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Radio Days: The keys to constructing collective identities

Transnational Radio Encounters (TRE) is an ambitious research project. It pulls together radio researchers with varying scopes from across the Northern European hemisphere. Together, they research the overlaps, influences, styles and technologies that have made radio to what it is today.

A Report from the Transnational Radio Encounters workshop, Geneva, 13-14 March 2014. By Erwin Verbruggen, Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision.

The TRE project is funded by HERA, an important fund for research in the humanities. After starting off in September, the group held its first workshop in the Swiss city Geneva in March. The town is home to the offices of Euroradio, a division of the European Broadcasting Union, which is a member of and technical partner in EUscreenXL. Historically, the organisation’s roots are much intertwined with radio’s babysteps: starting as the IBU, the International Broadcasting Union, the organisation regulated bandwiths and technology. After the world wars, the organisation arose from its ashes as EBU-UER and still regulates technological underpinnings of broadcasting systems around and beyond the continent. Its offices in Geneva – city home to the League of Nations and Unicef – was built in the 1990s and, as one of the project members grinningly explained, upon completion its architects almost sued the organisation for putting satellite dishes on its roof.

Six research groups

The Transnational Radio Encounters project is rather akin to the effort EUscreenXL is putting on. It’s a combination of six radio archives – including my own, the Netherlands institute for Sound and Vision, and EUscreenXL partner Danish Broadcasting Corporation – and researchers from Finland, the UK, Germany and the Netherlands – amongst which the alma mater of the project, Utrecht University. In six research groups, the researchers investigate five different aspects of the radio spectrum: How trans-border radio reception influences the construction of identity; what challenges the changes in public service broadcasting bring to European radio cultures; how tranmissions and collaborative institutions have played a role in the development of European radio; the technical mediascape of international broadcasting and the focused radio transmissions for minority groups: local radio stations focused on arts, LGBT, or minority ethnic communities.

In the first session, Christian Vogg (Head of Radio, EBU) and Mathias Coinchon (Curator, EBU Digital Radio Summit) started off by introducing the small crowd of archivists and academics to the work developed by the Euroradio’s technical services. Although rumours about radio’s decline as a mass medium have increased in the digital age, Vogg pointed out that Europeans still listen – on average – to three hours of radio per day. An impressive number. What’s the longest time you regularly look at any website?

Radio has been struggling to get both feet in a digital environment. For various reasons, Coinchon explained. Airwaves are cheap, lots cheaper than broadband. Airwaves are also trusted: many emergency services (and even, reportedly, some spy agencies) make use of its tried and tested infrastucture. So why switch to the web, again? Because it’s a new world out there and all of our devices – including our motorised equipment, such as the many shiny vehicles that were on display at Geneva’s annual car fair – are looking at ways of interjecting the web into our every interaction with a machine.

To this, Peter Lewis, scholar from London Metropolitan interjected that what he learned from his students was that “Young people don’t listen to radio – only forced to listen in the back of their parent’s car”. Arguably, the rise of excellent radio programming available on demand over the web and the many innovative formats developed by radio stations around the globe prove the contrary. And as Vogg carefully responded: “I’m more optimistic for radio than for TV.” Roberto Suàrez Candel (Head of Media Intelligence Services, EBU) then presented his highly interesting report about how public service broadcasting in a digital and multiplatform scenario is redefined and repositioned. A heartily recommended read, which is available in our library of resources on Online Access to Audiovisual Content.

Audio arts

After Alec Badenoch explored with us the historical trajectory of transnational radio broadcasts – and questions about who owns and how we can access these publicly broadcasted materials – we went on to cross the city in search of the building of Radio Télevision Suisse (RTS). At that location, EBU’s Ars Acustica group was in a parallel meeting. The group has existed for 25 years and is an international gathering of radio makers interested in various forms of sound art, acoustic spheres and electronical noise. Researchers, artists, technologists and radio makers all gathered round and were served a man-made concerto of artistic non-tunes.

On Day 2, we were drawn in to theory again by Kate Lacey, who just published her book Listening Publics, an overview of the ways in which listening can be a political action – as measured through development of new medias. All the ways we currently see media and modern media marketed are shown as ways of talking back, of expressing opinion. Lacey defended the stance that there is value, there is community, there is debate in listening itself, in ‘listening out’, as it where, and that we should stop looking at listening as a passive act.

Per Jauert, Stephen Lax and Marko Ala-Fossi explored the various technological debates that have flourished around digital radio: from the advent of broadcasting regulations – and the upcoming end of them in Finland – to the British Digital Economy Act, all trying to control and install demand-oriented approaches to service and content provision. Peter Lewis, Caroline Mitchell and Lawrie Hallett together explore radio as a community model, created by and for highly localised communities that are brought together by an interest (like art or listeners’ sexual orientation) or ancestry (migrant radio). As one of their interviewees put it: “I no longer listen to the BBC – it doesn’t represent me”. An example of how community radio can sometimes cross over to the mainstream is the Bristol Kitchen Radio – a radio broadcasted literally from the kitchen table, who posted a global request for people dancing in their kitchens online and were picked up by CBC in Canada.

Transnational Radio Aesthetics

Jacob Kreutzfeldt, Golo Föllmer and – in a reprise appearance – Mathias Coinchon then dissected how radio and broadcast technology influence the aesthetics and identity of specific programmes and channels. Specifically of interest was Coinchon’s overview of the ‘loudness wars’ – ever more professional multiband processors allowing radio stations to increase the overall volume of the songs and tunes they blast out over the airwaves. General conclusion: it’s bad for sound quality, but good for sales and, generally, a big fat can of worms we’re not likely to get out of any ttime soon. Erik Granly Jensen explored the history of a Greenland radio base and its role in world politics – an exhilarating power struggle between Danmark and the US over this mass of ice.








In the final sessions, archivists took the stage: Mark Flashman from BBC’s R&D department discussed the wonderful BBCWS online platform – a crowdsourcing linked data tagging tool for World News Programmes. The department is wrapping up its development into a commercial offering, callled COMMA, a cloud marketplace for media analysis. It was my honour to introduce the EUscreenXL and Europeana Sounds projects to the gathered academics – much of interest because EUscreenXL has a comparable approach in scholars (through the VIEW Journal and participation in user pilots) working together with archivists and technologists, thus broadening their understanding of how online collections are formed. Europeana Sounds took off last month and is an exciting consortium that is looking ahead at a big round of experiments with crowd involvement on existing platforms, such as UK Sound map and Het Geluid van Nederland (The Sound of the Netherlands). As a final top-off for the public part of the workshop, Peter Overgaard and Martin Luckmann from Danish Radio presented the pros and cons of their CHAOS backend portal for archive asset management, that will be used in the project to gather examples of programmes. All in all, a varied two days, and we’re much looking forward to seeing the results coming out of this gathering of radio brainiacs.

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