Radio’s Metamodern Sensibility

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In this week’s community media discussion, I thought it might be useful to talk about how radio might change to better suit the needs of the future. With the climate crisis, AI, globalisation, cultural homogenisation, nationalism and the many potentially harmful factors that are shaping our world, we need forms of media that help us to respond to these problems. What is radio could enable community-focussed conversations that help us to manage and respond to social change? Join us to discuss how radio can be renewed along metamodern lines so that we can change society for the better by expanding media diversity, inclusivity, participation and civic engagement?

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These are a set of outline thoughts and observations that I’m working on in the coming months, so please keep in mind that they are in development. I’ve not yet given them sufficient thought to claim they are coherent or justified, though the purpose of making notes, I suppose, is to open-up space for conversation and discussion. In particular, I want to think about how radio might change in the future as a cultural phenomenon. I’m hoping this might lead to more wide-ranging conversations and discussions, and indeed more writing, as new ideas pop up, and as I try to work out what the potential of radio will be in the metamodern future. I’m hopeful, then, that these notes might form part of a wider conversation and process of sensemaking about the topic of radio and metamodernism, which is why I don’t want to fix any ideas or observations yet because I’ve not had an opportunity to test them and mull them over properly. If they encourage others to join in this conversation, that would be good.

I’ve been giving some thought recently to the notion of sensemaking, and what it means for our use of media, and the way we understand the processes we rely on to hold conversations and discussions with others. Sensemaking is the practice of making the world intelligible, while negotiating what we find meaningful with other people who may, themselves, act and operate from different perspectives. Sensemaking has the capacity to either confirm or expand our world-views. As we encounter other people, who may be informed by different identities, different histories, different cultural traditions and different conceptual frameworks than we are, we are presented with opportunities to expand our horizons through a process of taking onboard multi-perspectival ways of accounting for the world, thinking about other people and the capacity that we have for interacting with them.

As individuals, we talk, discuss, explain, affirm or reject multiple viewpoints all the time. While for most of the time we seek refuge and comfort in what is familiar and what we know, occasionally, something comes along that shifts our perspective and helps us to see things from different points of view. Often this is technologically facilitated, though not always. It can easily be culturally redefined, psychologically or spiritually. Different forms of media are integral to this process, however, because media helps us see the world in different ways, and to make sense of the world through different lenses. We are viewing the way forward by looking in the rearview mirror, which means our frame of reference is that which our inherited cultural practice has given us.

Plato, for example, complained about the loss of memory that accompanied the need for his contemporaries to start to write things down. Without these records, we wouldn’t have a record of what Plato thought and said, so there is clearly value in writing and recording. Similarly, when radio and television were introduced, there was a notable reduction in the way that people interacted socially. While television opened-up the world, by bringing images from the moon in real time, television also reduced the desire that people manifested to seek out companionship and entertainment in places that had previously been shared public spaces, like theatres, pubs and even the street. Similarly, smartphones have now brought significant changes to our social expectations by personalising news and information provision, with the effect that many people struggle with an overload of information and find the atomisation of human experience somewhat depressing. The rearview mirror is our only way of making sense of what’s coming next, but we do have to look forward and try to anticipate what’s ahead of us.

It’s always been the case, then, that as each shift in mediating technology has been introduced, and these technologies have been embedded in social practice, there have been changes to the corresponding expectations we hold in relation to the way that we articulate both private and social ways of interacting. I’ve noted before that as we change the symbolic framework, we change our social relations, and vice versa. It is perhaps ironic, therefore, that we are experiencing a widespread sense of decline in social participation, coming at a time when we have increasing access to multiple communications platforms (Putnam, 2000, Putnam, Feldstein and Cohen, 2003). As the media platforms we use fragment around us, our mediated culture becomes focussed principally on individual concerns, rather than a sense of shared social experiences that can define our collective identity. Are we becoming reclusive and neurotic because of this shift towards personalised media, or is personalised media merely finding something that is already there, and is now making it visible?

What I’d like to do in these notes, then, and in any subsequent discussions that I can facilitate in the coming months, is discuss and consider the role that radio – or what we call radio, even though what we now call radio is but an echo of the past – is playing in this process of sensemaking, and as a sensemaking mode itself. I’m particularly interested in the potential of emerging cultural practices associated with radio, as they can be said to encompass and represent metamodern concerns. These concerns can be summed-up as a response to what is called the meaning crisis. Put simply, the meaning crisis is the result of a loss of confidence that we can make sense of the world we inhabit, both as individuals and collectively, through coherent stories and narrative. We live in a world that is increasingly fragmented because the postmodernists have done their best to deconstruct it and question our inherited worlds’ coherence. For example, are we now living in a world that feels dysfunctional because we’ve spent too much time, and breathed too deeply, the fumes of the massmedia? Metamodernist, however, don’t aim to undo what the postmodernists have broken, rather they seem to reassert some coherence. As Hanzi Freinacht puts it, “after the deconstruction, must come the reconstruction” (Freinacht, 2017).

Metamodern times, therefore, call for an understanding of progress and social equity based, not on power or commerce, but on ecological, spiritual and social regeneration and sustainability. There is a demand, the Metamodernists have noted, for our attention and focus that comes with an increasing sense of urgency, if not panic. Metamodernists realise that our future wellbeing as a global community is at stake, and that the risk and possibility of failure is increasingly consequential and pronounced. Metamodernity, therefore, needs to be understood as an attempt to reconcile this sense of urgency, while simultaneously accounting for the rapid growth of things like predictive information platforms that promise to upend the social realm and the way that we see the world. Systems change won’t just impact the economic realm, but will mean deep-rooted changes across all parts of society. The question metamodernism asks, however, is do we want that change to be self-sustaining from within ourselves and our from within our communities, or will it need the imposition of some form of authority from without? Phenomena, such as machine learning and AI, may well exacerbate economic inequality and drive social dysfunction, they may well exacerbate political authoritarianism, they may well increase social division and conflict, and we still have to make sense of these changes in ways that resonate with our inherited meaning-structures, or they will just feel alien and foreign to our lived experiences.

What forms and practices of radio, then, can we look at today and assert that they anticipate the metamodern era? What forms of radio listening and content production do we feel are going to thrive in an age of unrestricted media supply? What social, cultural and personal values will radio makers and sharers manifest as the platforms and the content of radio both merge with other forms of interactive, social and data-driven information networks?  What forms of radio programming will we see emerge – or are seeing emerge – in an increasingly network-driven world, where services are provided as part of a stream of endless sub-variations of comparable forms of content, each designed to match one’s personal sensibilities and tastes, not because we are members of a subculture, but because we are consumers with preferences and biases? What’s radio going to be like when data and predictive technology buttress the cultural framework of understanding that supports the building of mass engagement? What will radio be like based on AI and predictive technology’s ability to track our moods and values?

Look at how the BBC is shifting towards a Digital First approach and pulling back from investment in presenters located and associated in specific places. Look at what the streaming services now offer, and how they use data to engage globalised audiences. Look at how tastes in music preference are seemingly being coordinated globally, as the ability to share content has become a living manifestation of the global village. The question I have in mind, however, is to what degree do we have the agency as individuals in this process, and what are we going to do as individuals that is different from these process-driven approaches to data and information management. After all, when it comes to making cultural choices related to radio, this is a people focussed process, so what framework and model of sensemaking do we need to foster to ensure we aren’t simply nodes in a matrix?

The burning question for me, then, is not just to ask what we want from any new and emergent cultural forms that can be incorporated or redefined with radio, but what should we do with those forms and practices so that they better embody our humanity, sense of responsibility to the world and all the beings on it, and thereby lays the groundwork for a democratic and inclusive society of the future. How will the cultural forms and practices of radio be different in the future, and how will they vary from what has been provided hitherto by our legacy or inherited radio platform providers? Essentially, we’ve got to ask, does radio still have a future as an integrated broadcast-led process in which people are involved, making active choices and crafting an experience based on singularly human understandings and capabilities? Or, are we going to abandon radio entirely to machines that can simulate human connections, but which are ultimately devoid of human values, such as curiosity, compassion and responsibility?

In thinking this through, then, I’d like to group some issues under three basic themes. First, radio was initially developed and emerged in a modern period that was characterised by a modern sensibility which placed great faith in technological advancement and innovation, but which didn’t spend much time thinking about the ecological and social consequences of industrialised and globalised systems. Secondly, when radio was reshaped in the postmodern age, there was a correspondence between broadcasting and mass consumerism which was defined with a postmodern sensibility. Subsequently, radio – I might hope – is being redefined with a metamodern sensibility, and has the potential to be representative of a metamodern mode of engagement, which includes a return to sincerity and meaningfulness in our communications.

As indicated above, all media can be defined and designated as part of a set of broad and general processes of sensemaking that follow patterns of expectation, engagement and practical scope. The technical and material scope of each form of media is part of, or fits with, a set of emergent behaviours and practices that express the social concerns and ideas of their day. The introduction of the telescope in the Sixteenth Century, for example, revolutionised the prevailing sense of humanity as agents of our own destiny based on our ability to gather evidence, deploy rational thinking, and reshape our behaviours and practices over time. Telescopes enabled changes in shipping, communication and astronomy, to name a few, and contributed significantly to the Copernican revolution that was underway in Europe, which became known as the Enlightenment. We are still feeling the effects of this profound shift today. Media tools and platforms can be powerful things!

Like all forms of media, radio has an operational mode of presentation. A sensibility, if you like. This sensibility is realised both technically, culturally, aesthetically and psychologically. These sensibilities are usually mapped across their age and epoch of operation, with periods of growth and periods of decline built in (Jung, 1968, Sparks, 2017). The question is, to what extent can we distinguish the different modes of sensibility that radio embodies in these different eras? What is the mode of sensibility of radio today, for instance, and how does the contemporary mode of radio’s collective expression compare with periods where the production and engagement processes of radio production and conceptualisation were very different?

Put simply, what does radio offer to listeners and audiences as they are formed and realised in the collective consciousness and collective unconsciousness? Why do we get the forms of radio we have and are these based inherently on the distinct and different technological affordances, or is this a cultural phenomenon that achieves success because it taps into our established sensemaking framework? How do these modes of sensibility compare or align, and how can we compare different aspects of each platform’s communication function alongside other forms of communication function? How should we compare radio with podcasting, for example? It is inevitable that our cultural sensibilities will change and shift as new ways of developing and sharing content, facilitating discussion or imparting knowledge, are themselves brought into popular and distributed social practices. What, then, can contemporary radio practice teach us about the direction we are heading in as we’ve gone through these phases? What was/is radio’s modern, postmodern and metamodern sensibility?

Radio’s modern period, I would tentatively suggest, was defined by the actions and arguments pertinent to the introduction of a technical and cultural possibility. While radio was initially conceived as a point-to-point form of media, most likely to be of use in shipping, it rapidly became something that was valued and used for mass communications. The idea of broadcast radio went beyond inherited expectations of individual address, with radio becoming a platform for collective and mass forms of national and state address. Radio’s passage from a curiosity and a parlour trick demonstrated the function of the electromagnetic spectrum, based on principles of signal propagation, was quickly recognised for its potential to act as a powerful tool for single-to-many communications. Radio superseded telephony and telegraphy, for example, as means of communication because of the efficiency and cost-benefit of establishing a single transmission point that could disseminate information and cultural material in real time to many millions of people.

Whereas books, newspapers, cinema and other forms of communication have proven to be equally enduring modes of mass or interpersonal communication, radio brought a sense of liveness and communal engagement that crossed regional and national boundaries. Radio was quickly able to establish a universality of service that has been with us ever since. Accessed with the right reception equipment, radios were quickly incorporated into the daily domestic experience. To prevent chaos and a free-for-all, however, radio was quickly controlled by the state, ensuring that information could be managed and regulated according to the needs of the political and national institutions of the time. This was combined with the corresponding requirement that national identity could similarly be regulated, promoted and approved along lines that suited each national temperament and flavour. As Benedict Anderson notes, the potential of each form of massmedia is to call into being an ‘imagined community’ (Anderson, 2006).

State regulation therefore played a major role in building the capacity for broadcasting, which in the UK was a statutory function given to the BBC in a semi-independent model. The airwaves were held in trust by an incorporated institution on behalf of the people. As an institution, the BBC sought and was given equivalence with the civil service, the church, the army and the judiciary. Many of the early appointees of the broadcasting institutions, therefore, were brought together from either universities, the army or the civil service, and they carried with them the mentality of public service and nation-building that was dominant at the time. Unlike in the United States of America, commercial operations were frowned upon, and so entertainment was tolerated and carefully managed because it was felt that the mass would misuse this resource and squander it on fripperies and casual entertainment, rather than worthy self-improvement. Therefore, entertainment formed only a small part of the repertoire of programme content, with the vast majority of programming being dedicated to culturally affirming forms of culture that were said to manifest self-improvement and social development.

This modern phase of radio was characterised by centralised and planned control over the process of production, the cultural purpose of the broadcast content, and was combined with the purpose of fostering a sense of global identity and national purpose as befits the British Empire. In times of war or national crisis, for example, such as the General Strike in 1924, or the abdication of Edward VIII in 1936, radio became acute and integral to the successful prosecution of the so-called national effort. In the UK at least, propaganda and commercial techniques of manipulation were less obviously prevalent in the way that the BBC operated when compared to other countries. However, it is naïve to say that the BBC was unhindered by state direction and control. Part of the process of national and international chauvinism, the myth of Britannia as a model for the world, was projected by the BBC with a sense of superiority that was based on a largely homogenised identity, which was founded on the function of Britain as both an economic and a colonial power and empire. The archetypal mode of address during this phase was typically paternalistic, patrician, and largely headmasterly. Occasionally sanctioned moments of recreation were suffered, though they were held disdainfully in between the demands for culturally uplifting and informative programmes.

Subsequently, as the modern age gave way to the postmodern age, and the development of consumer products and massmedia markets, with the dominance of the American consumer culture, the sensibility of radio gradually gave way to a sensibility that allowed cultural expression based on newly formed consumer groups, such as the teenager, with the rise of pop music and mass consumer entertainment. The postmodern age saw a fragmentation of control, which was shifted from the state and became a manifestation of the mass consumer goods market. The introduction of alternative commercial media providers, often integrated with consumer goods producers, whose principal concern was entertainment, came with a usurpation of the formal and entrenched cultural modes of expression that defined the BBC, but which had little popular appeal. To stay relevant and to justify its privileged position, the BBC has continually sought to justify its work on the grounds of the edification of the mass, and has adopted commercial sensibilities in response to changes in the international global media industries. In the 1950s the BBC had to compete with commercial television, now the BBC competes with Netflix and Apple.

The narrow expectations of high-art and culture, then, gave way to playful and energetic forms of expression that created a thrilling sense of cultural renewal, there was a joie de vivre that expressed useful intent and possibility. This coincided with the emergence of sustained social subcultural identities, in which young people, especially, were conceived according to their musical or cultural taste, as opposed to class, national or other forms of mass identity. Multiculturalism and cultural appropriation defined the British popular music sensibility, with significant openness to playing with signifiers and identities – think of The Beatles, Sex Pistols, Culture Club, and many more bands that broke the moulds of cultural convention and challenged the status quo by experimenting both with form and appearance.

The postmodern age is defined as the period of simulation and the play of signifiers in ironic gestures that knowingly frame our cultural experience as highly entertaining and playful – think MTV, Madonna and Seinfeld as products of 1980s massmedia culture. In the UK, commercial television was first sanctioned in the 1950s, but it wasn’t until the 1970s that commercial radio was licenced, with LBC gaining permission to broadcast to London in 1973. This only came after the BBC had reorganised its radio services in the late 1960s in response to pirate radio. The BBC shifted from programming that was exclusively about national identity, and instead based its stations around expectations of demographic determination and taste, with Radios 1, 2, 3 and 4 enduring until now. The early commercial stations, however, while importing techniques and modes of address from the United States of America, often retained the mannerisms of the BBC, and the regulators often imposed licence conditions that required even local commercial radio stations to provide a ‘full-service’ with mixed programming and a recognition of the role of public service broadcasting within each licenced local area.

In the postmodern era, the focus on personality and persona stood in contrast to the de-personalised modes of presentation in the modern era. Programming was diversified, and modes of address with listeners became more knowing and playful. Audiences were accorded a degree of ironic self-awareness because they were assumed to be familiar enough with the different modes of presentation and could recognise the differences. This gave rise to moments of satire, pastiche and irony in many programmes that became part of the self-reflexive awareness of the producer’s expectations. Audiences could be in on the joke and the experience of listening. Rather than the audience facing each other, the seductive potential of this cultural role of presentation meant the audience were facing the DJ. Whereas in the modern mode of presentation there was a high level of distance between the presenters and the audience, in the postmodern mode, the gap was narrowed, and the appeal of the presenter was that they were ‘one of us’. This meant that the broadcaster’s cultural authority was diminished in correspondence with expectations of equality between the presenters and the listeners, but never mind because this was better suited as a mode of address for selling stuff and promoting oneself.

The archetypal mode of engagement between presenters and listeners in the postmodern era, I’d suggest, became that of companionship, cultural levelling and popular social expertise. The host was a well-informed guide who could share their insights and knowledge in accessible forms of entertainment or cultural exchange. Presenters were expected in popular forms of programmes to know a lot about sport or entertainment, but didn’t have to concern themselves with the canon of Western intellectual, artistic and scientific thought. Consumer counselling was key, and the role of the radio presenter was to help the audience navigate the repertoire of cultural choices that the market would provide. This was manifested in talk about what gigs to go to, what music or films to watch, what events and festivals to attend, and so on. The cultural repertoire was brought down a couple of rungs, with the purpose of making consumer choices accessible and relatable to daily experience. The only problem, however, is that this has been articulated largely without recourse to the consequences of this hedonistic and self-serving culture of consumption. Social responsibility is not something that gets explored on any greatest hits of the 1980s radio station! Likewise, it clearly isn’t the intent of any commercialised forms of radio to foster group or place-based identities that explore the complexities of modern life and our social responsibilities. Commercial radio’s role is to sell products and services, and to facilitate more consumption in popular entertainment products.

The later period of the postmodern mode, I would argue, has become atrophied and formulaic, to the extent that much of British commercially focussed radio is culturally narrow and deficient in nutritional content. Commercial radio in the UK is the equivalent of the frozen pizzas and pies that are sold in supermarkets. They are produced in a factory, they offer convenience, and they are nutritionally and culturally barren. As expectations of shared engagement have been shifted to online media platforms, it becomes harder to achieve a sense of cultural value. With the introduction of alternative online social media platforms and services, provided through the internet and online, we’ve seen the rise of the echo-chamber, which is not only driving social media platforms, such as YouTube and Facebook, but has now resulted in a narrowing of expectations of what else we can do culturally. Cultural variation, as the plethora of jukebox radio services suggest, is becoming more limited. The segment of audiences by taste and consumer behaviour, rather than social identity, creative potential or life stage, is crowding out the alternative. In seeking more efficiencies, and by introducing more automated production modes that anticipate large-scale reach to consumers across networks, engagement in smaller discrete cultural units dissipates and becomes harder to sustain. Radio presenters are now competing with social media influencers, who are producing content for the primary purpose of attention and the manifestation of likes and hits across multiple social media platforms. Radio, for some unexplained reason, is following this trend, and is now largely trying to keep up in ways that feed the attention economy.

I can continue this discussion for some time, but I’m going to pause here by offering an alternative, which is to note forms of radio programming that are emergent and oriented with metamodern sensibilities. Metamodern radio is not focussed on audiences, but is concerned with building communities. The sensemaking that takes place in these communities is distributed between the participants in the network, and is not controlled centrally. The role of the radio producer is to facilitate, inspire and enable people to find their own voices, and to set them free from cultural imitation and mimicry of dominant forms of address. The metamodern approach values the sincerity of the person and minimises judgements about their technical proficiency. There is a social democratic focus on participation and access to the means of making and sharing radio content, which is opened to experimentation and diversity of supply. This means media makers can tackle topics and matters of concern that go well beyond the narrow confines of the consumer market, and can open up discussions about cohesive communities based on equity, sustainability and social renewal, rather than accumulation and rigid adherence to formats, programming templates and structures.

Metamodern approaches to media introduce a dynamic learning and reflexive way of thinking to the process of creating and sharing content. Radio in the metamodern mode would remove centralised institutional control – both government and commercial – and deploy decentralised production and distribution practices that are better suited to the information networks, while focussing on the values of community building, such as caring for one another and the planet, building a sense of trust and co-ownership of the means of communication, and fostering a sense of belonging based on community empowerment and socially just practices that opens up media to all who wish to participate, and removes barriers and prejudices that typically limit the national and commercial producer-led mindsets.

There’s a lot more to explore, and some examples of this metamodern mode of radio would be useful. Despite my dissatisfaction with the commercial and institutional forms of radio, I remain positive about the decentralised and professionalised potential of radio practice that is in the hands of the many, and not just a few self-appointed managers and shareholders. Radio is too important to let drift into obscurity and irrelevance. Those of us who care about a democratic and socially just society must demonstrate that radio continues to have cultural relevance and value, and that the fundamental principles and values of broadcasting as a society must be protected and renewed.