From its first tentative experiments and the early days of wireless, radio has expanded into a universal medium of communication. It leaps around the world on short waves linking capitals in a fraction of a second. It jumps to high satellites to put its footprint across a continent, and it streams through the Internet to reach every digital device around the globe. It brings that world to those who cannot read and helps maintain a contact for those who cannot see.
It is used by armies in war and by radio hams for fun. It controls air traffic, directs the taxi, and is essential for fire brigades and police. It is the enabler of business and commerce, and as WiFi feeds the smartphone, iPad and countless other devices, broadcasters pour out millions of words every minute in an effort to inform, educate and entertain, propagandise and persuade; music fills the air. Community radio makes broadcasters out of listeners and the Citizen Band gives transmitter power to the individual.
Whatever else can be said of the medium, it is plentiful. It has lost the sense of awe which attended its early years, becoming instead a very ordinary and ‘unspecial’ method of communication. To use it well we have to adapt the formal ‘written’ language that we learnt at school and rediscover our oral traditions.
To succeed in a highly competitive marketplace where television, a huge range of social media, Internet websites, lifestyle magazines, newspapers, cinema, theatre, DVDs, CDs and apps jostle for the attention of a media-conscious public, the radio student and professional programme makers must first understand the strengths and weaknesses of radio in order to decide how best to use it in their own context.
It is a blind medium but one that can stimulate the imagination so that as soon as a voice is heard, the listener attempts to visualise the source of the sound and to create in the mind’s eye the owner of the voice. What pictures are created when the voice carries an emotional content – interviews with witnesses of a bomb blast – the breathless joy of a victorious sports team.
Unlike television, where the pictures are limited by the size of the screen, radio’s pictures are any size you care to make them. For the writer of radio drama it is easy to involve us in a battle between goblins and giants, or to have our spaceship land on a strange and distant planet. Created by appropriate sound effects and supported by the right music, virtually any situation can be brought to us. As the schoolboy said when asked about television drama, ‘I prefer radio, the scenery is so much better.’
But is it more accurate? In reporting news, there is much to be said for seeing video of, say, a public demonstration rather than leaving it to our imagination. Both sound and vision are susceptible to the distortions of selectivity, and in reporting an event it is up to the integrity of the individual on the spot to produce as fair, honest and factual an account as possible. In the case of radio, its great strength of appealing directly to the imagination must not become the weakness of allowing individual interpretation of a factual event, let alone the deliberate exaggeration of that event by the broadcaster. The radio writer and commentator choose words with precision so that they create appropriate pictures in the listener’s mind, making the subject understood and its occasion memorable.
Radio is one of the mass media. The very term ‘broadcasting’ indicates a wide scattering of the output covering every home, village, town, city and country within the range of the transmitter – and wider still when its output is streamed on a nearly universal Internet so that even a local station has a worldwide reach. A local station is now reaching its expatriate target audience – still interested in what is happening ‘at home’, especially the sports results – but broadcasters should remember that their words and meanings can now be heard in a very different culture from their local target audience.
Its potential for communication, therefore, is very great but the actual effect might be quite small. The difference between potential and actual will depend on matters to which this book is dedicated – programme relevance, editorial excellence and creativity, qualities of ‘likeability’ and persuasiveness, operational competence, technical reliability and consistency of the received signal. It will also be affected by the size and strength of the competition in its many forms. Broadcasters sometimes forget that people have other things to do – life is not all about listening to radio and watching television.
Audience researchers talk about share
. Audience share is the amount of time spent listening to a particular station, expressed as a percentage of the total radio listening in its area. Audience reach is the number of people who do
listen to something from the station over the period of a day or week, expressed as a percentage of the total population who could
listen. Both figures are significant. A station in a highly competitive environment might have quite a small share of the total listening, but if it manages to build a substantial following to even one of its programmes, let alone the aggregate of several minorities, it will enjoy a large reach. The mass media should always be interested in reach.
Unlike television, where the viewer is observing something coming out of a box ‘over there’, the sights and sounds of radio are created within us, and can have greater impact and involvement. Radio on headphones happens literally inside your head. Here is a quote from some Ofcom research: ‘With radio, you’re walking down the street and just having a laugh to yourself – and nobody else knows what you’re laughing at – it gives me a lift.’
Television is, in general, watched by small groups of people and the reaction to a programme is often affected by the reaction between individuals. Radio is much more a personal thing, coming direct to the listener. There are obvious exceptions: communal listening happens in clubs, bars, workshops, canteens and shops, and in the rural areas of less developed countries a whole village may gather round the set. However, even here, a radio is an everyday personal item.
The broadcaster should not abuse this directness of the medium by regarding the microphone as an input to a public address system, but rather a means of talking directly to the individual – multiplied perhaps millions of times.
Radio is often private, heard behind closed doors or alone in the car. It can, therefore, offer help, support and advice to people who have nowhere else to turn. In many countries the so-called ‘shameful subjects’, especially those affecting women, can only be dealt with in this way. Forced marriage, female genital mutilation, domestic violence, child abuse, trafficking and slavery, the abortion of female foetuses, AIDS and HIV are real issues which, heard on radio in private, demonstrate that they can be talked about, dispelling rumours and myths and opening up the possibility of being able to initiate action – something that has actually been shown to save lives.
The ancient Greeks would listen to the messenger who could run the fastest – who brought the news first. Technically uncumbersome, the medium is enormously flexible and is often at its best in the totally immediate ‘live’ situation. No waiting for the presses or the physical distribution of newspapers or magazines. A crisis report from a correspondent overseas, a listener talking on the phone, a sports result from the local stadium, a concert from the capital, radio is immediate. The recorded programme introduces a timeshift and, like a newspaper, may quickly become out of date, but the medium itself is essentially live and ‘now’.
The ability to move about geographically generates its own excitement. Long since regarded as a commonplace, both for television and radio, pictures and sounds are sent electronically around the world, bringing any event anywhere to our immediate attention. Radio speeds up the dissemination of information so that everyone – the leaders and the led – knows of the same news event, the same political idea, declaration or threat. If knowledge is power, radio gives power to us all whether we exercise authority or not.
Books and magazines can be stopped at national frontiers but radio is no respecter of territorial limits. Its signals clear mountain barriers and cross ocean deeps. Radio can bring together those separated by geography or nationality – it can help to close other distances of culture, learning or status. The programmes of political propagandists or of Christian missionaries can be sent in one country and heard in any other. Sometimes met with hostile jamming, sometimes welcomed as a life-sustaining truth, programmes have a liberty independent of lines on a map, obeying only the rules of transmitter power, sunspot activity, channel interference, or receiver sensitivity. Furthermore, laptop, tablet and smartphone ownership makes us independent even of these constraints so that any studio can have an almost worldwide reach. Refugees fleeing from their homeland out of range of their own transmitters can still hear their radio via the Internet. Crossing political boundaries, radio can bring freedoms to the oppressed and enlightenment to those in darkness.
Figure 1.1 Radios for receiving conventional transmissions and via the Internet. Some are DAB compatible
It is, in general, a very ephemeral medium and if the listener is not in time for the news bulletin, it is gone and it’s necessary to wait for the next. Unlike the newspaper that a reader can put down, come back to, or pass round, broadcasting mostly imposes a strict discipline of having to be there at the right time. The radio producer must recognise that while it’s possible to store programmes in the archives, they are only short-lived for the listener. This is not to say that they may not be memorable, but memory is fallible and without a written record it is easy to be misquoted or taken out of context. For this reason it is often advisable for the broadcaster to have some form of audio or written log as a check on what was said, and by whom. In some cases this may be a statutory requirement of a radio station as part of its public accountability. Where this is not so, lawyers have been known to argue that it is better to have no record of what was said – for example, in a public phone-in. Practice would suggest, however, that the keeping of a recording of the transmission is a useful safeguard against allegations of malpractice, particularly from complainants who missed the broadcast and who heard about it at second-hand.
The transitory nature of the medium means that the radio listener must not only hear the programme at the time of its broadcast, but must also understand it then. The impact and intelligibility of the spoken word should occur on hearing it – there is seldom a second chance. The producer must, therefore, strive for the utmost logic and order in the presentation of ideas, and the use of clearly understood language.
However, there are other more lasting ways of listening.
Radio streamed on the Internet has the very great advantage of not only being available live and ‘now’, but of extending the life of previous programmes, news bulletins and features so they can be recalled on demand. By offering audio files of earlier material as ‘podcasts’, the station website overcomes the essentially ephemeral nature of broadcasting in that it provides specific listening when the listener wants it, not simply when it happens to be broadcast. Internet use of radio in this way radically changes the medium, transferring the scheduling power from the station to the listener. Once downloaded, programmes can be kept permanently, unless they are designed to expire after a given time.
Radio allows a more flexible link with its user than that insisted upon by television or print. The medium is less demanding in that it permits us to do other things at the same time – programmes become an accompaniment to something else. We read with music on, eat to a news magazine, or hang wallpaper while listening to a play. Radio suffers from its own generosity – it is easily interruptible. Television is more complete, taking our whole attention, ‘spoon-feeding’ without demanding effort or response, and tending to be compulsive at a far lower level of interest than radio requires of its audience.
Because radio is so often used as background, it frequently results in a low level of commitment on the part of the listener. If the broadcaster really wants the listener to do something – to act – then radio should be used in conjunction with another medium such as follow-up texts or email. Educational broadcasting, for example, needs an accompanying website, printed fact-sheets, booklet material, and tutor hotlines involving schools or universities. Radio evangelism has to be linked with follow-up correspondence and involve local churches or on-the-ground missionaries. Advertising requires appropriate recall and point of sale material. While radio can claim some spectacular individual action results, in general, producers have to work very hard to retain their part-share of the listener’s attention.
There is a different kind of responsibility on the broadcaster from that of the newspaper editor in that the radio producer selects exactly what is to be received by the consumer. In print, a large number of news stories, articles and other features are set out across several pages. Each one is headlined or identified in some way to make for easy selection. The reader scans the pages choosing to read those items of particular interest – using his or her own judgement. With radio this is not possible. The selection process takes place in the studio and the listener is ...