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The Contemporary Pacific 13.2 (2001) 594-597

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Book Review

Radio Happy Isles: Media and Politics at Play in the Pacific

Radio Happy Isles: Media and Politics at Play in the Pacific, by Robert Seward. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1999. ISBN paper, 0-8248-2106-8; x + 234 pages, map, appendixes, glossary, notes, index. Cloth, US$45.00; paper, US$24.95.

In Radio Happy Isles, Robert Seward seeks to create a full portrait of a Pacific Islands mediascape, albeit a mediascape composed of distinct local voices. Seward chooses radio as his subject rather than television or video, as television has not yet become a dominant medium in the Pacific Islands. Seeing the Pacific as a full space of "overlapping voices on the radio," Seward maps how radio is produced locally and also circulates within the broader space of the Pacific. The result is a highly readable study that makes a significant intervention in media studies and Pacific studies.

Seward's book serves as an extended argument against the "cultural imperialism" paradigm in which "South" countries are seen at the mercy of "North" countries' dominant media. Parts of the cultural imperialism model certainly apply to some developing nations of the Pacific. However, as Seward examines reciprocal radio flows to and from stations in the Pacific and how foreign news material actually is incorporated, the cultural imperialism argument breaks down considerably. Radio Happy Isles is more than a simplistic study of local resistance in the Pacific through radio. Instead, Seward provides an overview of Pacific Islands radio in formation and at work from the early 1980s until the late 1990s. [End Page 594]

The book is organized into six essays, each dealing with a particular aspect of Pacific radio, with noticeable overlaps. The essays' respective topics are the programming choices of a radio station serving a single community; the Pacific indigenization of a British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) model; the creation of a Pacific Island Broadcasting Association (PIBA) and its PACNEWS news exchange service; the news net system of PACNEWS; decisions and constraints that structure Pacific broadcast news; and western media's view of the Pacific. This book is focused on institutions and is not a reception study by any means.

Seward indicates that he spent several years listening to radio broadcasts and visiting various radio stations in the Pacific. Some of the places he concentrates on are the Solomon Islands, Bougainville (Papua New Guinea), Tonga, Fiji, and Samoa. In terms of radio production, these areas share material constraints, governmental and societal interests that threaten independent journalism, and a desire to create a Pacific sound. The result is not a case-by-case study organized by region, but a free mix; for instance, an example from the Solomon Islands may be closely followed by one from Fiji, then another from Tonga.

As Seward does not discuss his methodology in detail save in a brief acknowledgments section, his data collection and research methods remain unclear. He cites several key sources that were founding members of PIBA or coordinators in Pacific newsrooms. In addition to these interviews, Seward seems to have had access to the archives of PIBA, PACNEWS, and some Pacific radio stations. Some station general managers seem to have been more cooperative and forthcoming than others. Radio Tonga, for example, gave Seward tours and allowed him access to the newsroom and broadcasts, while Seward was forced to rely on other sources to discuss 2AP, the Samoa Broadcasting Service.

His archival research at Pacific news stations works particularly well in chapter 3, "Fax in Exile." Focusing on the creation of the regional news service, PACNEWS, Seward begins by talking about how Pacific broadcast training was fought for, contested by, and eventually funded by UNESCO, later giving shape to PACNEWS. As a small media clearinghouse, PACNEWS received regional stories from Pacific islands, edited and rewrote them, then sent them back to those Pacific stations as a bulletin for rebroadcast. The Fiji coup in 1987, however, shut down PACNEWS less than a year after it formed. In addition...


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