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Consolidating traditional radio

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Hugh Chignell, Key Concepts in Radio Studies. London: Sage Key Concepts Series 2009. 185 pp. ISBN 978-1-4129-3516-3 (pbk).

Carole Fleming, The Radio Handbook. London: Routledge Media Practice Handbooks. Third Edition 2010 (first edition 1994). xi + 197 pp. ISBN10: 0-415-44508-5 (pbk).

Beginning to read these two books, I decided to assess their contribution to the build-up of critical competence in the practical and theoretical arts of radio. Do the authors administer the current values of radio journalism, or do they introduce new and different ways of doing things? Put in slightly other terms; are they administrative or constructive?

Carole Fleming, The Radio Handbook.
Carole Fleming, The Radio Handbook.

Carole Fleming is principal lecturer at the Centre for Broadcasting and Journalism at Nottingham Trent University. Her book has been used on reading lists for twenty years, and this is the third revised edition. It covers all the basic aspects of radio as a media industry and handicraft culture in Britain. Routledge has also published similar handbooks about newspapers, television and photography, among others. Fleming deals with the introduction of DAB from the early 2000s, and explains how the industry has changed due to audio on the Internet, and from mobile devices such as iPods and iPhones. She also explains the production chain for news and sports in radio, and the workings of technical equipment, programme scheduling, and much more. The final chapter gives advice for the student about how to get started in the radio business. It is slightly misleading to call this a “Handbook”, because it deals with radio on a highly general level, and does not give a detailed instruction in central journalistic and/or narrative handicrafts. But it is clearly an insightful introduction to British radio.

Hugh Chignell is an associate professor at the Media School at Bournemouth University. His book is brand new, and in itself it shows the break-through for his brain child “radio studies”. Sage has published a range of books in the “Key Concepts”-series, for example journalism studies, urban studies and political communication, and it is Chignell’s good contribution to also bring radio studies into the fold. 50 concepts are discussed, and each one is discussed over 2-3 pages. The list includes such important topics as “acoustics”, “liveness”, “internet radio” and “hate radio”. The concepts are organized in four parts that deal with production, reception, the radio industry and the public sphere, and this chronology gives a nice sense of increasing publicness and generality. It is a good overview, and relevant terms have been selected. However, Chignell seems to be a bit pessimistic. He laments the disappearance of the feature programme (p. 24), radio drama (p. 26), and he also fears that the traditional DJ is heading towards extinction because of internet jukeboxes. This ‘old school’ approach may not appeal to the student readers, who are presumably the target group for the book.

Hugh Chignell, Key Concepts in Radio Studies.
Hugh Chignell, Key Concepts in Radio Studies.

Chignell as well as Fleming write exclusively about Great Britain and the USA, and the books are therefore unlikely to be used on reading lists in other countries; at least this would indicate that the radio studies discipline in the given country is under-developed. France, Germany, Denmark, Sweden and many other countries have a rich literature of concepts related to broadcasting, and practical instruction in radio journalism, music production, etc. In this regard Britain is truly an island, as is evident in Chignell’s imperial remark: “It would be wrong to deny the existence of radio drama outside US and UK public service radio” (p. 29). Yes, it would be wrong indeed, as is demonstrated by the thousands of radio plays recorded in Germany, France, Sweden, and the corresponding academic literature of history and literary analysis.

Both books are pedagogical, and are suitable for bachelor and master students in journalism and media studies. However, it should be noted that they are not well-suited for hands-on teaching in practical courses in radio journalism, sound design or related skills.

either Fleming or Chignell illustrate their many facts and formulations with real sound. After all, sound is what it all boils down to. In the 2000s it is not difficult to include sound examples. They can be appended to the printed book in CD form, or be made available on a website as mp3-files. Maybe the publishers have considered it, and decided it would be too time-consuming and expensive to deal with right holders. In material and experiential terms many things will be missing in books without CD-attachments, especially the aesthetic talents of artists and producers, the acoustics of of well-placed microphones and sophisticated editing, and for the reader of the book: the strange and stimulating experience of shifting between being a reader of words and a listener to sounds. By not including sound, they leave out the core evidence, and the discussions of sound get more abstract and less tied to reality than what the emerging discipline needs.

I think radio studies must deal more creatively with the possibilities of radio, in a future-oriented and open-minded way. Since the 1990s there has been a slow, but determined development of digitally driven interactivity in mass communication. In this process an important element of individual control has been added to people’s listening practices. The media industry has to take into account the audience’s interest in audience control, as it is fast becoming a crucial element for successful mass communication.

The two books don’t really satisfy my need for creative and sustainable ways of exploring the new potential for symmetry in production and reception. Both authors clearly have the knowledge and curiosity to deal with these things, as is illustrated by the discussions of podcasting and internet radio, but they don’t explicitly deal with the innovative potential of the internet and mobile phones. It may just be because they didn’t kill the darlings of the established radio canon, and simply didn’t leave room for genuinely new topics. In any event, status quo of Britain radio in 2010 is presented as normal and desirable, and the conclusion is therefore that they administer the joint interests of the British radio industry, the BBC, the DAB consortium, and other forces that try to consolidate radio’s traditional function. There is nothing inherently wrong with this strategy, but the reader would have learnt more about the mechanisms of radio if the books were more assertive.