November 2000
Does radio need extras?

Prime Radio Stations

Does radio need extras?

An aural medium!

Over the last two months ( September comment and October comment), we looked at what we thought the new technologies might bring and also what effects they might have on radio as we have known it for many years. This month, we take that in but consider the nature of the medium itself.
To us radio is an aural medium. Adding pictures to us means that what you have is not radio, even if it's not necessarily television either!
This puts us fairly and squarely in a traditional mould, but it does not mean we cannot appreciate the new developments, although we do have problem finding much extra value in just sticking a webcam up and letting the Internet audience see the radio presenters (as the BBC has done recently for the Today breakfast programme on Radio 4 ). On the other hand the same site's provision of on-demand archive interviews it a development we welcome wholehartedly and having access to highights of the past 43 years is not to be passed by without appreciation. However we remain concerned lest the rush to the gizmos could lead to a weakening of the core.

What that means.

To us that means appreciating the great strengths of radio as well as taking note of the weaknesses commonly perceived in the absence of a visual component.. Just as a monochrome photograph can gain strength from the very fact that it has no colour and must thus use form, light, and shade, so can radio from the very absence of associated visuals provided by someone else.
As with the written word, the absence of pictures means we can imagine our own. In so doing we are involved more and limited less since the boundaries to that imagination are constrained only by our brains, not by costs or difficulties in creating images.
Beyond the written word though, we have different ways of drawing an emphasis, controlling a pause, invoking memory by a sound or creating an atmosphere by sounds.

Involving our imagination.

Common to all the comments above is the fact that radio has great scope for involving our imagination, indeed for involving us in an intimate way that television finds hard to manage, however little that involvement may generally be perceived as a benefit by most people. Much radio may not do that particularly well of course but that is due to its creators not the nature of the medium itself.
Imagine though, if you can, television creating the same kind of effect that Orson Welles did with his radio production of the "War of the Worlds." Yes, times were different then and yes, maybe the effect was somewhat hyped. But nevertheless the fact is that so much of radio's strength ( for that matter, also, the strength of many movies and much television) derives from the unseen Because we couldn't see, we create visions and the art of human storytelling has for most of its history used that facet of our being. For much radio, it would be over-egging it to claim that it sets out actively with any grandiose ideas about stimulating imagination but inevitably every DJ cracking a joke or reporter using a telling phrase, sound bite, or actuality audio does just that.


And, as we've noted before, no other medium is better than an aural one for what in computer terms would be called "multi-taking." You can be getting on with so many other things whilst listening but once you have to watch something you're partly immobilised. Indeed it could be put another way: Unless asleep. you're always listening. Which means on the one hand that poor control of sound can be very irritating, whether it be on a radio or TV set since you can't help but respond. On the other it means that sound can slip in under your guard in a way that visuals can't. Or,of course, put you on guard s
ince very often it is the sound that draws attention to the visual but comparatively rarely the other way round.
Which to us means that so many people have got things the wrong way round in that they almost always give priority to the visual, except perhaps on the telephone. And even there we'll be pushed towards the videophone once the technology and costs make it seem to the bean counters that there's money to be made from it.

A sensible response?

The sensible response we see to this is not to try and deny the existence of other media or the advantages of new ones. No burying of the head in sand. However there is a point in deliberately
setting out to every so often get the full benefits of a particular medium.
Rather than just treating video or audio as a backdrop, watch or listen every so often a situation where you can concentrate on it without interruption (which puts some rather severe curbs on commercial broadcasts!). Here there's a benefit for radio. At least with radio it's easier to get past the advertisements. For one thing, the Internet means that once you've set up your computer or Internet radio, you can pull in licence-funded stations which don't carry the multiplicity of advertisements. And with a bit of luck for them, the same will happen with the subscription-funded satellite radio services soon to go on air in the US..
Whatever the route though, there is a benefit in avoiding the interruptions. Whether your interest is music of any kind, drama,sport or talk, try once in a while "listening hard." If you then find your attention wandering, maybe the material isn't up to it but if you don't the experience will be hat much more powerful. Like being engaged in a book so as to be oblivious of what is happening around you, you can be overtaken by the aural. And when you are the experience is worth it -- well worth it.
It's an investment in time and appreciation, not a waste of time.

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