Radio - a social technology

Introduction

The aim of this book is to explore how digital innovations, tools and technologies have helped to shape contemporary radio production practices. The case studies employed here to generate evidence are illustrative of the UK community radio sector which, after decades of campaigning, was eventually legitimated in the early years of the 21st century. Perspectives on UK community media, however, are not featured so much in published research as those focussed on practice in other parts of the world; this book goes some way to redress that shortcoming. I suggest moreover, that the site-specific, practice-focussed framing of this study provides in-depth analysis of another under-explored but crucial aspect of media studies: the experiences of unpaid radio practitioners in the production of local(ized) and special interest content. Reflection on these matters yields important ethical insights which are of considerable value to media studies more generally.

To clarify, this book does not offer a technical account of the engineering and information technology (IT) aspects of the cable, wireless, broadcast or streamed transmission of radio signals. Rather, it explores how the practice of creating radio station output has been impacted by digital technologies and how the internet, as well as interactive social media platforms, have altered practitioners’ routines, adding or detracting from the social and sociable experiences of the practice. In addition, the research methods informing the research reported in this book, demonstrate that digital technologies have improved and enriched how radio can be studied.

The original rationale for focussing on non-mainstream radio in this inquiry was that against the backdrop of the shifting broadcast media landscape, positioned between large corporate branded networks and a growing multitude of independent webcasters and podcasters, community radio seemed to have reached a turning point. Was this licensed, not-for-profit community sector the answer to enabling the provision of a dependable and genuinely local broadcasting service? And if so, could this be achieved and afforded by the licensed operators without compromising the utopian notion that community radio should be done for, with and by members of the targeted publics? Digital innovations had unleashed cheaper, easier ways of making audio content but what impact did this have on unpaid (non-professional or amateur) practitioner experiences in the community sector and on their relationships with their local (or locally-invested) listeners? How did different equipment and skill requirements change how radio stations were structured and how the working arrangements for their practitioners were organized? What did the term “radio station” mean anyway, when across the industry, traditional functions like engineering, music acquisition, publicity, sales, management, news reporting and presenting were less and less fixed to a single physical place? Most local community radio bases, or hubs, are modestly sized and cannot easily accommodate large groups. Stations remain accessible to their publics but nowadays, listeners can “visit” a website or Facebook page to interact with the staff, rather than go to the building itself. Indeed, in some cases, thanks to advances in electronic media, it is not uncommon for entire programmes to be produced off-site, in remote studios or spare bedrooms and uploaded to station servers for later broadcast.

C0V1D-19, however, has been an unexpected crisis, demanding agility and innovation in both societal and individual responses to the imposed conditions of social distancing and lockdown. In all walks of life, everyday practices changed to accommodate the very different structural arrangements within which we were all expected to function. The use of digital media technologies, devices, platforms and apps soared in both the public sphere - governmental, business and third sector - and in private, domestic domains. This “turn to the virtual” threw into sharp relief how digital technologies were being harnessed by community radio station teams in pursuit of their key commitments through local broadcasting for social gain. My interdisciplinary research was conducted before and during the pandemic and comprised a combination of desk research, a practice-as-research project, participant observation and snapshot station visits, interviews and an online questionnaire. The purpose was to explore the use of digital technologies in particular local community radio stations and later to test the assumption that introducing wholescale reliance on them automatically empowers all practitioners.

In this first chapter, I introduce the subject matter by discussing the ways in which theorists understand key concepts relating to and associated with radio: mass communication and broadcasting; audio content and related outputs; and social discourse. The overview of academic discourse about radio continues as I explore what has been written about the medium's relationship with technology, especially in the light of more recent digital innovations. 1 then consider in more depth the association of radio broadcasting with notions of place, community-building and belonging. In Chapter Two, 1 present an overview of community radio and how the seeds of what became a global movement for popular access to the airwaves were eventually allowed to germinate in the UK when the sector was established to satisfy the demand for local, niche interest radio. I then outline briefly how my research was framed and conducted.

Chapter Three is replete with descriptions and anecdotes from the case studies and research which convey how locally relevant features and programme content are produced by the predominantly volunteer producers and presenters in UK community radio stations. The focus is on how I perceived digital devices and software being routinely incorporated into performances of the practice, which were shaped by and shaped the material and organizational arrangements in the sampled station settings. Here, I begin to reveal how COVID-19 influenced that usage and differentially impacted the practitioner experience. In Chapter Four, I analyse my fieldwork findings and contextualize them against a variety of indicators about the wider sector gleaned from the online questionnaire conducted as the crisis unfolded. 1 discuss contemporary production environments, comparing normal with crisis conditions, and ponder the interwoven connections and interrelations with local communities that practitioners navigated in their quest to produce locally sourced and resonant content. 1 highlight how softer journalistic approaches and the nurturing of social networks facilitated their practice.

In the concluding Chapter Five, I reflect on how radio broadcasting and production practices have changed in relation to the provision of local content for non-mainstream community stations. The enduring value of local media and the increasing interest in living and consuming locally contribute to my arguments for more attention to be paid to how local community radio can be provided for in the future to sustain the sector. 1 urge that digital technologies be applied, and radio stations set up and resourced, in ways which benefit and enable everyone who is entitled to be a part of a community radio station to join in and have their voice aired.

 
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