I spent one day at The Radio Conference: A Transnational Forum 2013 in Luton this week.  It was really good to see so many old friends and acquaintances.

In the morning I presented my paper as part of a panel that included Dr. Guy Starkey and Nele Heise. It was a well programmed panel because we covered similar ground about technology and radio from different perspectives. Starkey’s paper ‘Analogue yet digital: the paradox of radio’s transition to modern production methods and its reputation as an “old” medium’. He provided a succinct and enjoyably presented history of radio’s development, but his discussion was far more about radio distribution technologies than it was production, and he relied on quite a bit of technological determinism and the idea that radio was a resilient medium because it had survived this history of technological change. He suggested that people still think about radio as an analogue medium. I wasn’t convinced about these central ideas, and my own paper was based upon an attempt to get beyond them. I’m really not sure radio has been the same thing for all its history; I see broadcasting as a social institution, rather than a technological medium; and I’m not sure the ideas of digital and analogue are in any way key concepts in the way most people think about radio. Rather than resilient, I think we need to think about radio as a very adaptable form of institutionalised practice built upon shifting technological and social worlds.

I tried to demonstrate that myself by linking other moments of technological change to today’s shifts in engineering, cultural practice and media ecology. I hoped the title – ‘A new age for radio: understanding radio’s present from radio’s past – conveyed something of that.  You can read a version of the paper by downloading the document, and match it to the presentation slides. If the ideas catch your attention and you’d like to find out more, the wider research is published in a series of articles and book chapters that are starting to come into print:

Nele Heise introduced her theoretical framework, which was encouragingly well-informed and thoughtful, and applied it to understanding podcasting in Germany. She mixed some description, some metrics, and some interesting analysis.

The afternoon panel I attended was worth the trip in itself. Tom Morton‘s paper ‘Make Radio History: the radio archive as a historical source’ took a few case studies to promote the value of radio in historical research and argue that it was much neglected by historians. David Goodman provided a rich analysis of a little-studied phenomenon of radio’s first age: the radio listening group. He produced a comparative study of groups in the UK, US and Australia, adding in examples from Canada, and referencing group listening in 1930s Germany and Russia. He focused on the broadcaster-promoted, hierarchical and formal groups that were established in both nations. It was a fascinating and detailed study, and I am looking forward to the full publication. Mulling over his presentation, I concluded that we should make more of an effort to think about radio listening in the pre-war period as a group, rather than individual, activity. And I reflected on how much the groups shared with other radio listening groups established by educational bodies, political parties and trade unions (and, as David added, religious groups). In these terms the broadcaster-promoted listening group is a distinctive version of a more dominant practice, rather than a historical curiosity.

Eurydice Aroney‘s pun-filled paper ‘Whore Stories on Radio’ looked at ways in which sex workers have been given airtime on Australian radio to present a very different take on their lives, professional and personal.  This was a really nice, rounded presentation. A model of how to do a conference paper for us all, I thought.

I was also involved in some interesting discussions about ways in which we could create online academic peer-reviewed publishing of radio production work and critical spaces in which such work could be discussed. There was quite some enthusiasm for this, so I hope more than one initiative emerges from the discussion.

Birmingham Centre For Media And Cultural Research

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