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Topic in Focus: Radio

by Mads Krogh, Aarhus University Denmark

Within the past five years, broadcast corporations around the world have marked their centenary milestones. Radio, a key component of 20th-century mass-media modernity, has successfully transitioned into the digital age and continues to inform, entertain, and shape audiences. It sets the tone and cadence of intimate daily living while resonating in the broader realms of media, politics, and commerce.

With this collection of freely accessible chapters, we explore the significance of radio, especially for fostering communities. Special attention is given to music radio, a pivotal though sometimes underacknowledged aspect of what has propagated through the airwaves.

Winston Churchill makes his VE Day radio broadcast from 10 Downing Street, 8 May 1945
Image credit: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Space, Place and Nation Building

Radio is the medium of nation building par excellence. For the national broadcasting corporations established from the 1920s onwards, this was a main task. Radio provided a new means of addressing the nation, communicating to the public in real time, ‘as one’. Still, the task of creating and maintaining a sense of national identity proved challenging, for example, in the face of geographical or sociocultural distance and against local or transnational operators. This is demonstrated by J. Mark Percival in his exploration of the relation between music radio, space and place. Looking at the development of public service radio in Canada and Britain, he notes how superimposing a sense of a coherent national scene – an imaginary ‘national-place’ – over the potentially vast and disparate space of the nation-state is how political stakeholders gave radio a role in nation-building. Moreover, fending off external threats to the imagined national community has involved the delicate balance of incorporating strategies from transnational, e.g. commercial, operators into the national broadcasting corporation. Certainly, this disbands any simple notion of broadcasting (to) the nation.

Explore further by reading J. Mark Percival’s chapter ‘Music radio’ in The Bloomsbury Handbook of Popular Music, Space and Place.

UNITED STATES - CIRCA 1950s: Family listening to radio (George Marks/Getty Images)
Image credit: (George Marks/Getty Images)

Radio, Taste, and Class

The spread of radio from the 1930s as a household item coincides with the rise of middle-class tastes or, more precisely, it initiates a development, where ‘middlebrow’ gradually comes to signify a taste of its own (as opposed to being merely that which is neither high- nor low-brow). This is argued by Morten Michelsen, who details the multiplicity of musical genres scheduled by European operators in the 1930s, while noting that light music, parlor music, and modern dance music came to be ‘the bread and butter’ of music radio programming. This dominance of the airwaves by genres appealing to middle-class audiences contrasted with the official preoccupation by radio corporations with art music; that is, the promotion of highbrow tastes which offered a central means of legitimization in a time where education was considered the raison d’etre of public service radio. The juxtaposition and implied comparability of genres combined with the prominence of music representing middlebrow tastes nevertheless worked to showcase the latter as having a sense and significance of its own. To Michelsen, this marks the first phase in a history which encompasses other media institutional and musico-cultural developments (e.g. the 1960’s advent of rock criticism), while from the perspective of radio studies it provides a central case of radio’s potential for aggregating large-scale social communities based on class and taste.

Explore further by reading Morten Michelsen’s chapter ‘Being In-Between: Popular Music and Middlebrow Taste’ in The Bloomsbury Handbook of Popular Music and Social Class

Fado musicians playing in a Lisbon club (Bernard Bisson / Getty Images)
Image credit: (Bernard Bisson / Getty Images)

Migrant Community Radio

In many countries, deregulation of frequencies and ideals about democratic and participatory media engagement have paved the way for community radio stations. Contrary to national broadcasting corporations and commercial networks, these often play a key role in voicing the concerns of local groups. In his chapter “Migrant radio, Community, and (New) Fado: The Case of Radio ALFA”, Pedro Moreira explores a station that is commercial, but which serves the Lusophone (i.e. Portuguese-speaking) community living in France, and specifically in a way that reflects the reality of this group. As such, Radio ALFA not merely represents the motherland to (and as imagined by) those living abroad but conveys instead a migrant Portuguese identity situated in the context of everyday contemporary France. The musical genre of (new) fado takes on particular significance in this regard. A genre of hybrid origin – mixing Afro-Brazilian and Portuguese inspirations – fado was picked up by the transnational music industries, circulated as world music and, thus, accorded a sense of cosmopolitanism. To Radio ALFA, promoting (new) fado offers a way of associating with this successful, traditional Portuguese yet contemporary and cosmopolitan cultural expression; that is, it offers a way for the station to articulate a sense of a vibrant and forceful migrant identity for the Lusophone community.

Explore further by reading Pedro Moreira’s chapter ‘Migrant Radio, Community, and (New) Fado: The Case of Radio ALFA’ in Music Radio: Building Communities, Mediating Genres

 Radio talk show host (recep-bg / Getty Images)
Image credit: (recep-bg / Getty Images)


From the perspective of radio production, the appeal to different audiences is often thought about as a matter of formats – for example, talk radio, sports radio, contemporary hit radio, urban, or album-oriented rock. Formats streamline programming – i.e. the choice of music, news, style of presenters, sound of jingles, commercials etc. – according to the tastes of target audiences, whose attention is in turn sold to advertisers or mobilized to please political stakeholders. How such streamlining is achieved in the day-to-day workings of a radio station is a question that lends itself to detailed media ethnographic inquiry, as demonstrated by Katrine Wallevik. In her account of ‘Godmorgen P3’, a breakfast program aired by the Danish Broadcasting Corporation, she unravels the multiplicity of (f)actors engaged in program production. A host of human ‘accomplices’ take up different roles: researching, planning, playlisting and presenting. They employ a wide range of tools and technologies, thus enacting a complex human-non-human network. This constitutes a working culture but also a milieu of matter and meaning. Pursuing transactions in this milieu, such as the implication by programmers of scheduling software in producing musical flow, Wallevik unfolds a range of themes and, more fundamentally, onto-epistemological complexities in the apparatus that makes ‘Godmorgen P3’ cohere.

Explore further by reading Katrine Wallevik’s chapter ‘The Software’ in The Bloomsbury Handbook of the Anthropology of Sound

Young radio operator
Image credit: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

The Love of Radio

Whatever communities are assembled in or by radio, a basic question concerns the affective attachment or emotional investment that causes people to engage with the medium. What constitutes the love or at least affection for radio? In her book Radiophilia, Carolyn Birdsall provides a nuanced answer to this question, suggesting that loving should be understood as a site of action and practice – a site that transcends the listener’s individual relationship to the medium or to specific radio programs or stations, while encompassing instead a range of group practices and social moods. She lists a broad range of radio’s attractions, from its technological media qualities and types of content to the social uses developed by audiences, all of which afford diverse listener engagements. The concept of affect lends itself to thinking about both the emotional intensity and more-than-individual (i.e. agentially dispersed) character of engagements. Moreover, advocating the concept of affective practice, Birdsall stresses the way affects are to some extent cultivated in embodied, habitual and, again, social ways. This leads her to identify and – in the course of the book – explore a broader range of practices (knowing, saving, sharing), which associate and articulate the love of radio.

Explore further by reading Carolyn Birdsall’s chapter ‘Loving’ in Radiophilia

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