out to be one of the more effective instruments in the nation-building process, and on the other it was from its initial years distributed on a global scale. Benedict Anderson’s concept of “imagined communities” would express the role of radio broadcasting not as a tool for national identity-shaping within a nationalist ideology, but more as a way to encircle a common feeling or a sense of “Englishness,” “Danishness,” etc. Although in public debate about the cultural role of the electronic media it is often claimed they dilute national culture, in a historical perspective it is clearly the other way round. Over the past century, radio in large part shaped a national sense of shared imaginations and frames of reference, and at the same time also maintained its position as an international medium.
Political Instrument And Disseminator Of Culture
During the 1930s radio was perceived as one of the most powerful media to influence public opinion. The Nazis described it as “the most modern, the strongest and the most revolutionary weapon which we possess in the battle against an extinct world” (Hendy 2000, 21). American, British, and other European broadcasters – public, state, and private – shared the assessment of radio as an instrument of strong political influence. The counter-propaganda from BBC foreign-language services to occupied Europe during World War II was not only an instrument of propaganda, but also served as a “secret messenger” for underground resistance groups. During the Cold War there was a further expansion of radio as a global propaganda instrument, not least from the USA and the Soviet Union, the former running stations like Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, and the latter constantly jamming western signals, but also broadcasting more than 2000 hours per week via Radio Moscow. The impact of these propagandist initiatives on the fall of the communist regimes in eastern Europe has been disputed, but in 1994 under the Clinton administration all America’s overseas broadcasting was organized according to a new International Broadcasting Act, including the veteran station Voice of America, a new service called Radio Free Asia, followed in 1998 by a pan-African service entitled Radio Democracy for Africa, and the Middle East service Radio Free Iraq (Barnard 2000, 238).
Apart from this interventionist use of radio as a political instrument, often funded directly or indirectly by governments or their intelligence agencies, you will also find services related to areas closer to the export and dissemination of cultural values and commodities. In the mid-2000s, the BBC World Service, Deutsche Welle, and Radio France Internationale were mainly serving these functions. Radio Luxembourg was the most prominent example of a truly international station without any specific national flavor, introducing the American-style format of commercial pop music radio to Europe from the 1950s onwards, serving as an open window for European youth otherwise subjected to the music and taste restrictions of the European public service monopoly institutions, most of them not deregulated until the late 1970s or 1980s.
In his study of international broadcasting, Browne (1992) lists eight goals: instrument of foreign policy, advertisement for the national culture and civic values of the mother country, a symbolic presence (for example, as a symbol of a country’s newly independent status), a force for converting beliefs (for example, on behalf of ideologically motivated regimes or religious movements), a force for coercing or intimidating people (for example, through threats of annihilation during wartime from clandestine stations), educator, entertainer, and a seller of goods and services, such as Bibles (Hendy 2000, 22).
Radio Uses In Everyday Life
But going back to the early European days of radio broadcasting, radio was international in another sense. Due to the scarcity of stations and programs, many of the early radio adapters were taking in sounds, voices, and music from places far away, because the AM signal could travel hundreds of miles, and the shortwave band even further. With the introduction of the FM band from around 1960, radio grew into a more defined position as a national medium. The FM band is limited to a range of 50 miles, but has a better hi-fi sound quality than AM, and thus was an excellent vehicle for the expanding popular music industry. With the growth of commercial radio, this national and local character was strengthened, not only because of the introduction of the FM band, but mainly because radio, compared to television, has very low entry and running costs. Regional or local stations showed themselves able to survive with relatively low advertising revenues and smaller audience shares (Hendy 2000, 23). A major change in the functions and social uses of radio at the same time was a result of the invention of the transistor. The radio set could now be moved out of the living room and be present in other rooms of the house, and it switched from a center for family attention to a companion for the individual as part of the routines of everyday life, in the garden or the car, or at the beach, to routines mainly connected to the immediate surroundings of the community, the locality, and the nation (Scannell 1996).
The New Distribution Platforms: A Revival Of International Radio?
During the late 1990s, the digital revolution reached radio broadcasting and opened up new means of production and distribution of radio, including a new opening for the international dissemination of radio (or rather, perhaps, of audio services). Three major platforms for radio distribution were now adopted, or announced as imminently available: analog broadcast radio, where the content provider still composes the program output (the well-known “flow” radio); digital audio broadcasting, where the electronic program guide offers a mixture of pull and push program deliveries and the listener is able to compose his or her own program menu during the day and combine radio output with written, supplementary information; and radio on the Internet, where the listener is able to compose different media elements from the website, often parallel “broadcasting” of the analog channels, streaming audio (music, jukebox function), supplementary written information, video clips, downloading of programs (podcasting), etc.
Radio on the Internet offers new dimensions for radio production and consumption. Here the audience for any radio station is in principle global, whether its programs or content were originally produced for a local or a national audience. On the Internet, radio stations are able to establish a worldwide presence, and the commercial potential is obvious, for example through banner ads, sales promotions of music CDs, and direct, online sale of music tracks, etc. Public service radio broadcasters often use the Internet platform to promote their noncommercial functions, especially the participatory features for “user-generated content,” e.g., chat, blogs, audio and video clips, etc. Grassroots and civic organizations have also included Internet radio both as a supplement to community activities and as a way to connect to peer organizations or movements on a global scale.
From Radio Broadcasting To Audio Distribution?
The consequences for radio of the growing diversity in digital distribution platforms is not easy to foresee. What are the contemporary technological options for digitization of audio media and what would be the consequences of the different alternative paths of development? Will the future of radio be more in traditional-style, free-to-air broadcasting or will radio turn into a medium where people have to pay directly for what they want to listen to – and see?
Ten years ago, the future of radio seemed to be rather obvious. The European digital platform, digital audio broadcasting (DAB), was – at least in Europe – considered the radio technology of the digital age, which would extend radio media into new dimensions and provide answers to all the problems of analog radio, like the lack of spectrum for new services. However, this pan-European idea of digital radio was rejected by the US and Japan almost at the same time as the Internet made its breakthrough, and already by the end of the 1990s the digital future of radio had became much more complicated. Instead of one universal digital radio approach, there were now a few rival digital radio technologies, both terrestrial and satellite, while new radio-like services through the Internet, combining audio and multimedia, were able to redeem the original promises of extending the radio experience.
As of 2007, there were only a few clear and obvious things about the future of radio. First of all, the audio medium which we know as radio would not die, although it is currently getting into a period of major transition. Second, it seemed that at least a part of the future of radio was still analog, mostly because of the huge numbers of analog receivers and the good quality and low price of analog radio operations. However, in the long run, the future of radio would be digital, but this will probably mean also multiple simultaneous platforms of digital audio delivery. Besides DAB, there were other, alternative digital technologies for audio broadcasting, like Digital Radio Mondiale (DRM) and high definition (HD) radio. In addition, digital radio was already available also in a digital television network, DVB-T (Digital Video Broadcasting – Terrestrial), while the new mobile multimedia technologies like DVB-H (digital Video Broadcasting – Handheld) and DMB (Digital Multimedia Broadcasting) would bring digital broadcast television and radio into mobile hand-held devices. On the other hand, also the Internet and mobile phone networks provided a basis for new nonbroadcast or hybrid audio media services like web streaming, podcasting, or visual radio.
The increasing number of possible radio platforms and new radio and radio-like audio and music services were severely challenging the traditional business model of commercial broadcast radio. Since the 1950s, it had been based on creating audiences for the advertisers with free and open delivery of entertainment and playlist-controlled music. Now, when audiences are becoming more and more fragmented, digital music outside of the playlists can be easily obtained and managed for personal use with rather small cost, and direct advertising is increasingly easy to avoid in digital audio consumption, commercial operators are developing different strategies for charging their audiences, i.e., users. Some people were also willing to pay for radio, as the success of US satellite radio has proven. Moreover, mobile phone manufacturers and operators are interested in these new markets (Ala-Fossi & Jauert 2007).
- Ala-Fossi, M., & Jauert, P. (2007). Nordic radio in the digital era. In U. Carlsson (ed.), Radio, TV and Internet in the Nordic countries: Meeting the challenges of new media technology. Gothenburg: Nordicom.
- Ala-Fossi, M., Jauert, P., Lax, S., & Shaw, H. (in press). DAB: The future of radio? The development of digital radio in four European countries. Media, Culture and Society.
- Barnard, S. (2000). Studying radio. London: Arnold.
- Browne, D. R. (1992). International radio broadcasting: The limits of a limitless medium. New York: Praeger.
- Hendy, D. (2000). Radio in the global age. Cambridge: Polity.
- Scannell, P. (1996). Radio, television and modern life. Oxford: Blackwell.
- Scannell, P., & Cardiff, D. (1991). A social history of British broadcasting, vol. 1: 1922 –1939. Oxford: Blackwell.