Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 2, No. 2, 1989
Performance Theory Australia
Edited by Brian Shoesmith & Tom O'Regan

Review of Lesley Johnson, The Unseen Voice: A Cultural Study of Early Australian Radio (London: Routledge, 1988), xii-243 pp.

John Richardson

To those of us for whom the names Superhetrodyne, Mullard or Tasma Baby still mean anything at all, Lesley Johnson's book will be of special interest. The Unseen Voice steps back to the under-researched era of the "wireless" to speculate on missed opportunities for the democratic appropriation of the medium. In doing so Johnson calls on the theoretical positions of Brecht, Benjamin and the Frankfurt School to assist her elucidation of historical constructions of broadcasting and their impact on the listener.

The book traces the discourses surrounding broadcasting, from its introductory phase in the early 1920s, through to the Second World War. It begins at a time when the radio was imagined and marketed as the scientific miracle of the age. For a brief period the technology of the wireless, with its ability to "annihilate distance", was of greater fascination than the broadcast message. In Brecht's words, "it was suddenly possible to say anything to everybody, but thinking about it, there was nothing to say". From there Johnson traces the development of the political and economic strategies which gave the medium its voice. Her research has a bearing on the development of media policies in general. It could provide a useful supplementary text for undergraduates working in those areas of Communication and Cultural studies which deal with the evolution of broadcasting systems (television as well as radio) and the politics of representation.

The Unseen Voice examines the opportunities for public participation in broadcasting along the lines of Brecht's "listener-speakers". Radio networks which allowed some form of "point to point communication" were envisaged during the 1920s. By the 1930s these hopes had all but disappeared. Broadcasting was constructed as a means of communicating to a mass audience from a central source. Radio messages had become commodities which offered something for everyone. Listeners could choose between commercially programmed "entertainment" or the ABC's brand of cultural didacticism - both figures required a "passive" listening audience. The book tells of how listeners were taught to listen, how they were positioned in relation to the broadcast message and how, in the process, radio helped to define their everyday world for them. One wonders, however, if Johnson may not have fixed the straps of the politico-economic straight jacket just a little too tightly.

In a world where Handel's Largo was likely to be interrupted by a race call from Rosehill, by surge fade and static, by a blown out Mullard valve, or to be "discreetly" faded into an advertisement for dental floss, the broadcasting apparatus was never far from the surface. Nor did the ABC's insistence on the tight scripting of talks, discussions and interviews make for a seamless, "natural", presentation - in 1936 Beatrice Tildesley called for more rehearsal of "impromptu discussions" so as to "preserve the appearance of spontaneity". [2] The requirement for scripts to be submitted in advance of the broadcast date was, in part, a means of enforcing the ABC dictum of "impartiality" and Johnson covers the effects of censorship in some detail. But it was also a result of the technological restrictions in an era where cheap, reliable, magnetic tape editing devices were unavailable . Might not the visibility of the apparatus and its tendency to fragment, or to shift the context of the message, have functioned to provide the broad equivalent of Benjamin's cinematic "shock effect"? Given the prominence of the apparatus could not an argument be mounted for the positioning of the listener "outside" the relations which broadcasting (re)produced - in the role of the critic?

The Unseen Voice suggests otherwise. The commercial broadcasting strategy of addressing listeners in the intimate terms of a family member worked to draw the listener inside the world of radio: "Broadcasters and listeners lived together in this world of common sense and edgy optimism"(p.95). And although the ABC worked hard to distance itself from the "everyday-ordinary" it too invited its listeners to step inside its particular construction - a world of high culture which struggled to preserve the mystique of Benjamin's "aura". Above all Johnson relentlessly positions the listener in a consumer/ commodity relationship with the broadcast message and she, like Adorno, can find no space for resistance at the point of consumption.

Johnson's special area of interest is the effect of broadcasting on women listeners and herein lies a particular relationship between the material and ideological aspects of consumption. Women were recruited as a mass audience, to be sold to the manufacturers of the modern domestic appliances. These, and the wireless amongst them, helped to define women's place in the family and home. Johnson has the "women's sessions", with their typical diet of cookery information, fashion talks and child care practices, as teaching women the "rational" methods of child bearing, rearing and housekeeping.

In performing this function radio became a part of the apparatus which assisted a general penetration of the domestic sphere by the technologies of rationalism. But while the women's sessions could hardly be considered as ideologically "progressive", one is given to ask where alternative representations of women were to be found during the period in question and just how these might have been disseminated.

If such representations existed anywhere in Australia during the 1920s and 1 930s they existed within the ranks of the contemporary women's movement. Factions of the movement, such as Jessie Street's United Associations of Women, or individuals from it, such as Irene Greenwood, were afforded air time. Greenwood operated from within both national and commercial women's sessions on a regular basis. Her scripts suggest that radio of the 1930's did allow some opportunity for alternative gender representations and provided a ready made audience which a minority of "trouble makers" would otherwise have been unable to reach. [3]

In this vein Johnson does touch on the intriguing case of Constance Duncan, a women's session broadcaster who was sacked because of her "Christian Communist" tendencies (pp.181-182). Duncan was later reinstated, albeit on shortened hours, in response to the public protest which accompanied her dismissal, a figure which illustrates that audiences may have been more than the passive mass consumers which Johnson's overall contextual field often suggests. What is missing from the account is the manner in which Duncan's views were expressed on the air.

Johnson's primary concern is with the evolution of programming policies, conceptions of the audience, and the cultural tasks of radio. She deals impressively with these. Her research material is mainly drawn from the radio journals, newspapers and institutional reports of the era. This "official" institutional voice is certainly important. But The Unseen Voice may have benefited from a little more analysis of the discourses emanating from radio broadcasts to read against those which surrounded and supposedly shaped the former. As Johnson acknowledges, radio scripts and recordings from the 1920s and 1930s are difficult but not impossible to obtain. Without more detail of them one is left with the impression that the broadcast message offered no resistance at all to the dominant political actors which acted on it. Was this really the case? Was there really such little opportunity for dissenting factions within the institution, broadcasters as well as listeners, to voice a message of resistance? At the end of the day the reader is left to speculate just how closely radio broadcasting actually fitted the prescribed cultural functions which Johnson so effectively reconstructs.


1. Bertolt Brecht, "Radio as a Means of Communication. A Talk on the Function of Radio", Screen, 20 (3/4), 24, as cited by Johnson, p. 11.

2. Beatrice Tildesley, "Broadcasting in Australia", The Australian Quarterly, June (1939), p. 49.

3. For a discussion of Greenwood's broadcasts see, John Richardson, The Limits of Authorship: The Radio Broadcasts of Irene Greenwood, 1936-1954 (unpublished Honours thesis, Murdoch University, 1988).

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