In a world of ever-changing technological advancements, the radio is one of the few forms of media that has persisted. When the radio initially became popular among typical home consumers in the 1920’s, it was a cutting-edge device. Before the age of television, social media, and the Internet, the radio brought mass media into the home. News, politics, and other information was now available and easily dispersed through a network of radios and broadcasting stations. Rather than replacing or building on an outdated technology, like many new forms do today, the radio was the first of its kind and provided a service that many people did not realize they needed.
As one of the original forms of mass media, the radio was used for widespread dissemination of news, music, and other entertainment. It became the first link between American households and breaking news. The radio was powerful in that it created an expansive network through which information could easily be directed to nearly every home. Although advancing technology has shaped it over the years, the radio remains one of the most “traditional” mediums. In Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium is the Massage, forms of media are analyzed based on their superior importance over the actual content of a particular medium. The radio as a medium of information falls into many of the descriptions that McLuhan depicts: it has the unique ability to strengthen the power of sound, create a “global village,” and serve as an intimate medium.
Today’s society is heavily focused on visual forms of media. Computers, television, and smart phones, among other devices, create an environment in which people are incessantly looking at a screen. The radio is one of the few remaining mediums that continues to rely exclusively on the sense of hearing. The notion that auditory mediums are perceived differently and have a varying effect on social interactions has long been studied. In McLuhan’s The Medium is the Massage, he puts much emphasis on the role of a written language as a way of creating a dependence on the visual. He writes that “Until writing was invented, men lived in acoustic space: boundless . . . in the world of emotion.” Prior to a written language, thought was expressed solely through sound. With the introduction of written language, however, societies became reliant upon images (letters and words) to portray their thoughts and opinions. It is easy to observe how this effect has continued to evolve; with the myriad textual mediums available today, like email, text messages, and social media, the need to talk and listen is almost obsolete.
The radio is unique in that it attempts to combat this modern reliance on visual communication. Rather than provide pictures or images that allow the user to passively absorb the information, the radio requires active listening. This is true for many forms of auditory media. Ancient civilizations relied on oral stories to be accurately remembered in order to preserve their history and traditions. These ancestral stories had no way of being permanently recorded, so active and effective listening was key. The radio reflects this notion by requiring the listener to pay more attention to the content being broadcast. People tend to have a better understanding of what they are hearing and retain more of the information being played over a radio than through more visual forms, such as television. This lends the radio to serve as a more successful method of dispersing news and other important information. By being broadcast over the radio, breaking news and vital updates are more likely to be disseminated among the population in a prompt manner, especially since the information typically requires less processing, recording, and other intermediaries than in television, for example. Additionally, a listener is required to be more dynamically engaged with the material presented. This creates a greater commitment to the information being broadcast, as the other senses are stimulated aside from simply visualization. Generally, people feel more connected to something that they understand and to which they can attach a different sense.
Another significant aspect of radio’s auditory form specifically lies in its absence of a visual feature. Listening to the radio causes the user to create a mental image of what is being heard, which results in every listener having a different “picture” of the broadcast. As was noted in the article “Radio: The Intimate Medium” by Lou Orfanella, “Sound, imaginatively used, stimulated the listener to create in his or her mind a picture. . . . Every listener ‘saw’ a different show, but each show was perfect.” Radio’s singular sensory use allows the other senses to fill in with a person’s own imaginative observations.
This capability is similarly analyzed by McLuhan in his book Understanding Media, in which he classifies various mediums as either “hot” or “cool.” He describes a “hot” medium as one which “offers an auditory image of high resolution.” This means that media categorized as “hot” deliver a greater amount of information in a way that further stimulates the sense in question, in the case of radio, hearing. In contrast, a “cool” medium creates a low-definition image which requires the other senses to be more participatory in order to effectively retain the medium’s message. Because the radio is “hot,” a listener is subject to a heightened sense of active hearing as this particular sense is stimulated. This is distinct from the “cool” sensory process of watching television, for example, in which other senses must strengthen to compensate for the low-resolution image, ultimately creating a different perception of the content by way of a different medium.
In addition to the many auditory aspects of the radio, it can also be analyzed based on its social effects and interactions. Advanced forms of technology have brought the world together and intertwined the concerns and relations of people from all over the globe. McLuhan’s reference to the “global village” emphasizes how modern media allows humans to live in “a simultaneous happening.” The close concerns within one’s own family or small community, which were once the sole focus, are greatly expanding; the issues and happenings of the entire population are now brought forth through global media. It is commonly felt that there is also a new responsibility to solve such problems or take part in the issues of which we are made aware. The radio, as one of the first forms of mass media, has played an influential role in contributing to this “global village” effect. As McLuhan describes in Understanding Media, “Anybody is willing to concede that radio provides a kind of speed-up of information that . . . creates village tastes for gossip, rumor, and personal malice.” McLuhan is attempting to explain how the radio is designed to accelerate the dispersion of news, information, and even rumors.
In again referencing McLuhan’s infamous assertion that “the medium is the message,” it is important to recognize that the radio is more significant in its performance as a medium than in its actual content. According to Orfanella in “Radio: The Intimate Medium,” the radio broadcast serves as a reflection of society; “We are not the poetry, we are the amplification of the poetry.” As a medium, the radio reflects society by portraying the important news and even pop culture of the current time. Listeners of the radio may even feel a certain nostalgia when remembering noteworthy moments or eras that focused around a broadcast. A memory produced from a top-ten song that was repeatedly played, or the vivid recollection of first hearing tragic news, could all be linked to the radio. This is especially true for older generations that experienced the radio during its cutting-edge era and consequently have a greater appreciation for it as a form of media. The radio as a medium allows us to retain certain aspects of society and culture simply by listening and being entertained.
The radio is often referred to as the “intimate medium” for its exceptional ability to provide a private listening experience unlike many other media forms. Since its original conception, the radio has taken liberty in diversifying its broadcasts and catering to numerous different populations through a wide variety of stations. Nearly every town, big or small, has a radio station that tailors its broadcasts to the local preferences. Consequently, listeners are offered a more personalized radio experience based on interests, music tastes, and other factors. Although still offering seemingly less variety than other online music streaming services, the radio has made considerable progress in diversification given its widespread use and easy availability.
There is also a sense of immediacy that goes along with listening to the radio. Unlike many other mediums, the radio is direct; the voice of the broadcaster emitted from a radio is coming straight from a studio and in real time. This eliminates the “fake” sensation that comes with pre-recorded music or television shows. It also makes listeners more susceptible to connecting with a certain radio station or broadcaster. The radio is often listened to at regular times and specific stations. For example, someone may listen to the same broadcaster on the same morning radio show every day on the commute to work or class. This repetition creates a sort of “bond” between the listener and host, especially since the immediacy of the radio gives a feeling of a private conversation.
Throughout the entire lifespan of the radio, its sole purpose has been to distribute news over wide areas in a quick manner. The exclusive thing about the radio is its ability to create a sense of community based on what it is broadcasting. By sparking a conversation or aiding discussion in a particular pertinent topic, the radio often creates a sense of unity rather than alienation by technology. Additionally, by focusing on only the auditory sense, the radio acts in a way that strengthens the power of sound and encourages listeners to participate in active hearing. As a result, each user of the radio is provided with a “perfect” image of the presented material. The radio will continue to live on as a medium that effectively transforms the way people receive and interpret information through sound.
Giannara, Giannakoulopoulos, and Evenis. “Audio on Demand: Radio’s Future Format and its Impact on the Communication Procedure,” Sounding Out 3 Conference, Sunderland 2006.
McLuhan, Marshall. The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects. Corte Madera: Gingko Press Inc., 1967. Print.
McLuhan, Marshall. “Radio: The Tribal Drum.” AV Communication Review 12.2 (1964): 133-145. JSTOR. Web.
Orfanella, Lou. “Radio: The Intimate Medium.” The English Journal 87.1 (1998): 53-55. JSTOR. Web.