The introduction of radio broadcasting during the 1920s released a tide of social changes, which have profoundly affected every society in the world, changes that have subsequently been amplified by television and information and communication technology. By the end of the twentieth century these electronic media had become so embedded in social, political, and economic processes that it is hard today to conceive of a world without their influence. Their defining characteristic as public media is that they provide systems for communicating simultaneously with large, geographically dispersed audiences via pathways that are immediate and capable of delivering messages live: they abolish the delay between production and reception inherent in all earlier public media. Their combined effect has been greatly to accelerate the formation and shaping of cultural consciousness within societies (Hilmes 1997). They provide mechanisms of continuous reference and comparison by which individuals perceive their relationships beyond their immediate private sphere. The few social groups yet to be reached by radio have nevertheless felt the effects of communications-driven political and economic change indirectly.
The social history of radio occupies a small proportion of the literature in comparison with film, print, television, or the Internet. The systematic study of the mass media gained momentum in the 1960s and 1970s, by which time, despite the far greater worldwide ownership of radio receivers, the social impacts of television were preoccupying the industrialized nations. Subsequently the theorization of the public sphere has been influential in attempts to discern (1) how each component of the mass media influences social change, and (2) which forces are dominant in shaping each medium: economic, political, or technological.
Radio’s social history can be traced through a number of marked stages, arising from changes that are either endogenous (i.e., internal to the radio industry and typically driven by advances in technology) or exogenous (i.e., due to alterations in external conditions of culture, economy, or politics that force change on the radio world). The manner and pace of these developments has varied from continent to continent according to relative wealth and stage of industrialization.
The facilities and institutions for systematic public broadcasting began to emerge in Europe and North America from 1922. The history of radio since then has been remarkable for the variety of uses and listening locations to which the radio receiver has been successfully adapted. Many authors have observed that the source of the medium’s adaptability and enduring social role lies in its paradoxical offer to the listener of both a highly personal choice of aural accompaniment to private life and, simultaneously, a means of participation in the shared experience of a tangible public community of concurrent listeners (e.g., Douglas 1999). Key illustrations of the significance of this personal/public engagement can be found in the field of health information: messages about personal health matters have been embedded in a variety of programming, their potency being attributed to the combined effect of preserving the anonymity of the listener, while normalizing their isolated experience.
Early Political And Economic Shaping
In its initial development radio was a point-to-point system, transmitting in Morse code and then, following the first demonstration in 1906, via the human voice. It was rapidly adopted as a means of sending messages, “one to few,” by the military and civilian emergency and other services. Although outside radio’s mass communications role, the numerous social impacts these nonpublic applications cannot be overlooked, be these via extensions to military capability or to the effectiveness of civilian rescue and policing.
The social significance of the pre-1920s era of radio lay less with either its content or the numbers of listeners, but in the sense of expectation it created in the popular imagination at the idea of what might be achievable in a world where voices could be transmitted through the ether; early electronics manufactures envisaged new business opportunities; owners of newspapers and organizers of live entertainments saw a threat to their livelihoods and responded defensively; governments realized the need for new systems of regulation to decide who would be allowed to communicate what and to whom. The first decision to fundamentally shape radio for the twentieth century was that, for the general public, it would be a one-way medium with government agencies licensing companies or consortia to transmit on given frequencies. The manufacturers built receivers accordingly. The second pivotal decision, which has shaped the subsequent development of all broadcasting, was to determine how to fund radio services. European nations favored a public service model in which a national broadcast network would be funded from the public purse or, as in the case of the BBC in the UK, from an annual license fee attached to the ownership of a radio receiver; while America opted for a commercial model in which privately owned broadcasters fund their competing services through on-air advertising.
Potency Of Radio Messages
In these parallel models, from the late 1920s and into the 1930s, the mains-powered “wireless” found its place at the heart of the domestic living space of an increasing proportion of households across North America, Europe, New Zealand, and Australia. In the period leading up to 1939 further aspects of radio’s position in the public sphere were established: the different funding models placed different emphasis on the proportions of information, entertainment, and education they broadcast, with the imperatives of winning advertising inclining the commercial model toward entertainment while the underpinning ideology of the public service model attached higher importance to radio’s educational role; transmission was often confined to a particular limited number of hours in the day; radio’s close relationship with the commercial recording industry was established as playing their recorded products on air began to drive sales – of gramophone discs and players as well as radios.
During the lead-up to World War II, as radio ownership continued to increase, its importance as a potent propaganda tool became sharply evident. The imperial nations of the day invested in increasingly powerful transmission technologies in order to reach their colonies and allies overseas. Significantly, radio was then the only mass medium able to reach pre-literate audiences, a fact that clearly framed the spread of state-sponsored “external” radio services from the 1930s onwards and, more recently, UNESCO’s many local radio development projects.
Radio broadcasting proved to be of critical importance to both sides during World War II and of greater pervasive and persuasive influence on public opinion than the press. Among the complex of factors involved were: the rapid provision of news perceived as authoritative and up to date, including occasional “as live” reports from the front line using early mobile recording equipment; recognition by political leaders that talking “direct to the nation” had real impact on morale; and recognition also of the power of musical, comic, and dramatic entertainment to foster a sense of belonging and unity among a national audience. While radio has not occupied quite such a singular role in subsequent national crises in western nations, its power to influence the collective actions of listeners continues to be evident, for example through the catalytic role attributed to particular radio broadcasters in fomenting the Rwandan genocide of 1994 (Kellow & Steeves 1998) or the overthrow of the Milosevic dictatorship in Yugoslavia in 2000 (Collin 2004).
Shifting Listening Patterns Post-World War Ii
During the 1950s endogenous and exogenous factors forced a radical shift in radio’s position in listeners’ lives, which enabled it to become a major facilitator of the processes of post-World War II political democratization and social change in the west. The key technological innovation was the mass manufacture of transistors, which made the new receivers both portable and cheap to buy. For rural and less developed societies with little or no access to mains electricity the availability of affordable battery-powered radios created a surge in radio listening and in many such parts of the world it remains the dominant mass medium. With portability the choice of station became a personal matter: radio could now go with the individual listener, including – importantly – in the car; as a direct consequence the demand for ever more culturally and demographically differentiated stations grew. The major exogenous co-factors were closely associated: first, the postwar economic boom brought with it the rapid rise in disposable income in the industrialized nations, which in its turn transformed the economic and cultural environment into which radio stations broadcast; second, television began rapidly to supplant the wireless as the centerpiece of the domestic living space. A significant outcome of this shift was that the fortunes of the radio industry become ever more closely entwined with those of the record industry such that today the overwhelming majority of total radio output around the world is of recorded popular music, catering to individuated tastes. Radio’s ability to reach across cultural boundaries has been largely responsible for the mixing of musical traditions that have given rise to the proliferation of popular music genres and cultures, from the evolution of rock ’n’ roll in the southern USA onwards.
The closeness of the radio station’s relationship to its listeners, however, has been built through talk (Scannell 1996). The words and voices of presenters and contributors define the appeal to audiences both according to social grouping (by class, age, language, etc.) and identification with the locality.
The arrival of truly portable tape recorders in the 1940s enabled the voices of “ordinary people” to be heard on the radio, expressing opinion and giving glimpses directly into their ways of life: they could be recorded at their places of work, on the streets, and in their homes as components of news reports or as the subjects of documentary exploration. From the late 1960s the radio phone-in emerged as a yet more immediate means of putting listeners on air, paving the way for the “talk radio” genre. Talk radio stations themselves typically describe the verbal sparring between hosts and contributors as entertainment, while critics tend to regard their output as disproportionately influential on public opinion, especially during election campaigns (Hendy 2000).
Toward the end of the twentieth century claims of both music and speech-oriented stations to significant interactivity between presenter and listener became key markers in their social raison d’être: for stations funded by government or license fee, interactivity has become emblematic of their public service; for commercial stations it is key to nurturing the listener identification and loyalty that they sell to advertisers; for “third sector” stations it is central to their representative appeal to supporters and potential donors. It remains to be seen how the twentieth-century constructs of collective identification and station loyalty will fare in the face of the post-1990s proliferation of digital platforms through which radio can now be heard and the accompanying processes of deregulation.
- Briggs, A., & Burke, P. (2002). A social history of the media: From Gutenberg to the Internet. Cambridge: Polity, pp. 152–163, 216–233.
- Collin, M. (2004). This is Serbia calling: Rock ’n’ roll radio and Belgrade’s underground resistance. London: Serpent’s Tail.
- Douglas, S. J. (1999). The zen of listening. In Listening in: Radio and the American imagination. New York: Times Books.
- Habermas, J. (1989). The structural transformation of the public sphere. Cambridge: Polity.
- Hendy, D. (2000). Culture. In Radio in the global age. Cambridge: Polity.
- Hilmes, M. (1997). The nation’s voice. In Radio voices: American broadcasting 1922–1952. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
- Kellow, C. L., & Steeves, H. L. (1998). The role of Radio in the Rwandan genocide. Journal of Communication, 48(3), 107–128.
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