The Language of Radio

As with other MEDIA FORMS, there is a specific language associated with radio production. In other words, there are a number of codes and conventions that radio productions follow. You will need to be aware of these codes and conventions if you are going to produce your own radio productions for your course or if you have to write about radio in your exam.

What strikes everyone, broadcasters and listeners alike, as significant about radio is that it is a blind medium.

Crissell, Understanding Radio 1995 p3

A good source of information about radio can be found in Andrew Crissell’s Understanding Radio who seeks to ‘determine the distinctive characteristics of the radio medium’. For instance, there is a proximity with radio communication, in that it appears almost interpersonal, using speech as the primary mode of communication and yet it is a mass medium broadcasting from a few to many. It is of course essentially and primarily auditory, consisting of speech, music, sounds and silence. A really good account of how radio communicates to individuals is provided by Crissell in chapter 1 ‘Characteristics of Radio’, for instance, the relationship between radio and individual imaginations.

This appeal to the imagination gives radio an apparent advantage over film and television

Crissell p 7

The Semiotics of Radio

When analysing media languages in specific texts, you are usually adopting a semiotic approach, identifying and de-coding a number of signs and symbols. As such, you are looking to connect the signifier (the thing you hear) and the signified (what it means): Ferdinand de Saussure. Or, put another way, you are trying to understand signs as they operate as denotations, connotations and myths: Roland Barthes.

As a more interesting exercise try linking auditory signs to the three cateogries provided by C. S. Pierce: icon, index and symbol. In that, an ICONIC SOUND will actually sound like its’ object – a person, a mode of transport, elements of nature etc etc. An INDEXICAL SOUND, will create an association to it’s object – the sound of somebody moving, thinking, or the sound of a particular location or geography. Think for example, the use of acoustics in creating a sense of space (indoor/outdoor, big room/small room etc) which can be achieved by microphone placement, or sound processing such as, reverb. Finally, a SYMBOLIC SOUND is one that is more arbitrary, random and vague. A sign that is understood usually by agreement, often through a specific culture, time or place – think for example, of the ‘crackle’ sound of old radio productions. Or any number of sound effectsecho, reverb, distortion, phase etc.

Remember that a sign could be operating in more than one category at the same time.

A discussion around War of the Worlds: interesting insight into how meaning is created through a radio broadcast.

CATEGORIES

Crissell sets out FOUR main categories to understand the language of radio: WORDS, SOUNDS, MUSIC & SILENCE. As such, the most important factor is understanding how sound is recorded, so think about and practice with sound recording technologies, particularly microphones and the ability to maximise sound to noise ratios by appropriately recording your sounds by setting the correct input and output levels on your recording device.

SOUNDS

Unlike words, which are human intervention, sound is ‘natural’ – a form of signification which exists ‘out there’ in the real world.

Crissell p. 44

Sounds are the ‘field’ where auditory (radio) work is developed. As mentioned above, sounds can be understood as recognisable (iconic) or suggestive (indexical), sounds can also be used to create an abstract, arbritary (creative?) auditory framework. A good task is to just close your eyes and reflect on all the sounds that you are able to pick up on. Following this try listening to any radio production and identify the separate elements into different categories.

MUSIC

A clear range of recognisable sounds heard through radio productions can be categorised in terms of MUSIC. Music is often used to construct whole texts of radio production – ie a specific radio programme – where the music that is played forms a paradigm of signifiers that provide anchorage that is fixes the meaning of a particular programme or section. However, music is also used to ‘frame‘ particular elements. For example, the use of a jingle or ‘ident‘ can be used as a sound bridge that , when edited over other material, create a seamless flow between different sections of a broadcast; or even to connect different programmes together. They can also be used as adverts and trailers to flag up and announce other programmes.

Music can be broadly thought of in terms of tone, volume, rhythm, melody, harmony etc. It could also be discussed in terms of technical codes, think for example of the processess that music goes through to be recorded and mixed together, such as sound balance, relative volumes and the use of digital processing, use of reverb, effects, frequency equalisation, compression, limiting etc. It is also possible to analyse elements that are connected to each piece of music, for example, instrumentation, performer, genre, history, culture, etc.

SILENCE

One of the most powerful and thereby rarely used signs in radio production is silence. The absence of sound can suggest a range of ideas – high drama, breakdown, comedy, pause for thought etc.

WORDS

words are signs which do not resemble what they represent’ as such, ‘their symbolism is the basis of radio’s imaginative appeal

Crissell p.43

The key code in the language of radio is verbal and to understand the meaning of words, it is necessary to pay attention to what words are used in a radio production: vocabulary and grammar as well as the way in which specific words are used: dialect, accent, stress, intonation etc. For many students, this is a recognisable approach to understanding ‘language’ that they will have picked up in English Literature and Language classes. However, the language of radio considers more than just the spoken word and requires an understanding and critical analysis of a range of technical and cultural codes that are significant in terms of constructing meaning. For example, the way in which sound is recorded and edited is crucial in terms of both creativity and meaning.

In both the recording and editing of words and sounds, there is a priority, foregrounding important elements over less important elements. This can be recognised as the technical construction of auditory signs – which is essentially the processes of recording and editing.

Recording & Editing

Radio, like moving image, is LINEAR and SEQUENTIAL, in that it moves in a chronological order, from (a) beginning to (an) end. In this respect, it is important to refer to NARRATIVE THEORY when trying to understand and de-code radio meaning. Radio is also reliant on sequential editing techniques (unlike print or on-line media). As such, basic grammar around the cut, the fade and the dissolve are important elements in constructing meaning. You can also apply a range of sound processing techniques in a post-production audio editing programme such as Adobe Audition. This way you can build up a number of audio files to create a mix of sounds and you can process each sound to alter equalisation, tone, timbre, dynamic. Editing can transform the raw material that you gather in the production stage into multi-track (multi-layered) final production that you would generally export as a .WAV file to either broadcast or embed in a multi-media production (eg moving image product, on-line media product etc). Your multi-track allows you to make choices (thereby create meaning) around sound levels / volumes and relative sound balance between individual sound files. The priorities that you give each file is a way of creatively constructing meaning.

Audiences

Although I talk about audiences in other sections of this blog, it is worth just ending this post by considering the distinctive character of radio audiences, as this will help to understand the language of radio and also raise some ideas on nature of radio as a distinctive media form.

While radio is seen as a mass medium, the appeal to the imagination of each person makes it a very personal experience. The process of listening to the radio is ‘inward’ and intimate – like reading a book.

Media and Meaning p. 356

The intimacy of radio is created by the language of radio – the close proximity of the voice recording, the direct address of the presenters, the selective use of pronouns – ‘I’ ‘you’ ‘we’ – the casual conversation, the connections developed by listeners to stations, presenters or styles of music, the two way interactions – song requests, shout outs, messages, dedications – the interviews and so on.

Radio is also a flexible medium. It provides diversity and choice and can be seen as both a broadcaster (to many) or a narrowcaster (to a few / niche). Think for example, about the way BBC radio is enshrined in the constitution as a national broadcaster, think of radio news broadcasts, the role of Radio 4 as a way of engaging with government and politics. At the other end of the spectrum community radio is part of an independent tradition of media production that spans from hospital radio to pirate radio stations.

Radio is considered an undemanding medium. In this respect think about radio consumption – listening to the radio while at work, or school, while travelling, exercising or relaxing. It can be consumed as a peripheral form of entertainment, or can be used for knowledge about the world, society and the self. In this way it is possible to apply a range of audience theories to specific radio texts, which will allow for both an individual textual analysis as well as a broader recognition of the codes and conventions that constitute the language of this particular media form.

As ever, any comments, questions, ideas or suggestions please get in touch – you can use the twitter handle next to this post. If not please feel free to adapt, adopt, use or ignore.

Further Reading:

  • Understanding Radio, Crissell, A 1995 Routledge
  • Chapter 5 Radio in Media and Meaning Stewart, C. Lavelle, M, Kowaltzke, A 2001 BFI

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