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Radio Matters: A Renaissance in Radio Scholarship

Radio Matters is a new feature on Radio Survivor in which guest authors will share their thoughts on the relevance of radio. In this inaugural post, scholar Brian Fauteux writes about the increasing scholarly interest in radio as he recaps the recent Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference – Jennifer Waits, College Radio & Culture Editor, Radio Survivor

Radio has developed alongside a number of significant changes in technology and culture, from recorded music to satellites. As such, its resiliency is a defining factor. Today, as digital technology, online connectivity and mobile devices reshape our media environment, we can locate innovative and effective ways to make sense of these changes in the scholarly study of radio. Radio is a rich site for exploring a number of contemporary issues within media and communication studies, including (but certainly not limited to): industries in transition, intermedia, online fan cultures, new music industries, digital listening practices, and connections between the local and the global.

This past March, at the annual Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference in Seattle, the Radio Studies Scholarly Interest Group (SIG) sponsored and promoted a number of radio panels and presentations. The Radio Studies SIG was founded in 2012 after Bill Kirkpatrick, an Assistant Professor in Media Studies at Denison University, organized a meeting of radio scholars at the 2011 conference in Boston to discuss the group’s formation and to help strengthen the presence of radio scholarship at SCMS. Today, the SIG’s mission is to “increase the profile of humanities-based radio studies within the Society for Cinema and Media Studies and to help make the SCMS conference and Cinema Journal more welcoming venues for scholarly work on radio.” The Radio Studies SIG also serves as platform for radio scholars to connect and coordinate panels for future SCMS conferences. This year’s conference saw an increase in the number of Sound Studies papers and panels, and as the larger field of sound research becomes increasingly prominent, the Radio Studies SIG provides an excellent means for highlighting the the important place of radio within sound culture.

The Radio Studies SIG sponsored a total of six panels at the Seattle conference, which included a range of paper topics from the place of Popular Music in NPR’s current affairs programming (by Christopher Cwynar, UW-Madison) to branded entertainment and early broadcasting (by Radio Studies SIG co-chair Cynthia Meyers, College of Mount Saint Vincent). My own paper was part of a panel organized and chaired by Jennifer Hyland Wang, which featured a range of papers dealing with the symbolic, cultural, and political dimensions of “place” in North American radio broadcasting.

I was initially drawn to the scholarly study of radio as a musician and music fan. My dissertation explored the development of Canadian campus radio broadcasting and the importance of campus stations within local music scenes. I found that the cultural and musical specificity of a city or town in which a campus station is located is a key factor that helps to shape its sound. Campus stations use a variety of platforms to circulate music and engage with listeners and artists, from promoting or programming live performances to digitizing cassette tapes from now-defunct bands and playing them on the air. The dynamic and experimental nature of radio is what drives my research as well as curiosity about the ongoing significance of local musical sites of production and performance in the digital age.

In addition to sponsoring panels, the Radio Studies SIG hosts an annual members meeting. Given the nature of my research, I was pleased to discover that this year’s meeting included a presentation by Seattle’s noncommercial music radio station, KEXP-FM. Station director Tom Mara and general manager Scott Bell shared KEXP’s plans for a new studio space based in Seattle’s downtown core. The station’s new home will function as a community gathering space and will help the station connect with music fans and artists in new and exciting ways. The gathering space will host live performances, classes, and lectures, and will also include a cafe, a record store, and a DJ booth that allows the public to watch live radio production. KEXP also hosts (and shares online via YouTube) numerous in-studio performances and the new facility comes with improved audio and video resources as well as an expanded audience viewing area. As well, artists on the road can take advantage of a green room with laundry facilities and showers. I found KEXP’s presentation to be inspiring and innovative, especially given my interest in the relationship between noncommercial radio and music.

KEXP’s new studio space reflects the importance of radio today as an industry that is very much active in the circulation of music, from live performances to digital video (especially in the noncommercial sector, as a recent Future of Music study illustrates). The presentation suggests that there are new ways for radio to expand into both public and online spaces and to connect with listeners and artists. In many ways KEXP’s presentation echoes the radio scholarship that was shared at the conference. Panels and papers dealt with topical issues such as the relationship between the local and the transnational in radio programming, the prominence of radio in cross-media branding, new methods for distributing music, and the place of public service broadcasting in the digital age. KEXP is a site that reflects all of these exciting transitions.

Radio is once again facing big changes in media and technology. The medium’s adaptability is inscribed in its history as a cultural technology. This is certainly an exciting time to be a radio practitioner and a radio scholar. As radio finds its place in the digital age, radio scholars are met with questions, some new and some old, which require a lot of thinking, creating, and writing in order to take full advantage of what the medium can be today.

Brian Fauteux is a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow in Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is currently undertaking a research project that explores the circulation of popular music by satellite radio. Follow him on Twitter @brianfauteux

Radio Matters is a new, semi-regular feature on Radio Survivor in which a wide range of radio enthusiasts, critics, scholars, professionals and enthusiasts will share their perspectives about the current state of radio.

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