Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 6, No. 1, 1992
Radio - Sound
Edited by Niall Lucy

Radio daze: some historical & technological aspects of radio

Tom O'Regan

I want to do no more here than focus upon a number of "radio scenes" drawn from radio history and to recommend an interesting way of retelling radio history through a cultural technology focus. I take my license from Carolyn Marvin. In her provocative introduction to When Old Technologies were New, Marvin notes how the tendency within the study of the media is to focus upon 'artefactual histories', thereby leaving out the social negotiations, technological interconnexions and distributive structures which lend support to the development and extension of the artefact (4-6). Our academic organisation of knowledge about the media has been careful to construct a boundary between the different 'media' such that 'social processes connected to media logically and historically begin with the instrument' and such media apparently 'fashion new social groups called audiences from voiceless collectivities and to inspire new uses based on novel technological properties' (3-4). Marvin's analysis suggests that we can usefully look to intermedia connexions, linkages between communication media and our other communication and transportation networks and technologies such as our interpersonal communication whether face to face, or via the telephone and the fax.

Oddly enough, there is currently a peculiar consensus for embracing "technological theories". This has been spurred along by the publication of a collection of James Carey's essays in Communication as Culture - and even recent comments by Elihu Katz - perhaps best known as co-author with Paul Lazarsfeld of Personal Influence in 1955. Here is Katz writing in 1987:

technological theories, often discredited for their crude determinism, deserve our reconsideration in the search for powerful effects. Compared with the more common theories of media effects, technological theories are characterised by their emphasis (1) on how we think, rather than what we think, that is, on the ways in which our mental processing of different media give rise to different styles of thought; (2) on information and its diffusion rather than on influence; (3) on boundary-setting for social systems such as empires, nations, churches - sometimes in concert, sometimes in conflict, with agencies of established power.

Katz goes on to encourage the study of the 'careers' of media technologies. As part of such a study he recommends consideration of 'the struggles they engender in the effort to harness them, now for one cause or one class, now for another. Far from it being a matter of 'established power' simply coopting the different media, 'revolutions' are the result of such struggles. Such a study calls for ways of classifying media:

some as point-to-point, others as broadcast technologies; some as media that "segment" societies and others as media that "integrate" them; some that inform, others that influence. It raises the question of whether media have "immanent" tendencies to perform one function or another, or to "resist" being confined to boundaries that are narrower than their reach. (36-37)

It is well to remember that Personal Influence set a lasting agenda for American empirical communication research - stressing as it did the important role that interpersonal communication and local communication networks played in determining the impact and effectiveness of "mass communication" messages - particularly political and advertising messages. Perhaps there is not, after all, such a yawning chasm between this study and the kind of "technological study" recommended to us from McLuhan and Innis.

This idea of "media careers" and the importance of the technology itself had a certain fashion in the 1960s: its promulgator Marshall McLuhan was a celebrity. But McLuhan was discredited as too unsystematic - if not just plain wrong - as Rosenthal's collection indicates. Why then resurrect notions of "technologies" having a "determining" influence? The answer lies in the importance of the relationship between culture and technology. McLuhan created an "essential" being to media technologies - a kind of 'medium specificity' of effect and affect such as Carroll describes in his account of 19th and early 20th century ideas of medium specificity in the arts.

We need not go that far: for us it is enough to locate the particular and historically changing relationship between technology and culture. Something of this is suggested by Carolyn Marvin:

Marshall McLuhan, a popular media prophet of the 1960s, believed that the history of Western culture should be rewritten so as to cast successive new technologies of communication in the role of the great levers that moved it. Not the message of communication, McLuhan argued, but the medium - the structural characteristics of the techniques and machines of information storage, retrieval, and transmission - had a semiotic eloquence that overshadowed the particular details of the content. The medium, McLuhan declared, 'shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action'. McLuhan's account of cultural evolution in the West has found little favour among historians, but his appreciation of the relationship between technology and culture and his colourful efforts to spotlight that relationship helped focus the problem for others. That relationship is now a staple concern of scholarship in the history of technology. [my italics] ("Dazzling" 256)

Perhaps the best way to think through the style of analysis Katz and Marvin are recommending is to take a few examples drawn from radio. These concern the relationship between radio (a broadcasting technology), the recording industry (a printing technology) and the telephone (a machine-aided interpersonal technology).

Talk back radio

"Talk back" radio is a comparatively recent "form" of radio, dating back to the late 1960s and early 1970s. Talk back radio would not have been possible without the telephone. Australian domestic telephone "penetration" did not reach the kind of critical public mass necessary for the "promise" of talkback radio to be realised until the mid to late 1970s. Indeed for talk back radio to work as "community talk" the listeners to the radio program needed to be technologically capable of participating. They needed to be able to see themselves as capable of phoning in even though most would never dream of doing so.

Talk back radio could not exist as a popular broadcast medium in the context in which the telephone was a "luxury" for the rich, or a "formal" medium of interpersonal communication which is what the telephone primarily was for its first fifty years in Australia. Traces of this formality can still be heard in the telephone voice and telephone use of older Australians. Everyday telephone style became more informal and conversational in the 1960s as telephone penetration became more widespread and it had become socially acceptable to take children into social spaces in pyjamas in the drive-ins and to spend long periods of time in telephone booths. Talk back radio could not exist without an informal use of the telephone.

Talk back's conversational style relied on a similar and progressive informalising of the "radio" voice away from the previous "formality" of the radio presentation - though unseen, suit and tie were de rigueur at one stage, and the training of radio presenters was in what today appears to be quite a peculiar "radio voice". Talk back also required a degree of sophistication in the receiving technology and the telephone line for a technically adequate "clear" sound to result.

Finally, talk back radio relied upon the proliferation of radios in domestic places and public spaces where the radio had either never been before or had been only the preserve of the rich. Important to this "leisure" and increasingly work place use of radio as background noise in, for example, mechanical workshops and articulated vehicles, was its proliferation brought about by the miniaturisation and portability of radios and their consequent invasion of places and spaces like the backyard, the beach, stores and workshops, and, perhaps most notably, cars.

The conclusion I want to draw from this brief discussion of a prominent programming genre within radio is that to talk about talk back radio meaningfully we need to consider adjacent communications technologies, the relative informalisation of communications over the telephone and within radio itself - paralleling an increasing "informal" use of public space.

The long playing record

Consider too the relationship between the "top forty" and the popularisation of 33 and 45 rpm records - of which the contemporary compact disk is an intensification. Previous to the advent of this new recording and reproduction technology in the late 1950s, the 78 rpm record was the norm for domestic use. These records could sustain far fewer playings than their successors, the 33 rpm and 45 rpm single and more lately the compact disk. The machines that they were played on required the needle to be changed often: thereby limiting the uses made of a "record player". This meant that radio stations and their audiences used records more sparingly in order to preserve them. A number of programming consequences followed. Music was turned over relatively slowly and it took longer (time wise) for music to become redundant. Cycles of popular music were therefore longer than today.

Enter the new record technology, which coupled longer playing and more durable records with a needle that was equally "long playing" at a "consumer end". In practice, the new recording technology of the late 1950s permitted an exponential increase in the number of repeated playings possible on a record player. At last, it appeared that the cycle of built-in obsolescence had been broken. But in terms of radio practice and styles of usage, this new technology permitted a hastening of redundancy rather than its extension in time. More plays over a shorter time period became the norm, replacing fewer plays over a longer time frame.

This became the basis for a veritable explosion in record collecting and in record playing in the domestic environment from the late 1950s which came to replicate the cycles of redundancy of music known as the top forty and top ten played on radio. How was this possible? It was possible because the durable nature of the new records permitted both the radio station and the consumer to play the record a potentially infinite number of times. This enabled a greater recognition value to become associated with a particular record as sustained replayings over shorter and shorter time intervals developed. As a consequence, the technology that seemed at one level to promise the kind of perdurance previously associated with books was integral to the exhaustion of records over a shorter period of time. As an aside, this exhaustion led to the extensive development of the second hand record market - a market for records whose very perdurance is a problem for their owners and an opportunity for collectors.

One cannot, then, understand the advent of the top forty since the late 1950s without an understanding of: the adjacent "recording industry", the sale of the record player into the home as a household necessity rather than a dispensable "luxury" good; and the durable nature of the replaying material for both radio station and consumer.

I am from a country farm (or "property" to use an outmoded vernacular) and I remember the big event it was in our family when my parents bought a record player. Our family were late purchasers. We were the "invisible" workforce which pestered them to become as technologically literate as our urban school mates. They regarded it as a luxury good - and even when they got it they did not become enthusiastic record purchasers. Quickly it became the venue for Bob Dylan, ABBA and Sherbert - much to their irritation. It also permitted some of us to bypass radio altogether. I still have a Kinky Friedman record bought out of a review in the Nation Review - a record which was certainly not played on the regional commercial radio stations 4RO and 4CD. Of course, the advent of television is usually held to have changed radio and shaped it towards the music industry, the DJ, youth and day-time markets. But these markets would not have been available without multiple radio households, transistorisation, and the invasion of radio into public spaces. There was then a specific relationship between record sales, the top forty, DJs and the long playing record.

Remember that in the 1920s and the 1930s the market for sheet music was as important as the record market. The record market facilitated sheet music sales. And this meant that a routine space for "covers" - usually live to air, professional and "amateur" radio shows - was created. These were often integrated into town and country hall routines of dances and eisteddfods and, in the larger cities, performance halls for radio shows. The film documentary The Queen in Australia (1954) has couples dancing on a ship's dance floor to radio music which is then interrupted by news of the queen. These kinds of routines helped shape a different rhythm of innovation and novelty as popular songs became performed in subsidiary, often unpaid community spaces. In this context it is not surprising, as Jenny Jauczius points out, that the leading Australian performer of the 1940s and 1950s should supplement his earnings by selling guitars on mail order (58).

The long playing record

We are so used to mixing desks, reel-to-reel tapes and the like in radio as a means of editing, interconnecting talk and music that it is hard to imagine radio as anything other than edited interview and spontaneous voice. If it is hard to imagine what radio production looked like without those aids, it is also hard not to see it as inhibited radio. The radio of the 1930s and 1940s is often called "live radio". Typically radio professionals of that era recall prodigious feats of memory by performers or the professionalism of broadcasters to cover up mishaps. If live radio was usurped as a mass broadcaster by TV, the position was somewhat reversed between the cinema and radio; the latter impinged quite directly upon cinema's audience (Jowett 191-92). Certainly many performers - including actors of the 1930s and 1940s in the US and Australia made more money from their radio appearances than from their film work. This was the case for Chips Rafferty, Lee Robinson and Bing Crosby. After a period of competition between the two, a synergistic relationship emerged, with film soundtracks finding a regular place on radio schedules. Radio acquired performers from cinema and the advent of sound permitted cinema operators over the longer haul to cut overheads. The relationship between the take-off of sound cinema and the take-off of radio as a mass medium is rarely considered. Yet radio undoubtedly hastened the introduction of sound cinema as a way of wooing back the domestic audience initially lost to radio. The cinema was henceforth able to cut expensive performance overheads in individual theatres and "buy" the top acts for that 1930s staple, the musical.

The radio schedule was quite close to the TV schedule that succeeded it. Like TV, radio had a mix of information and entertainment - or "infotainment" - directed in its commercial form at a domestic audience. We so take for granted this audience and this home delivery that its achievement goes unrecognised. Sometimes it's important to go to comments on a medium right when it first started to get a sense of its peculiarity. It's for this reason that Czitrom's quotation from an American NBC executive in the late 1920s is worth repeating:

For years the national advertiser and his agency had been dreaming of the time to come when there would be evolved some great family medium which should reach the home and the adult members of the family in their moments of relaxation, bringing to them the editorial and advertising message ... Then came radio broadcasting, utilising the very air we breathe, and with electricity as its vehicle entering the homes of the nation through doors and windows, no matter how tightly barred, and delivering its message audibly through the loudspeaker wherever placed ... In the midst of the family circle, in moments of relaxation, the voice of radio brings to the audience its program of entertainment or its message of advertising. (77)

I suppose you have never thought of the radio as a psychological burglar. But from the standpoint of mass marketing that is what it was. TV usurped this place in the 1960s in Australia; the 1950s in America and later in most of the rest of the world.

In terms of performance and programming the situation in radio (as in early TV, before video tape technology provided sophisticated postproduction facilities) was one in which the written and memorised script played an important role. Indeed "live radio" would have been unimaginable without a script and rehearsals for it. There simply would not have been the same quality control. It is worth, then, putting inverted commas around "live" because what was meant by "live" between 1930 and 1960 in Australia was very different than what it meant after that.

Because reel to reel tape was not in common use - and was indeed a German war-time invention which took a long time to be commercially developed within radio - it was difficult, well nigh impossible to edit interviews so they could come back to the required length. Consequently it was not uncommon for interviews to be carefully scripted. So too it was impossible to control the content of interviews through the kind of seven second delay processes that are used today. As a consequence, the scripted talk - and indeed the partially scripted interview - was something of a norm within the Australian Broadcasting Commission and commercial radio. Writing it out before - that is putting the effort into pre-production rather than post-production - was the means through which content in radio was kept to the required length, a level of quality control was ensured, and a monitoring process was able to be carried out. The reading of written material would be seen as boring radio today - but this was a particular form of writing. This was either the writing of the prepared speech which meshed with radio's formal mode of presentation and address; or else it was the "informal"/formal interview sandwiched halfway between today's "live interviews" (later edited down) and the prepared speech. The same role of writing in radio is certainly not with us today: a speechified presentation now has to be the recording of a public presentation or speech. Writing as a means of monitoring and time keeping has been replaced by the technical panoply of: tape machines rebroadcasting with a time delay; recorded and edited interviews; and a mixed conversational performance mode of presentation in which "ums, ahs" etc. remain, and at times selfconsciously display, thinking in process.

Radio segmentation

Radio has undergone tremendous segmentation which would have been unthinkable less than a decade ago. Driving across the prairies of the mid-west of the USA in 1989, I listened to car radio. Religious radio and business radio both refused to tell the time, only saying for example that it was "twenty minutes past the hour." But what hour? They did not tell their listeners this, because the same radio was being rebroadcast across the US at the same time: this was an "utterly decontextualised" radio not requiring the operation of time delays. Its promise was that no matter when it was on, no matter the time of the day - it was the same format. Therefore the times of the day became more arbitrary markers in radio discourse. It was up to the listeners across the US time-zones to determine which hour it was. This was disturbing for me. I had only ever thought of radio as providing the exact time, being of the next place or last place I had been to - and certainly not time without the time! Both stations employed interviews, and commentary aimed at a segmented public. The religious radio station was offering specialised financial advice and a combination of fundamentalism and extreme right-wing politics.

What I found disturbing was the different construction of community involved; and my utter lack of sympathy for any of them. No longer is the community just constructed vertically in the one locale with the mix of elements shaping a diversity of programming for a diverse audience; but there is a virtual horizontal shape to community, as community can become defined as audiences within a number of geographic locales. This is often called narrow casting; and some would have it succeed broadcasting. But the exceptional ratings commercial FM stations in Australia have been able to garner suggests such projections are too extreme. What we may have instead is a mix of types of radio, with each type being organised through a construction of its community of listeners as values clusters, place, religious affiliation etc; and the extent to which, by channelling meanings tightly or loosely along certain pathways, listeners are either driven out as a means of incorporating fewer more passionately and potentially exclusively engaged listeners often financially contributing to the station; or are incorporated in a more ephemeral and occasionally intensely engaged way, depending on the segment, the song, the item.

What is suggested through these examples is the persistence in the present of a number of types of radio. We are used to seeing types of radio not in their handling of time, space and community but rather through legislative and funding categories: public radio, national radio, commercial radio such that public radio is selfconsciously an assemblage of elements; national radio is driven by cost benefit (political and social calculations typical of state enterprise); and commercial radio is driven by advertising and the identifications of markets. I wonder, though, whether it might be more useful to consider other kinds of cultural indicators here involving program creation styles, community orientation and the like.

Works cited

Carey, James. Communication as Culture. Boston: Unwin-Hyman, 1989.

Carroll, Noel. "The Specificity of Media in the Arts." Journal of Aesthetic Education 19(1984):5-20.

Czitrom, Daniel. Media and the American Mind. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina Press,1982.

Jauczius, Jennipher. "The Australian Country Music Phenomenon, 1930s to 1973." Honours Thesis. Schools of Social Sciences and Humanities, Murdoch University, 1990.

Jowett, Garth. Film: The Democratic Art. Boston: Little, Brown & Co, 1976.

Katz, Elihu. "The Medium and the Experience: Further Gropings Towards the Conceptualisation of Effects." Mass Communications Review Yearbook 6. Ed. Michael Gurevitch and Mark R. Levy. Beverley Hills: Sage Publications, 1987:35-39.

Katz, Elihu and Paul Lazarsfeld. Personal Influence. Glencoe: Free Press, 1955.

Marvin, Carolyn. "Dazzling the Multitude: Imagining the Electric Light as a Communications Medium". Mass Communications Review Yearbook 6. Ed. Michael Gurevitch and Mark R. Levy. Beverly Hills: Sage Publications, 1987:256-71.

Marvin, Carolyn.When Old Technologies were New. New York: Oxford UP, 1988.

Rosenthal, R. et al. McLuhan: Pro and Con. Baltimore: Pelican, 1972.


New: 7 March, 1996 | Now: 21 March, 2015