- Radio’s Cultural Turns
In the late 1970s, one of the BBC’s regular presenters, Tom Vernon, declared that enough was enough. Radio folk like him were simply spending too much time in windowless studios, handling words and ideas on little pieces of magnetic tapelike processors of “substitute reality,” as he put it. If there really was “a world out there you can touch” it was surely his—and his fellow broadcasters’—job to reach [End Page 130] out and touch it. Vernon’s response was to abandon the Corporation’s central London bunker, Broadcasting House, and take his (generously sized) body out on the road. The result was an acclaimed series for BBC Radio 4 called Fat Man on a Bicycle, a piece of radio vérité woven from a succession of apparently inconsequential encounters with ordinary people. The series also attempted what Vernon’s line-manager called the basic goal of all good programs on her network: “an understanding of the human predicament.”1
Vernon’s tale brings the horrible shock of recognition to anyone studying radio. Our world, like his, is often portrayed as absurdly inward-looking, an academic discipline that enjoys its own company rather too much and desperately needs to get out more, meet the neighbors, perhaps go on a few trips abroad. Take the recent critique from Kathy Battles of Oakland University. Too often, she warns, we rely on a suspiciously settled narrative for the radio medium, one where it has been shaped almost entirely by those established “institutions” of broadcasting, national networks such as NBC or the BBC. The result? Myopic neglect of the immense local variation in program making and the extraordinary diversity in listening practices. Worse, with radio’s grandest institutions treated as “fixed objects,” there has been an overemphasis on stability instead of the constantly changing and infinitely complex “web of relationships” that lies behind every broadcasting act. There is, she implies, some catching up to do with the broader academic worlds in which we move.2
If Battles is right, we should indeed be worried. After all, as Michele Hilmes suggests, it would be absurdly parochial to ignore how the Internet, satellite technology, and digitization more generally are all reorientating radio away from its national or local preoccupations and toward something truly transnational in nature.3 Further, as the British academic James Curran points out, a “medium-centric” discipline invariably gives rise to fractured and incomplete understandings of the media’s collective relationship with the wider historical processes of the last hundred or so years, such as democratization and the rise of mass culture.4 Meanwhile, that other eminence grise of British media studies, Nicholas Garnham, reminds us that unless we find a way to connect our work with neighboring traditions of cultural, social, and intellectual history, we are destined to neglect what ought to be our central task: to understand in the broadest sense the media’s role in the origins and development of what, for want of a better phrase, we call “modernity.”5
Yet something is amiss in all this fretting. For there is, surely, little that is intrinsically inward-looking about the radio medium and the people who work in it. And just as Tom Vernon saw a solution in escaping the confines of his office, so scholars of radio have, for nearly two decades now, been seeking (and patiently revealing) the various ways their medium operates in precisely that complex “web of relationships” described by Battles. Those of us engaged in tracing radio’s transformations are, in some sense, always dealing in cultural history, simply because we have to. Sound carries, and it has never been easy to keep the airwaves segregated. Hence, as Susan Douglas has eloquently demonstrated, it was radio that [End Page 131] played a crucial role in exposing white American teenagers in suburban bedrooms to R&B in the 1950s: it brought an alternative culture into the home as nothing else could at the time, least of all the somewhat monoracial world of network television.6 Nor is radio a dispassionate carrier of content. Those working in it have wrestled constantly with what they should or should not...