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Reviewed by:
  • Radio Soundings: South Africa and the Black Modern by Liz Gunner
  • Marissa J. Moorman (bio)
Radio Soundings: South Africa and the Black Modern
By Liz Gunner. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 2019. Pp. 227.

Elegant in argument and prose, Liz Gunner's Radio Soundings shows us how radio animated Black South African life, mediated the Zulu voice, and anchored the cultural production of Black South African literary figures in exile. In eight chapters plus an introduction and conclusion, the book covers the 1940s to the first decades after the overthrow of apartheid, from the first Zulu-language broadcast in 1941 to Ukhozi FM, the largest station in South Africa today. There are sections on broadcasters K. E. Masinga and Alexius Buthelezi and Bloke Modisane's and Lewis Nkosi's radio work in London (parts I and II). Both set up the dynamism of the broadcasters and the self-conscious positioning of radio practice in what Gunner calls the "Black Modern" (in which African American cultural practices and literary figures are key participants). Gunner then explores Zulu radio dramas across the different political moments of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, enriching the discussion on the agency of broadcasters and listeners and outlining the power of an alternative world imagined on, through, and around radio (part III).

Liz Gunner is an anthropologist who, along with media scholars, has pioneered work on African radio. Like Sekibakiba Lekgoathi, who has written about Radio Lebowa and the African National Congress's Radio Freedom, Gunner contributes to a growing historical literature on radio on the continent. Radio Soundings is not just about South African radio or seemingly narrowly cast Zulu-language radio dramas. Her sources (radio drama scripts, play recordings, BBC and Transcription Centre archival material, and interviews with participants and listeners) and her methodology, which reads language closely to theorize the mediatized voice, will interest a wide variety of scholars. [End Page 1254]

The apartheid regime used radio for propaganda and created Radio Bantu, later Radio Zulu, to craft the inward-looking ethnicity that was central to controlling Black lives in Bantustans and in cities. Gunner argues that Zulu-language broadcasters and listeners used an apartheid propaganda tool to forge and participate in the Black Modern, a cultural sensibility that preceded and outlived apartheid. Attending to voice—having voice, giving voice, and the mediation of the Black voice—Gunner plumbs radio dramas and charts the development of a community that bridged the urban and rural through the airwaves and produced a voice of Black authority (p. 3). Gunner observes: "Radio Zulu . . . was predicated by its practitioners, if not its white managers, on building a community not only of resistance but of the imagination and the senses, in particular the auditory, a kind of aural but also moral economy of shared understanding of a past and present" (p. 137). If Radio Freedom was the politicized voice of the anti-apartheid movement, Radio Zulu spoke to life inside South Africa, talking back in Zulu and reinventing Zulu cultural forms to speak to the experiences of daily life: migration, marriage, and the role of the occult.

This community "of the imagination and the senses" emerges from the radio technology and what Gunner calls "the thicket of language," in this case Zulu and English (in Modisane and Nkosi's radio work). Gunner is a highly regarded scholar of Zulu oral literature. In Radio Soundings she moves around and through the oral to consider the aural. Discussing oratory genres, she argues: "such forms in the cultural archive depended in the first instance on orality and can be understood as social networks of sound and a social construct of technology" (p. 34). She thus carefully reorients radio as one among other technologies in use.

In Gunner's analysis, radio is an expansive technology or what John Mowitt describes as a cultural technology: "radio is composed of certain techniques of listening, a diffused network of social interaction, an industrialized medium of entertainment, a corporate or state system of public communication, in short an unwieldy array of cultural institutions and practices" (Mowitt, 2011). It is similar, he argues, to what film scholars mean when they refer to film as an apparatus...


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