Culture / History of the Media

Radio broadcasting: How does radio build community ?

Communication media are often accused of erasing human relationships and cohesion. Media and critics say that everything is becoming digital and that it was better when people could just sit together and talk about life. But media have actually created new communities in new networks. This is the case of radio broadcasting – the transmission of information through electromagnetic waves to an audience. Since its first uses, radio has served communities; it once was used by Marines to communicate with ships; then to communicate from one continent to another; then used for entertainment and airing music. A new community of listeners started to arise and radio rapidly became the major communication media.

During the troubled times of Great Depression in the US and the post-war period in Europe, radio was a welcome escape for families. They were living without luxuries but put the radio purchase on the top of their list. This big wood engine standing in the middle of the living room had won its place into the homes. They would dance to it, sit together around it and just listen as families do nowadays with television. These were the first steps to the appearance of a “long-distance community”. People started to listen to the same broadcasts, could share what their heard and at the same time did not know the face of their entertainers just as the entertainer did not see his or her fans. Guglielmo Marconi stated what the community felt at the time, it is: “with the help of Almighty God who allows the many mysterious forces of nature to be used by man […]”[1] Radio was seen as a magical tool but mostly seen as a medium bringing people from all over the world closer. During World War II, politicians soon understood the power of radio to deliver their messages.

Charles De Gaulle’s call to resistance on 18th June 1940, broadcast on BBC to Europe, is a famous example of how radio can be used politically to call to a generation. On December 8th, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared war on Japan on the air and promised to help Great Britain fight Nazi Germany. This declaration was immediate, broadcast throughout the United States and all the way to Europe as De Gaulle’s speech was. Both had the same impact on the community: a feeling of patriotism and enthusiasm grasped the listeners. Radio was more than ever used as a political and persuasion weapon.

Nazi Germany had its own ways to defend itself by hiring the enemy to work for them. Axis Sally, born Mildred Gillars in Portland, Maine, was hired by Nazi Germany to broadcast over radio from Berlin with a seductive and sensual voice with a light German accent. From the desert of Northern Africa to the Normandy beaches, GIs would listen to her show called “Home Sweet Home,” aired between 8 p.m. and 2 a.m., which she often began by saying: “Hello gang. Throw down those little old guns and toddle off home. There’s no getting the Germans down.” She encouraged soldiers to stop fighting for America, blaming Britain for this “mess”, claiming the GI’s wives or girlfriends wouldn’t wait around for them. The show aired lively music and drew thousands of listeners. Axis Sally was like a siren to the listeners urging them to drop the weapons. Less than a month before the Allied invasion in Normandy, she aired a play, “Vision of Invasion”, meant to frighten and discourage the Allies: Indeed the play had a realistic quality to it, sound effects simulating the moans and cries of the wounded as they were raked with gunfire from the beaches. Axis Sally continued broadcasting until the end of the Third Reich. [2] In the same era as Axis Sally but thousand of miles apart, Tokyo Rose (real name: Iva Toguri) a Japanese-American also tried to demoralize American soldiers and sailors by pointing their sacrifices and difficulties with the broadcast Zero Hour at Radio Tokyo. As did Axis Sally on “Home Sweet Home”, Tokyo Rose introduced new popular records between demoralization propaganda and thus gained popularity. “Tokyo Rose” was a term created by the lonely men out in the South Pacific who were delighted to hear what they imagined as an exotic geisha-type woman. Axis Sally, along with her Pacific theater counterpart Tokyo Rose, has always been a blank screen on which Americans—first soldiers and journalists, then motion picture and television producers–projected their fears and desires. These female voices activated the servicemen’s collective imagination. [3] Iva created 340 broadcasts until the year 1945 when America dropped two bombs on Japan leading to the surrender of the latter. Like her colleague from Berlin who was arrested in 1948 and taken back to the U.S to face 12 years of prison for treason,[4] Tokyo Rose was arrested after the War and sentenced to 10 years of prison. Indeed, both “Sally” and “Rose” predicted future troop movements and imminent attacks with key positions. Like Franklin D. Roosevelt and Charles De Gaulle, Axis Sally and Tokyo Rose used radio as a political weapon for propaganda even though they didn’t have the same position: the former were leaders of a defined community while the latter were employees. This is interesting to notice that even if the position differs in society, the broadcasters are able to build a community of listeners and a movement in minds. This notion of long-distance community remained after the War and became even stronger. Today it is common to have a faceless community of followers on Twitter or Instagram just as broadcasts on radio do. It has even become hard to meet your community; everything is kind of a faceless network. But we have to imagine what it felt like for the people in the early 20th century and the step forwards radio broadcasting brought to the building of distance community. Another example of the building and appearing of massive distance community is the pirate radios in the UK. Such powerful mass media like radio often are in state control. In Great Britain, from 1927 onwards, every home possessing a radio was charged a license fee to raise the revenues of radio broadcasting. BBC had the monopoly on broadcasting in the UK since its early beginning; five million radio sets were tuned to it and thus didn’t leave much place or freedom for other radio stations to broadcast. [5]BBC broadcast various shows like theaters shows, philosophy talks, opera, jazz, various music. But when rock and roll music arrived from the U.S in the 1960s, BBC only ran it 45 minutes a day. A brand new distance community was built around this new movement and came to save the honor of rock’n’roll: the pirate radios. This movement arrived in the 1960s in Europe, pirate radios were commercial offshore radios opposed to the state monopoly on radio broadcasting, here the BBC. These stations aired shows illegally. The most relevant example is Radio Caroline founded by Ronan O’Rahilly in the United Kingdom. O’Rahilly heard about the concept of offshore radio in the USA through The Voice of America. From 1964 until 1990, Radio Caroline was based on a boat offshore and broadcast a whole new genre.

Radio Caroline offshore; source: www.radiocaroline.co.uk

Radio Caroline offshore; source: http://www.radiocaroline.co.uk

Radio Caroline offshore; source: www.radiocaroline.co.uk

Radio Caroline offshore; source: http://www.radiocaroline.co.uk

As explained on the website: “To the young population, all day pop music radio was a revelation. No speeches, lectures, gardening tips or cookery suggestions. By 1964 the BBC had rolled out its crack research squad to investigate what it called “The Caroline Phenomenon”[6] and claims made by the station that its audience was bigger than that of the Light Programme, a BBC radio channel that broadcast mainstream light entertainment and music from 1945 until 1967. In a 2009 article from The Guardian by Jemima Kiss we learn that “Of the 1,000 people surveyed in November 1964, 19% were regular listeners or “Caroline addicts,” and of those, 70% were under 20. By picking out this hardcore of Caroline fans, the researchers had identified a dynamic and crucial new audience that was not drawn to the Light, Third or Home Programmes – later rebranded as Radios 2, 3 and 4.” [7] The pirate radio was really popular with the working class and the teenagers. “Lively,” “cheerful,” and “friendly” were the words used by the newly built community of teenagers and young adults to describe the broadcasting of Radio Caroline. By the end of the 70s, the BBC had created a new station with some pop music – they learned the lesson and attracted the huge pop listeners community. The government eventually shut down all offshore broadcasting and Radio Caroline went on satellite by the 1990s. The community built around Radio Caroline is a beautiful demonstration of how a new media brings people together. These communities built on air are all the more special and fascinating since they create themselves from distance. Radio built a whole community of GIs during the War listening to the same program every day broadcast from Berlin or Tokyo and aired in Europe. Or think about all the teenagers of Britain listening to new pop music coming from the sea. Today, radio broadcasting still brings closeness among communities and even shows to which community you belong. In the United Kingdom, 89% of the population tunes in to radio every week[8], it has become a major part of everyday life and survived every crisis of the 20th century. The arrival of digital radio and other mass media has lightly changed the relationship listeners have to radio. We are our own programmers now and every broadcast can be found on Internet via podcasting. Radio broadcasting worked through the century. Today, the in-the-moment faceless community has taken off a new direction. The appearance of radio on the Internet, of hashtags on Twitter, of every new medium that appears every day proves community can now be strongly built through networks and screens. [1] “The Founding of Vatican Radio”, Vatican, accessed May 10 2015, <http://www.vatican.va/news_services/radio/multimedia/storia_ing.html > [2] Dale P. Harper, “Mildred Elizabeth Sisk: American Born Axis Sally”, World War II Magazine, last modified on June 12, 2006, http://www.historynet.com/mildred-elizabeth-sisk-american-born-axis-sally.htm [3] Ann Elizabeth Pfau,“Axis Sally, The Greatest Generation and Generation Y”, conference presentation published on Academia, last modified on December 30, 2009, <http://www.academia.edu.> [4] Finding Dulcinea Staff, “On This Day: “Axis Sallly“ Convicted Of Treason“, Finding Dulcinea Librerian Of The Internet, last modified on March 10, 2011, http://www.findingdulcinea.com/news/on-this-day/March-April-08/On-this-day—Axis-Sally–Convicted-of-Treason.html [5] “Radio Caroline & The British Pirates”, Modesto Radio Museum, accessed on May 10 2015, http://www.modestoradiomuseum.org/radio%20caroline.html [6] Peter Moore, “Caroline’s History“, Radio Caroline, accessed on May 11 2015, <http://www.radiocaroline.co.uk/#history.html&gt; [7] Jemima Kiss, “How Radio Caroline helped BBC Find Its Pop-Loving Audience”, The Guardian, last modified on 15 April 2009, <http://www.theguardian.com/media/organgrinder/2009/apr/14/bbc-radio-carolin&gt; [8] Rajar Data Release, Quarter 1, 2015, accessed on May 10 2015, RAJAR/Ipsos MORI/RSMB, http://rajar.co.uk

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