Radio days

I never forgot that New Year’s Eve when Aunt Bea awakened me to watch 1944 come in. And I’ve never forgotten any of those people or any of the voices we used to hear on the radio. Although the truth is with the passing of each New Year’s Eve those voices do seem to grow dimmer and dimmer. From Woody Allen’s film, Radio Days

 It is imperative in the political interest of the state not only that the whole nation participates in broadcasting, but that the entire nation is ready to receive radio programmes at any moment. Artur Freudenberg, Nazi propagandist 

Radio is the theatre of the mind; television is the theatre of the mindless. Steve Allen

 Radio on the Internet is yet another world-shrinking example of what communications analysts call “death of distance.” Tim Jones

 It’s not true that I had nothing on. I had the radio on. Marilyn Monroe

          Life used to be so much simpler. At school we learned that Marconi invented the radio but in researching this piece I have discovered that it is much more complicated than that. The invention of the radio was in reality a cumulative process and it is impossible to give credit to just one inventor; Hertz, Tessla, Popov, Edison, and Bose all made crucial discoveries at the end of the nineteenth century. The first proper broadcast took place on Christmas Eve in 1906, and was made by Reginald Fessenden, a Canadian working for Thomas Edison. It consisted of some violin playing and passages from the Bible. After the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, radio for communications became increasingly popular. The BBC radio services began in 1922, with the first outside broadcast a year later. In the General Strike of 1926 the BBC came into its own broadcasting five news bulletins a day at a time when no newspapers could be published. The golden age of radio was probably from the 1930s to the 1950s when news helped to inform people about the world and the music, quiz shows, comedy, sports broadcasts, variety shows, and dramatic programming helped take people’s minds off the economic turmoil and subsequent world war. Who cannot feel nostalgia for that period as the whole family gathered round those enormous radios built into large wooden cases and their vacuum tubes? Woody Allen lovingly recreated this period in his film Days of Radio. Probably the most famous programme from this glorious age was Orson Welles’s The War of the Worlds, done as a series of simulated news broadcasts about an alien invasion, causing widespread panic. Although a lot of these tales of mass hysteria were urban legends and had little basis in reality.

           Nazi Germany was the first totalitarian state to use radio as a propaganda tool and they brought out a series of affordable two-band radio sets – the Volksempfänger (the people’s receiver), which had an eagle and swastika stamped on the front.  Between 1933 and 1939 over 7 million Volksempfänger were produced. With their state monopoly, the Reich Broadcasting Corporation, Goebbels, saw their massive propaganda potential. Leni Riefenstahl’s The Triumph of the Will is what we are most familiar with but most ordinary Germans would have first experienced the Nuremberg rallies on their own sets or through huge loudspeakers mounted in public places. There was no escape from Hitler and it was probably not a good idea to turn off your radio when the Führer was in full flight.

         When WWII broke out in September 1939, listening to enemy radio stations became punishable by a sentence in a concentration camp. All radios sold came with this chilling warning “Think about this: listening to foreign broadcasts is a crime against the national security of our people. It is a Führer order punishable by prison and hard labour.” The Gestapo ran campaign where it advertised for sale radios with short wave bands and then arrested and shot anyone who wanted to buy one as a traitor.

         I haven’t mentioned German overseas wartime propaganda, which was designed to discourage, and demoralise the allied troops and civilians. I am of course referring to the infamous Lord Haw-Haw who in fact was more than one person. You may well have heard of William Joyce but it also referred to other announcers including Wolf Mittler a Polish-German playboy with a British education who spoke and behaved like the fictional aristocrat, Bertie Wooster. Around a third of the British nation would tune in to Lord Haw-Haw’s programme. However, this should not be seen as an example of a propaganda success as most of the listeners treated it as a joke and it became compulsive listening.

         I must not forget the Soviet bloc. When I was a lad I remember many a night when I was unable to get to sleep and I would tune into one Radio Albania’s in English Language Service, which would announce another glorious grain harvest or the impressive figures for tractor production. Within fifteen minutes I would be out. There really should be a website where you can download this kind of stuff. It could be the end of insomnia within a generation.

           With the rise of television radio became marginalized but the digital revolution and the expansion of new ways of accessing information online has given a huge boost to this most traditional form of electronic media. If you are a regular reader of my blog you will know that I am a fanatic of internet radio and that I regularly recommend programmes from the BBC, NPR (National Public Radio from the US) and Australia’s ABC Radio National in the My Media Week Section. The beauty of radio is that it can be consumed very easily and it allows you to do something else at the same time. Now with podcasts it’s possible to listen to a programme anywhere you like.

        We have another example of the long tail (the term was first coined by Chris Anderson in an October 2004 Wired magazine article to describe the niche strategy of businesses, such as or Netflix, that sell a large number of unique items, each in relatively small quantities.) Podcasting shows the increasing value of such niche entertainment and thematic content very specific tastes can be catered for rather than the generalised content that we had to put up with in the past. There are also a lot of challenges in creating viable economic models. The days of those awful, intrusive radio ads are hopefully coming to an end. There will have to be a more discrete, targeted form of advertising. The BBC, of course, will not be subject to such constraints and they have a lot of excellent content online. Although I do wish they would make more of their past programmes available as podcasts. The radio of the future then will be multi-channel and multi-format, with minimal infrastructure costs for creating new station. You will be able to listen by a multitude of media devices as is already possible today. Tune in and welcome to the exciting new world of radio.


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