practitioners, theorists and fans convened in Portland, Ore., in
April to investigate the theme, “What is Radio? Exploring the Past,
Present & Future.”
for KBOO(FM), Portland’s listener-supported community radio
many radio conferences I’ve attended, “What is Radio?” had an
academic focus. Hosted by the University of Oregon School of
Journalism and Communication, the conference largely comprises panels
of academics from all over the world, with journalists, writers and
working radio professionals speckled in.
event was accessible to a non-academic, radio-loving audience,
though. It was part of an ongoing series of “What is?”
conferences (the first two focused on film and television); and the
topic of radio was chosen, according to co-organizer Janet Wasko,
“because of changes going on with radio, lack of attention given to
the medium, and the intense interest and expertise of … colleagues,
Peter Laufer and Michael Huntsberger.”
me, it was an incredible few days of in-depth, intellectual
conversations about a wide array of radio-themed topics.
THAT CRAWLS INSIDE YOUR HEAD
conference, held at the George S. Turnbull Portland Center, kicked
off with an evening keynote by reporter and talk show host Charles
Jaco. He discussed the role of storytelling in radio and asked the
audience to consider what makes a news story a “radio story” vs.
a “television story.”
an example, he cited the famous example of the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon
presidential debate. Among radio listeners, Richard Nixon was
generally thought to have won, but among television viewers, John F.
Kennedy was pronounced the debate winner.
explained that on television, Nixon “appeared shifty-eyed” and
that this “visual narrative” is what caused him to fail among
viewers. According to Jaco, how stories are told on radio is key.
Without a narrative, radio isn’t much more than what we get with an
Jaco continued, is everything to religious stations, talk stations
and sports stations; but he feels it has fallen by the wayside at
many commercial radio stations. He argued that much of today’s
great storytelling on radio occurs on noncommercial stations.
feature of great storytelling is that the listener is an active part
of the process. In television, on the other hand, “nothing is left
to the imagination.” An absence of visuals can actually be a strong
suit because “radio storytelling crawls inside the head of the
the bulk of the conference, several simultaneous panels competed with
one another, including sessions about radio in India, economic and
regulatory issues, radio for education, Spanish-language radio,
college radio, the impact of the 1996 Telecommunications Act and the
future of radio. Presenters were asked to begin their talks with an
anecdote about their first experience with radio, so throughout the
conference we were treated to personal stories about why radio can be
of Wisconsin-Milwaukee lecturer and broadcast veteran Christopher
Terry shared a harrowing tale about his refusal to leave his college
radio station during a tornado, telling the crowd that campus police
dragged him away kicking and screaming.
David Miller interviews Love Canal activist Lois Gibbs in front of a
least two presenters mentioned an early fascination with Dr. Demento.
of the more riveting panels covered the development of a national
prison radio network in Britain. Phil Maguire of the Prison Radio
Association talked about how the network’s award-winning
programming helps to rehabilitate prisoners. Although its programs
are heard only within the confines of prison, we learned that one
program, “The Victim’s Voice,” was rebroadcast over BBC Radio
4. More information about the network can be found at
MISFITS AND MAD GENIUSES
a less serious note, Phil Oppenheim gave a fascinating presentation
about the aesthetics of trash radio. He admitted that he’s not a
radio scholar but confidently stated, “I know a lot about trash.”
In his talk, Oppenheim drew connections between radio and the world
of cult and exploitation film.
to Oppenheim, trash often is aligned with camp, “losers and
misfits,” and “mad geniuses.” Translating that to radio, he
delved into the category of “psychotronic radio” and also
profiled some “weirdo” DJs who could be considered to be a part
of trash culture.
were connected with the beatnik scene, like Al “Jazzbo” Collins,
and others were pranksters and free-form radio pioneers, often
experimenting during late-night radio shifts (including talk show
host Long John Nebel).
few panels looked at experimental radio. Daniel Gilfillan discussed
radio as an “artistic medium” and talked about some intriguing
live performances and broadcasts, including one in which hypertext
triggered sounds over the radio so that home listeners could
influence the broadcast by clicking on Web links.
Barber and his students shared the output of a class that focused on
exploring the concept of Internet radio as a new form of media.
Students created radio drama, radio art (including a piece called
“Portland Soundscape” that captured ambient sounds of the city)
and an audio social network. Projects can be heard on the Radio
Nouspace website, http://radionouspace.net/.
conference delivered on its promise of covering the “past, present
and future of radio,” with many panels honing in on particular
periods of radio history.
Chroman chronicled the early history of Oregon radio station
KOAC(AM). Looking at the station’s programming between 1923 and
1958, Chroman described the format as “profoundly practical,” as
KOAC aimed to provide extension education and agricultural
information for its rural listeners.
historical paper, Aidan Moir’s presentation about radio print
advertisements, took a look at how radios were marketed to consumers
from the 1920s through the 1960s. I was charmed by her description of
early ads for radios, which she said portrayed a “sublime,
enchanted fantasy world.”
far as the future, panelists offered mixed outlooks.
at the ‘What Is Radio’ conference.
John Anderson, whose
forthcoming book “Radio’s Digital Dilemma” outlines the history
of digital radio, took a stance heavily against HD Radio, calling it
a “technology of hubris, developed out of fear and self-interest.”
Grant and Jeff Wilkinson gave a “Radio 2030” presentation, in
which Wilkinson alluded to the myriad definitions of radio that were
bandied about throughout the conference, giving a nod to radio’s
enduring nature, saying, “radio is a shape-shifter.”
and Wilkinson offered a few potential visions for the future of
radio, including both pessimistic (radio is
so it stagnates and is terminated, etc.) and optimistic (radio
reinvents itself, adapts and survives, etc.). They suggested that
radio in the future might become more local, with “innovation at
conference concluded with a trippy plenary presentation by John
Durham Peters, titled “Radio’s Nonhuman Penumbra.” In case
you’re scratching your head, as I was, here’s the skinny: Peters
described radio as “one of the most existential media,” “highly
poetic,” “deeply philosophical” and possessing a “wonderful
to Peters, the magic of radio is connected with the temporal nature
of sound, and since sound has to “vanish instantly” and is
“always disappearing,” it has been challenging for humans to
document it. His presentation took a cosmic turn when he began to
talk about radio signals in meteors, thunderstorms and the Milky Way.
I tried to wrap my head around all of the possibilities, I was struck
by one particular comment of his, that “alongside the spectrum,
there are specters.” It may have been the best thought to leave the
conference with, as it captured the mystery, magic and mythology of
the conference allowed for participants to explore myriad
definitions, uses and futures for radio, perhaps what it all came
down was the intersection between radio’s human and inhuman
qualities. From its earliest days, radio captured our imagination as
music, news and entertainment magically drifted across the miles
through speakers in one’s own home.
has been an educational tool, a portal to distant lands, an escape, a
friend and a lifeline during times of crisis. For radio
practitioners, it can also be a lot of fun. The conference left me
with a profound sense that radio is dynamic, ever-changing and
multi-faceted. Its fans, who populated the conference, are passionate
evangelists for its ongoing relevance.
Waits is a writer, college radio DJ and independent radio scholar;
she presented a paper about the history of student radio at Haverford
College at the conference. She contributes to the blogs SpinningIndie
and Radio Survivor.