by Giulio Bajona – Saturday 13 February, 2021
I think we often forget how ‘revolutionary’ radio was, when it was first invented, and still is, in many ways. I certainly had forgotten, but I was reminded of its power, as well as its resilience, throughout my research at the UK National Commission for UNESCO.
There is something universal about radio, something that makes it a powerful medium to reconnect to our past and also meet the demands of today’s world. To understand this, I went on a month-long journey; this article is, in a way, a report on that journey. It is informed by not only academic articles, but also, and more importantly, the lived experience of several interviewees, who are all personally and professionally invested in the world of radio. The article explores the relationship between radio, orality and storytelling and, in doing so, it is faced with a paradox: that of describing the power of the spoken word through the written word. For this reason, I decided that the best (or perhaps second-best) way of doing that was to embed several audio clips throughout the text, in order to exemplify the concepts being discussed, but also to demonstrate how irreplaceable our voice is.
Radio and the ‘secondary orality’ revolution. Radio taps into our primordial ability to make sense of the world through stories. Its oral/aural dimension is reminiscent of a time when the body of collective wisdom was ‘spoken’ to the newer generations, and thus passed on, time after time, within small social units, be it tribes, villages or other forms of community. In the following audio clip, one of my interviewees, Gameli Tordzro, explains to me the intimate connection between stories and orality:
When writing and literacy came about, and smaller social units gradually gave way to larger political entities, we acquired new ways of communicating, but we somehow lost the communal aspect of learning. Knowledge became much more individualised. However, at the end of the 19th century, the development of telephone, radio and television triggered a new revolution in communication and information, bringing the spoken word back to the foreground. American historian Walter Ong defined this revolution ‘secondary orality’1, as it brought us back to an ‘acoustic world’ and an auditory way of processing information, while still retaining some crucial characteristics of the literary world that preceded it.
A great example of secondary orality, and how writing and speech are blended within it, is radio. On the one hand, radio shows are based on written scripts, agreements, and contracts of various kinds; programmes can be advertised on newspapers or other ‘written’ platforms and may contain references to literature or any other genres from our written repertoire. However, radio is ultimately delivered as an oral medium to hear and to listen to and, as such, it is entirely designed for an ‘acoustic audience’. Furthermore, similarly to ancient oral/aural cultures, the shared experience of listening fosters a sense of community among its users; it encourages participation in the living body of collective wisdom (we can often phone in and share our views on live radio) and has the ability to give equal weight to all voices.
For all these reasons, I wanted to explore the idea that radio can be a very effective tool to ‘harness’ the power of storytelling, especially in relation to three main points. First, radio can help us preserve storytelling traditions of the past; second, it can help us create new traditions and new stories in the present day; finally, radio can continue to provide reliable stories as we move into the future, by adapting to new technologies and combatting misinformation.
Radio and the past: preserving centuries-old traditions
Orality and storytelling in the Global South. To look into the role of radio in preserving traditions, I first sit down for an interview with Alison Phipps, Professor of Languages and Intercultural Studies at the University of Glasgow, who also holds the UNESCO Chair in Refugee Integration through Languages and the Arts (RILA). Alison has worked in the Global South on many occasions, and therefore she speaks from experience when she tells me that radio plays a crucial role in the ‘curation of tangible and intangible cultural heritage’. She explains that this medium sits very well with cultures that are still predominantly oral and have not incorporated their knowledge into textual forms. Local music and proverbial wisdom are two good examples. Working in several African countries, including Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Ghana, Sudan and Kenya, she has often had the opportunity to listen to the ‘beat’ of different cultures on local radio stations. She adds that, for many communities, radio is also a powerful way to keep storytelling traditions alive, which, in turns, helps to preserve native languages. It is, she concludes, a ‘soundtrack to life’.
Alison’s insights are confirmed by the lived experience of three members of her team, Gameli and Naa Densua Tordzro, and Tawona Sitholé, whom I interview next. Initially, we talk about their personal encounters with radio as they were growing up. Gameli and Naa Densua explain to me how, between the 1960s and mid-1970s, it was very common in Ghana to listen to radio, both at home and at school, using ‘national radio boxes’. Gameli, in particular, remembers how everybody at home would gather around the device and listen to different shows. Tawona, who is from Zimbabwe, tells me that when we he was born, life in the region of Zimbabwe where his parents lived revolved around orality and storytelling traditions. For most of his upbringing, radio was a big part of that lifestyle. He shares with me his fond memories of the jingle he used to hear on the radio as he was getting ready for school, not to mention the Sunday football programme.
Gameli, Naa Densua and Tawona are now part of the UNESCO Chair in RILA at the University of Glasgow, where they use their artistic and academic backgrounds to facilitate intercultural dialogue and social integration. For all three of them, orality and storytelling play a central role. In 2001, for example, Gameli led a community theatre intervention in Ghana aimed at resolving communication difficulties around trachoma, which resulted in a successful collaboration with local radio stations. When he thinks about radio today, as a source of news and information for the general public, he is taken back to the tradition of the ‘town crier’, which he witnessed as a child. In the clip below, he explains this point and performs a typical town crier’s announcement using an instrument called ‘Gakogui’.
Naa Densua’s work, on the other hand, focuses on textile and garment-making traditions in Ghana, as well as the oral traditions surrounding these practices. She explains to me how most fabrics and textiles are inextricably connected to the songs and rhymes used to describe them. If you wear a certain dress, you immediately think of the song that goes with it and the message behind it. The following audio clip is the perfect illustration of how this oral collective wisdom is ‘woven’ into the fabric. Naa Densua describes the dress that any Ghanaian woman who is going to get married should have in her suitcase, and the wise words of its accompanying song:
Reflecting on the role of radio in preserving oral traditions, she tells me that it was thanks to radio that she would hear these songs while she was growing up. Every weekend, there would always be a segment featuring one or more songs and that has helped her stay connected to her heritage throughout her life.
Finally, Tawona: a poet, playwright, storyteller and musician, and therefore somebody who knows very well how compelling the spoken word is. He agrees that radio has a crucial role to play in sharing collective wisdom and keeping traditions alive. This is one of his poems:
Radio: a ‘physical’, intimate and emotional medium. At the end of these interviews, I reflect on my takeaways so far. First, radio can act as a ‘developmental tool’ in many African communities providing access to information even within remote rural areas2. It is also a medium very well suited to protect oral traditions, helping individuals stay in touch with their collective heritage.
But as I think back to my interviews with Alison and her team, I cannot help but notice the presence of fond memories around radio, and the intimacy that is often experienced while listening to somebody’s voice. It is actually Alison herself that gives me an important clue to understand this during our conversation, when she says that orality is an ‘unmediated expression of the body’. Unlike other ‘mediated’ activities, such as writing, which relies, for instance, on the use of pens or keyboards, speaking, on the other hand, as captured by radio, simply relies on our voice and is therefore a more direct form of self-expression.
Alison’s insights are confirmed by the literature on the ‘affective power’ of voice and sound3. When we listen to somebody, we do not just pay attention to the content, or, in other words, the ‘what’; we also hear the ‘how’, that is to say, the accent, the prosody, the emphasis, and all those aspects that make that person unique. In radio, this process is heightened, as the lack of visual data translates into greater awareness of the different modulations of voice and sound.
My interview with Guy Raz, American radio journalist and host of the ‘How I Built This’ podcast, among many others, sheds further light on this point. Guy still recalls the moment he fell in love with radio. He was in college at the time, in the United States, and was fascinated by the journeys that different radio shows would take him on:
Later on, as a war correspondent in the Middle East, he confesses that his greatest interest was not reporting on the war per se, but, rather, speaking to families affected by the conflict and hearing their stories. He would record them as they talked about their daily struggles, their fears, and their hopes. To this day, he strongly believes that, at its best, radio can not only inform, but also build empathy. It does that, Guy explains to me, by challenging our brain to create a mental picture of what we are listening to. Because we have to visualise it for ourselves, we are fully engaged with the content that is being offered to us; we are active users, much more so than we are watching TV. The power of our imagination takes us on a journey with the person speaking into our ears, and we establish an intimate, one-to-one connection with them. Whether we agree or not with what they are saying, according to Guy, in audio ‘you have no choice but to empathise’; by being exposed to their story, you understand that person’s contours and how their worldview came into existence.
With regard to the intimacy that we experience while listening to someone, Claudia Hammond, psychologist and BBC Radio 4 presenter, talks to me about the crucial role of radio, especially during this pandemic, in counteracting feelings of loneliness. There is an aspect of ‘authenticity’ in the human voice, she explains to me: ‘we learn so much from how people say things, their tone, their gravitas’.
Crucially, that is confirmed by the research carried out by Ofcom, the UK communications regulator. Clare McNally-Luke, Head of BBC Research and Intelligence at Ofcom, gives me an overview and explains that one of the most common results across different studies is the strong connection that people establish with their favourite radio stations. On average, in the UK, people tend to listen to no more than 2 or 3 stations; they form a ‘core set’ of choices, which, as Clare points out, speaks to the intimacy but also the sense of agency involved in the listening process.
Radio and its new traditions in the present day: The Archers
Next, my journey into the world of radio and storytelling takes me to what is considered a modern ‘English epic’, the perfect example of a new type of story relayed through radio: BBC Radio 4’s ‘The Archers’. I interview Tim Stimpson, one of the core script writers of the longest-running soap opera in the world.
Tim has been writing for The Archers for 18 years, and one of the first things he tells me is that there are many reasons why this radio drama appeals to such a big audience (nearly 5 million listeners every week, by the way). First, the show exploits the full potential of orality/aurality, by foregrounding the minutiae in the characters’ dialogues. Even when they do not say anything, something as simple as scoffing or clearing their throat can reveal a lot about what they think or feel. According to Tim, it is radio that allows for this level of subtlety, guiding us to hear the nuances of spoken interactions.
Another important aspect is that, unlike TV shows, which may seek sensational, fast-moving narratives, The Archers has a way of unfolding in its own time, thus reflecting the pace of real life. Every evening, we are almost ‘eavesdropping’ on Ambridge and its inhabitants, Tim says to me, and, very gradually, we are taken into their world, becoming acquainted with the rituals of this (fictional) rural town located in the countryside near Birmingham. The slow unfolding of the narrative means that, in many cases, listeners and characters have grown up alongside each other; some people feel like they ‘know’ David and Ruth Archer, Lynda Snell, and so on. They have pictured their faces for years and have ‘their own private Ambridge in their head’, as Tim suggests.
This is actually confirmed to me by BBC Radio 4’s Claudia Hammond, a regular listener of The Archers, who explains how we tend to form ‘para-social relationships’ with fictional characters, especially when we hear them on radio. Our mental representation of the story can be so strong that sometimes we do not want to see what these characters look like in real life, as she describes here:
Fictional as it may be, The Archers does not shy away from dealing with real social issues. A good example of this is Helen and Rob’s storyline revolving around domestic abuse and coercive control. Tim, who had worked on the script, confesses to me his surprise at the incredible attention that the show drew to this issue, not just among listeners, but within the legal sector itself, sensitising to the insidiousness of psychological abuse. He was even invited to Downing Street to meet the British Prime Minister, along with Louiza Patikas, the actress who plays Helen, and a group of editors and producers! The main takeaway here is that a radio show like The Archers, thanks to the public’s identification with its characters, has the ability to raise awareness to and even shift attitudes on important social themes.
However, as we head towards the end of our interview, Tim tells me that it is also important for the script to maintain a certain balance between realism and escapism. An essential part of The Archers’ success is the idyllic countryside and the undisturbed rhythm of nature that makes us feel grounded in the face of a global health crisis and a lot of uncertainty. And even though the show has had its own challenges throughout this pandemic, moving from at-home online recording, back to a socially-distanced studio, and any combination in between, Tim reminds me that, in the end, as an article in The Guardian recently put it, ‘there will always be cows to milk, there will be lambs born in the spring, there will be harvest in the autumn’. This show is resilient, and so is radio.
Radio in the future: new technologies, resilience and truthfulness
As I sit down for an interview with Stefan Möller, the president of AER (Association of European Radios), I am keen to discover just how resilient radio actually is, in the current media landscape. We start by discussing some figures about radio consumption; according to AER’s data, radio reaches up to 90% of the adult population across Europe on a weekly basis; in some countries, that can even mean 70% of the adult population on a single day. When I ask him what this tells us about radio, Stefan’s response is simple:
For Stefan, behind these very good numbers is the general trust placed in radio as a medium – ‘the most trusted medium’ in Europe, to be precise, according to the latest Eurobarometer surveys. Listeners tune in because they know that they will hear well-curated content.
With regard to the future of radio, I ask Stefan what will become of it in an era increasingly dominated by online platforms and social media. Confidently, he reminds me that when TV grew in popularity, people feared that could be the demise of radio, ‘and yet, radio is still here’. However, he is aware of the challenges facing this medium, especially when there are several sources of information and entertainment competing for people’s free time. The answer, he believes, is accepting that radio is increasingly going to be a ‘hybrid platform’, able to exploit the possibilities opened up by the internet world and our smartphones, by both live and on-demand content. In fact, we are already seeing one such new possibility in the recent development of podcasts, which Stefan considers to be a natural expansion of radio. ‘It’s like listening to radio in your own time’, he explains, but it also gives you the opportunity to hear a more in-depth conversation about a specific topic, which may not be suitable for live radio. According to Stefan, both radio and podcasts are part of ‘this big audio business’, and that is how radio can and will survive in the future.
There is, I believe, a final crucial point to be made, and that is the difference between what radio and social media have to offer. As explained in a 2018 blogpost published on the AER website, radio is ‘impervious to filter bubbles’: unlike online platforms, whose algorithms select content based on what we have already consumed, radio broadcasters’ provision is not based on our previous choices, thus representing multiple perspectives.
Many programmes even allow listeners to tell their stories and express their views by phoning in or by sending questions and comments beforehand. It is a ‘participatory dimension’ that links radio directly back to the oldest storytelling traditions, when the entire community would gather, and knowledge was the result of a co-construction, rather than an individualised experience. Thousands of years later, as we grapple with a pandemic, we can still rely, through radio, on this communal aspect, as in the case of ‘The Evidence’ and ‘Health Check’, two shows on BBC World Service presented by Claudia Hammond. Here, Claudia highlights how these programmes offer a platform to help navigate what we are going through:
By interacting with scientists and asking questions to them, by hearing their voices and all the nuances within them, we can at least mitigate the negative impact of misinformation.
In conclusion…My journey into the world of radio may have come to an end, but radio’s journey into our lives continues. Since its inception, radio has seen us through major global events, be it world wars, emotional football games or historical speeches. In this article, I hope to have shown that its underpinning oral/aural dimension makes this medium a powerful tool to reconnect to old stories and traditions, as well as create new ones. And while technology will inevitably continue to evolve and lead us in different directions, we can rest assured that as long as we tune in to the radio, we can always take part in our shared history and continue to make sense of the world around us.
- Ong, W.J. 1982. Orality and literacy: the technologizing of the word. Metheun: London.
- Myers, M. 2008. Radio and development in Africa. Prepared for the International Development
Research Centre (IDRC) of Canada. Available here.
- McHugh, S. 2012. The Affective power of sound: oral history on radio. The Oral History Review. (39)2, pp.187-206.
University of Leeds, funded by the AHRC through the White Rose College of the Arts & Humanities