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  • On a Screen Near You:The New Soundwork Industry
  • Michele Hilmes (bio)

A primary strength of the Media Industries paradigm is the opportunity it provides to rupture our conceptual silos. Instead of categorization by medium, or technology, or textual form—cinema, television, radio, print, recordings—a Media Industries approach directs attention to the ways media function in the real world as an interlinked, hybrid economy of activities, representations, and uses that spreads across technological platforms, media professions, textual forms, and audience experiences. This has been made increasingly obvious as traditional media shift to digital forms: what was formerly united industrially, but still semidistinct textually, now converges visibly on the screens that surround us every day. Cinema and television meet on Netflix and online digital channels, joining print and graphics in an integrated interface, often employing the same gateway as that used for gaming. Narratives flow across video-game, cinema, television, and online print and graphic platforms, while traditional print sources diversify in their online operations into video interviews, audio podcasts, news footage, and documentary. Yet often left to the side is a further extension of digital convergence, barely acknowledged in media study: the new soundwork industry.

I use the term soundwork to designate media forms that are primarily aural, employing the three basic elements of sonic expression—music, speech, and noise1—to create a lively economy of sound-based commodities and institutions, ranging from radio to recorded sound to, at the more visual limit, the soundtracks that accompany visual media. Sound studies scholars have argued for many years that our predominant cultural emphasis on the visual has exiled consideration of large sectors of the media industry to the margins, particularly the dynamic and powerful fields of popular music and radio.2 Out of sight was out of mind for the Media Studies field, cutting off consideration of significant industry and creative sectors. However, today, sound has become a screen medium on sites like iTunes, Pandora, and Spotify; in podcasts and online archives and radio streams; and in new hybrid [End Page 177] forms like YouTube, audio slideshows, and digital soundscapes. Now Media Industry Studies has a chance to fully incorporate this vital component of traditional media concerns, leading to a reconceptualization of the ways that industry sectors work together to produce innovative work that crosses traditional boundaries.

Sound-based media are an integral, profitable, enormously popular segment of the media industry; to continue omitting them from consideration unduly limits the field. The new digital soundwork challenges older media categorizations and shows how sound-based media integrates with the visual on both industrial and textual levels. Sound industries have remained largely invisible to media industry scholars because of their unique ephemerality and lack of material presence. As this moment of digital ascendance transforms sound media into screen media, scholars have at last begun to perceive the unique and distinctive texts, practices, and institutions that produce aural texts consumed by millions. Sound’s ephemerality has always presented a considerable barrier to study; now the new digital materiality of sound presents us with an opportunity to recognize this considerable lacuna in our research and to address the media industries more completely and comprehensively.

In the United States, much of the new soundwork has been happening in the public radio sector, recently revived and brought to new life not only by converging industries but also by converging screens. The past two decades have seen an incredible expansion in US public radio, enabled by its transformation from an invisible, ephemeral sonic experience to a more tangible, fixed materialization on our digital screens. The new radio soundwork comprises not only innovative programs and modes of listening, attracting millions of listeners and often feeding into cinema and television forms, but also a transformation of public-sector media distribution and economics. What follows is a short exploration of a few key aspects of the American public radio industry in the digital era, to illuminate not only the digital transformation of soundwork but also the significant role that nonprofit and public media play as part of the media industry today—not surprising to those from countries with a strong public service tradition, but often given short shrift in...


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pp. 177-182
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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