- Originally published in Transmissions, an online publication produced by Rumble Productions (circa 1995)
On a scale between engagement and indifference, radio in North America registers closer to the latter, despite the promise and glitter of its early days. Even when a program today is truly absorbing in content and execution, the experience of listening to it is compromised by a number of activities, sounds, and visual impressions that clutter the domestic environment where radio is so meekly inserted…
North American radio is like a deaf and blind lecturer who has learned the art of elocution, but is entirely unaware of the fact that no one in the audience is listening or has the slightest interest in trying.
Until the art of focused listening can be cultivated in the general public, radio will continue to muddle in the mid-field of the North American domestic soundscape.The ability to focus attentively on the radio, or just on one task at a time, would be reflected in the elimination of sounds competing for foreground attention.
Furthermore, it would be reflected in the recognition that today’s trend toward ‘louder is better’ in restaurants, cafe’s, and many entertainment venues is both annoying and potentially hazardous to the
hearing and the acoustic sensitivity of North American society at large. The lack of attention to radio mirrors the lack of composition in the everyday North American soundscape where human proportion is
obliterated by the unnecessary whine and drone of vehicles and other mechanized sounds.
The integration of radio in the domestic environment therefore rests on a thin frail wire that is re-threaded regularly from consistent overloads due to the fact that there are too many sounds, activities, and other stimuli and interests competing for the same attention. The radio plays endlessly in the living room, or in the office, or bedroom, or even the bathroom. It plays and on occasion manages to sneak the odd phrase or two into the foreground of a human receptacle that is largely indifferent and distracted.
Radio programmers are well aware of this indifference. Commercial radio in North America in fact prides itself on being a companion to everyday activity as evidenced by an ad campaign for CHFI-FM in Toronto that used the phrase “music while you work”. Although invisible to the gaze of its audience radio shows up in many places -automobiles, kitchens, restaurants, storefronts etc. – to fill the awkward silences of busy lives. To get around easily radio sports a simple wardrobe. It presents clear and largely unambiguous voices devoid of a physical context augmented at varying intervals by musical segments that mirror the assumed fashions and life-styles of the intended audience. Even when programming ratios are reversed, radio does not undermine its goal of being a pleasant companion to a distracted audience twenty-four hours a day. Multiplicity, intricate relationships of sound and text: these are techniques reserved for the marginalized art-world that radio, in particular commercial radio, has not the time or interest to associate with.
In the areas of feature documentary and drama, where the most judicious engagement is expected from radio listeners, and where energy is invested in what can be thought of as an artistic work, the
distracted audience still has an impact on the making of radio. To start with, there is evidence that a distracted audience provides governments and corporations with the leverage they need to withdraw more and more money from artistic and non-commercial production.
The effect of which is that the producers of features and dramas must retreat from experimentation and complexity, since the fear of losing an audience out right is as apparent as the harsh reality of shrinking resources.
I would wager that if North American radio was not restricted by its indifferent audience, but rather compelled to challenge it, the attention of this audience would shift gradually back to genuine engagement.
There, alas, would be something to become excited about and dive into. The medium would no longer be defined by what it lacks, but by what it possesses over other communications media. The blind and deaf lecturer from my earlier example would thus find a way to interact with his or her audience, even though their sounds and actions would still be completely unknown to him or her. Effectively, the lecturer would not just blend in with the ambience, but would become the focal point for all of the sounds and actions within earshot.
Radio has the power to engage the imagination of the focused listener, which is the power to paint pictures far more vivid than those transmitted on television. The operative word here is paint, which is to create, or to invent, make, instill, inspire, evoke, and ultimately enliven the mind- the human spirit-to participate actively in a listening experience and engage its own sense of authorship in mediating the broadcasted information.
For radio to be meaningful and worthwhile both the medium and its listeners need to become more active.
An active radio is one that cultivates a vocabulary of techniques and resources that are rich, diverse, complex, and intricate in both content and form, while continuing to be pertinent and informative. However, our blind and deaf lecturer still requires the audience to cooperate in order for his new lecturing skills to have any effect. Therefore, an active listener must learn to cultivate sensitivity to
his or her everyday acoustic environment and discover ways to orchestrate it into meaningful and socially constructive forms. Without an active relationship here in North America, radio and its audience will continue to collaborate on nothing more than an increasing excess of competing information.
Alan Beck, Point-of-Listening in Radio Plays. Unpublished research in progress, February 1998.
Gary Ferrington, Keep Your Ear-Lids Open. Journal of Visual Literacy (1994).
Dr. Ursula Franklin, Silence and the Notion of the Commons. The
Soundscape Newsletter 07., January, 1994.
Douglas Kahn and Gregory Whitehead (ed.), Wireless Imagination :
Sound, Radio, and the Avant-Garde. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1992.
R. Murray Schafer, The Tuning of the World. New York : Knopf, 1977.
Neil Strauss (ed.), Radio text(e). New York: Semiotext(e), 1993.
Barry Truax, Acoustic Communication. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Pub. Corp.,
For info about the CEC, visit their web site at: http://cec.concordia.ca