A Comparison Between the Role of Local Culture in Radio in both America and Ireland.
Everything is dark but for the small pool of light that splashes under my bedroom door. I enjoy this space to think. I am alone yet connected. Connected to a one person yet conscious of the community. I’m listening to the radio again. My cheap battery-powered receiver struggles to find good reception so I use one earphone to scoop up the radio-waves whilst intently listening with the other earphone.
I’m listening to Cork Talks Back again as presenter, Victor Barry facilitates another fascinating discussion. Who will call in? Will he read my text out on air again? As a bullied teenager, radio became my friend. I felt so close and accepted. Finally a community that listens and cares – the people of Cork. NRG FM, a local pirate radio station was one of my favourites. They played the music I love, they sound like me and they made mistakes too. There was just something so human about them that somehow made me feel more human and thus a stronger bond was created between me the listener and the radio station. The radio presenters understood who I was and where I was from. This kind of radio somehow felt deeper and more meaningful.
The Power of Context & Place
What made my interaction with radio particularly irresistible is how embalmed my favourite frequencies were in a deep sense of place. They informed me about who I was and helped cement my identity as a Corkman. There is something about that film shot in your hometown,or hearing people from your hometown give parenting advice that means much more than media that is lobbed in your direction hoping that it will mean something. When radio broadcasting loses its sense of place and connectivity with local culture it will inherently become bland and tasteless. I wish to demonstrate that radio is most effective when its roots are deeply embedded within the context of local culture and to do this I will examine and contrast the interrelationship between local culture and radio in both America and Ireland.
The Inextricable Link Between the Medium of Radio and Local Culture
Radio broadcasting has always had an inextricable connection with the locality, the community it broadcasts to. The local hosts know their audience well and talk about current events, news, weather, tell stories and joke as any friend does. These radio-friends traverse life with the locals as their familiar voice is piped through their radio in the shower, car, headphones or office. At Chicago’s WEBZ-FM, the former general manager, Torey Malatia understands this fully stating, “we have to create content that draws its distinctiveness from this place, from the stories around us, and the character of the community we serve.? (Kleinenberg 121).
Without targeted programming that respects, reflects and incorporates the facets, accents, ideologies and artefacts of the local culture, the programming remains as colourless, plastic and ineffective and bears little significance on the lives of the listener. Locals know this content when they hear it. Steve Edwards, host of The Afternoon Shift, resonates with the frustration of hearing fake local content created by big media corporations. Speaking about the difference between local and pseudo-local programming, Edwards comments saying,
“I wake up with that same person everyday… And I know him; I know her….When that voice is piped in via satellite, when the same songs are played eighteen times a day, when the anchor doesn’t know how to pronounce certain towns in my state—that’s offensive to me. They don’t appreciate, don’t respect me. They don’t respect my family, my community.” (Kleinenberg 121-123) – Steve Edwards, WBEZ Chicago.
In his extensive study on the demise of live radio entertainment, Stephen Perry noted that, “rural radio stations often reflected the culture, ideas, and customs of the musicians raised on conservative, agrarian values of America’s heartland.? (Perry 136) Torey Malatia, knows the importance of this, stating that he believes that his station, “really [has] a function and responsibility … to be a resource for the people who live here, and that comes first.? (Kleinenberg 121).
This is certainly true of Corks’ Red FM in Ireland where they helped a group of local school children from Scoil Losagain record a “Santa Anthem? rap with a local artist which they then went to perform on a national level. [you can watch their performance here]
The same station features live chat shows at night, sponsor local sporting events, host community events and even broadcast live from remote studios at local shopping centres such as Mahon Point. Their broadcasting becomes of the people to the people and not just to the people. When radio caters to and serves the needs of the locality as primary many benefits are produced for society at large. Lopez-Vigil understood this societal impact when he wrote, “when radio fosters the participation of citizens and defends their interests … when it truly informs; when it helps resolve the thousand and one problems of daily life; when all ideas are debated in its programs and all opinions are respected (Lopez-Vigil 8-9).
Marshall McLuhan, who has written extensively on the theory of re-tribalisation, notices that, “Radio provided the first massive experience of electronic implosion, that reversal of the entire direction and meaning of literate Western civilisation? (McLuhan 300). Radio simply resonates with so many of our primordial characteristics as humans reflecting our love of story, conversation, music and information. Shane Hipps also supports this phenomenon and asserts that, “the radio returned our culture to the experience of the tribal camp-fire with its shared stories, songs and banter.? (Hipps 103). Its simplicity reverberates with a genuine sense of effervescence, intimacy and indeed earthiness.
Radio, an organic outgrowth of culture
I believe that radio is a type of organic outgrowth of culture and, as such, just like a tree with deep reaching roots, the radio station has to be deeply immersed in its local context. Local radio knows its soil, blends in, supports life and allows for the flourishing of other cultural fruit-goods [sporting communities, local events, identity formation..etc.] as to grow on its branches. From root level, a conversation happens between the soil [culture] and the tree [radio station]. While radio stations broadcast outwardly, the feedback loop is completed with the audience through texting, social media, phone calls, emails etc. Recent research from Arbitron makes the following observation supporting this claim, “Now that the majority of Americans have smartphones, they have a “two-way? radio in their pocket. Find ways to engage an audience that is tuning-in and responding on the same device.? (74.) To begin, let’s take a look at how this cultural “tree? of radio began. I wish to show how much radio broadcasting has been part of both Irish and American culture in the last century.
See the following for more on Social Media & Radio: Better Together: Converging radio and social media | Revealing Radio’s Social Media Opportunity
Brief Historical synopsis of place of Radio in Irish & American Cultures
Radio in American Culture
Long gone are the days where radio studios were crowded by large turntables, walls of record and reel to reel machines. Large amounts of staff had to be hired to operate and organise all of this equipment. Since its public use from the 1920’s, Radio broadcasting became a huge part of people’s lives and such part of the culture. It became the trusted voice on news, popular culture, sports, weather and entertainment. Radio became our friend.
Anning S. Prall recognised this influence in 1936 stating that radio, “claims a more intimate relationship with the public today than perhaps any other utility….because it is so close to Mr. & Mrs. Average Citizen family.? During the great depression in America, radio’s role in society rose to a new height which continued right through the WW II era bringing the news from the fronts right into everyone’s home. In fact, with the increased industrialisation, the price of radio-set production when down and ownership of personal radio sets increased. (Hilmes 3). Radio gave countries a united social space in the face of social and economic uncertainty. (Hilmes xi)
With the growth of TV stars in the 60’s, radio needed to part from the network system and turned its attention away from the mainstream. A greater degree of localism entered the market with new programming being produced for minority groups. This led to the phenomenon of the rock-and-roll format which focused catered to the often-overlooked youth in that generation. (Hilmes 4) Radio’s creativity in reaching minority groups allowed it to dodge commercialism through the 60’s and 70’s. By the mid-80’s radio became part of public discussion again through live call-in programmes. (Hilmes 11). Howard Stern and Alan Berg became the poster children of this new era in radio which gave rise to the increase in talk radio.
The increase in talk radio coincided with cell phone ownership “spoke to a profound sense of public exclusion from and increasing disgust with the mainstream in general and TV news in particular. (Douglas 486-487). Satellite network programming came with a new wave of media outlet consolidation in the 1990’s. The Walt Disney company, Premiere Networks and Clear Channel all bought up many of the existing traditional networks. Today there is a clear distinction between network owned stations and national public stations such as NPR.
Radio in Irish Culture
Irish broadcasting began in 1925 with the launch of 2RN (Now RTÉ) which celebrated 80 of uninterrupted broadcasting in 2006, making it one of the oldest public service radio stations in Europe. Radio’s inception came at a time of critical identity formation in the Irish psyche as the country gained independence from the United Kingdom. The Irish Free State was established in 1922 and the constitution written in 1937. Boyle observed, “the institution of radio broadcasting was envisaged as a central instrument in both ‘fostering’ the native culture, as well as acting as an antidote to the ‘harmful’ characteristics of British popular culture.? (Boyle 625).
The widespread broadcasting of Irish sporting events (particularly Gaelic Hurling and Football) on radio brought people together with a national sense of immediacy and identity which became essential in the process of nation building. (Boyle 627). This movement was also reflected in newsreel production in Ireland as the Irish became more anxious to produce locally created material. Chambers recognises, “Whilst British newsreels often depicted Irish politics in simplistic terms, sometimes to avoid controversy and broaden commercial appeal, there is a more complex exploration of events in locally produced material.? (Chambers 374). The pursuit of local media production became increasingly important.
Commercial radio was illegal in Ireland until 1989 which meant that Ireland had developed a mass of pirate radio stations in the interim. The 1988 Broadcasting Act paved the way for Ireland’s independent broadcasting sector where licences were advertised and awarded as part of a franchise system. Ireland’s first commercial radio stations were Capitol Radio (later to become FM104) and Mid West Radio. Alongside this, the Independent Broadcasters of Ireland (IBI) was set up to promote diversity and quality of radio for Irish listeners.
The IBI currently representing the interests of two national radio stations, one multi-city radio station, four regional radio stations and 27 local radio stations from across Ireland. Irish community radio has been active since the 1970s, but it wasn’t until 1994 until a commission was set up. I will examine the importance of Irish Community Radio further on.
As you can see, radio has played an integral part of the cultural life of both American and Irish society. Paul Riismandel captures the results of sentiments of the marginalisation of local culture succinctly, observing, “The lack of variability in voice, accent, and dialect is really just a symptom of the overwhelming homogeneity and lack of diversity in American radio broadcasting.? (Riismandel 424). While much of American radio has become de-localised, I wish to show how strong local radio is in Ireland.
For more on the implications of the marginalisation of local culture within radio broadcasting, see my article entitled: The de-localisation of radio as an effect of media consolidation in America from the 1996 telecommunications act.
Local Radio’s dominance in Ireland which lends to a strong sense of place and belonging
Ireland, though small, is extremely diverse (exemplified by this radio spot created by the IBI). Radio is a democratic medium in that people vote on the effectiveness of a radio station’s programming with a simple twist of the knob of their radio set.
Independent radio’s dominance in Ireland shows that a localised radio format is much more effective than network programming or nationally syndicated shows.
According to the October JNLR (Joint National Listenership Research) statistics 83% of Irish adults listen to the radio on a daily radio basis. 57% of these listeners prefer to tune into their local regional station, as opposed to 45% who tune into a national station.
In the North West and Cork regions of Ireland, 61.7% prefer their local regional stations. Also, younger people (15-34 year old) prefer to listen to local radio 64.3%. 57% trust their radio station over any other media, 63% don’t switch radio stations when the ads come on, and 47% say they are more loyal to their radio station than to a TV station. (Joint National Listenership Research)
Seven out of every 10 minutes listened to radio in Ireland is to an independent radio station. Whilst local radio is certainly the most popular format of radio in Ireland, I believe that the effectiveness of local radio is most clearly exemplified through Community Radio.
Community radio as radio’s optimum integration with local culture.
I believe that Community Radio is the most powerful antidote to the sickness created from the neglect of local culture within network programming. According to CRAOL, Community Radio is defined as, “Radio Stations owned, and driven by the communities they serve. No one can make money from Community Radio, but in a community radio station, young and old, with all abilities, backgrounds, and interests can come together to make a difference to their community.? Benefits of this type of radio include:
- Rare and direct media access for all perspectives
- The potential for innovation inherent in non-profit, community owned and operated media
- Diversity in the provision of programming
- Offers a resurgence of local media highlighting local issues, opinions and voices in contrast to mainstream media
- Media by members of our communities through actively participating in its creation and delivery.
- Engage with social exclusion by acting as a vehicle for outcome-driven personal and professional training and development
- Promote democracy, human rights and sustainability.
- A challenge to global media blandness in reinforcing local identities while acting as a catalyst for integration and inclusion.
From the Community Radio Forum of Ireland
In Ireland, Community Radio has been active since the late 1970s and in 1994 the Independent Radio and Television Commission established an 18-month community radio pilot project to explore and evaluate the potential offered by community broadcasting in an Irish context. This project went operational in 1995 when licenses were issued to eleven community and community of interest groups across the country.
93.1 Life FM – Ireland’s first Christian Radio Station
From 2009 – 2011 I had the pleasure of serving at one such community station called, “93.1 Life FM? – Ireland’s very fist Christian radio station. I was the Executive Producer and Host of a weekly, two hour Electronica and Dance music show named “Rebel Rhythms? which aired between 8-10pm every Friday night targeted at youth in Cork City. (You can listen to an hour of the show here).
While LifeFM is both of and for the people of Cork, they are multinational and non-denominational, and their hope is that more people come to realise that the answers to life’s biggest questions and problems are not found through religious structures — but only in a personal relationship with the real Jesus. (Life FM objective statement)
“What I like about community radio is that it can change people’s lives and get people thinking.? – Volunteer, Life FM.
Life FM staff deeply understand the value of serving their local community saying, “It is important when people are rushing after money that we have a chance to be together as a community, when the floods were there we were there for the people of Cork to help, not for our own benefit…? (Life FM staff).
A recent report commissioned by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland mentions that, “The ‘community diaries’ of both Ross FM and Tipperary MW were highlighted as extremely useful and informative in letting people know what’s happening locally while Life FM provides information on services and activities within and across Cork’s Christian community. Second, and allied to this first point, the stations function as a service in their own right, counteracting isolation, loneliness and social exclusion by providing familiar company and comfort to people more marginalised and isolated within their communities. 39?
Radio broadcasting most flourishes in the local arena. To pluck radio out of a local context is detrimental to the medium and consequently the message itself. There is something special about the warmth of your own campfire, the stories you recognise, the places you know and shared memories.
Local radio represents just that through the lens of the familiar and with the depth of understanding. So what does all of this mean for us now? Though this article focuses on the medium of radio broadcasting, the principle of the importance localism within media content creation remains the same. Never let technology or media ownership systems negate your calling to serve people in your context through media.
Effective communicators will listen intently to their audience, understand them and only then create content that is meaningful to their audience. Again I remind you that from root level, a conversation happens between the soil [culture] and the tree [radio station/other communication medium].
A model of communication that allows for the full completion of the feedback loop through both intelligent use of technology and the deep integration of local culture is always going to have a greater impact on an audience. Simply put, the degree to which you can be immersed in the familiarity/context of a message, is the degree to which the message will impact you, regardless of the medium. Familiarity, context and identity most flourish within the context of localism. This principle is depicted in the diagram below and may be applied to all crafts and realms of communication.