09 Nov 2019 From little brown boxes to mediated interpersonal communication
In the early days of broadcast media, people gathered around “little brown radio boxes” (Re-diffusion boxes) (Jamaica Gleaner, 2001) to stay connected to what was happening around the world and to be entertained by audio dramas and music countdowns. The content aired was provided by foreign outlets, presented by journalists or hosts from faraway lands who did not sound anything like the listeners, and who may have only seen the countries in the Caribbean on a map. Throughout the English-speaking Caribbean while print media has had a long history of private ownership, broadcasting, with the exception of the private British firm, Reinfusion, was owned and controlled by the state until the last two decades of the 20th Century.
In the present broadcast media landscape in the region, despite the existence of numerous radio and television channels, people are still calling for representation on the airwaves. It was in the early 1940s that the impact of Caribbean people having their own platform was first apparent with the advent of the BBC World Service programme, Caribbean Voices which was aired on a Sunday evening. The programme ran from 1943 to 1958, and evolved to become an international platform for Caribbean writers to showcase their work and receive critiques and encouragement.
In 1955, The Times Literary Supplement noted, “West Indian writers freely acknowledge their debt to the BBC for its encouragement, financial and aesthetic.” A major part of the appeal was that writers whose submissions were read on-air and those who read the material received financial compensation, which by the standards of the day was lucrative. The producer for the show, Henry Swanzy, made it known that he wanted the programme to be filled with “authenticity” and “local colour”. This meant that stories, expressions and dialect that were uniquely Caribbean were placed on the airwaves across the world.
The willingness to acknowledge the role that the BBC World Service played in exposing the talent of Caribbean writers did not dull the calls for national radio stations to be established in each country. As part of the clamour across the region for independence from colonial powers in the 1960s and 1970s, having broadcast media, that reflected the people, played their music and discussed their issues became a goal that appeared in the manifestos of the political parties vying for leadership.
Leaders at the time, such as Eric Williams in Trinidad and Tobago, Alexander Bustamante in Jamaica, and Grantley Adams in Barbados, stressed that as an essential part of self-governance, establishing national broadcasting outlets would symbolise self-sufficiency in a way that few other things could. Journalism – both print and broadcast – held a mandate for being nation-builders.
In individual states, as a result of mid-20th Century political changes, “broadcasting became a significant medium for transmitting culture, mediating politics and economics, selling products and services, and extending communication capabilities. After independence, merchants and politicians paid more attention to radio’s ability to reach a large audience simultaneously with the same message. Listeners became more interested as the quantity and quality of programmes increased after 1950.” (Storr, 2016).
Although Caribbean radio programmes still had much f foreign content, particularly from Britain and the United States, there was a significant increase in local input. “Music programmes became more entertaining; radio personalities became more endearing; and news programmes were more informative and interesting. Government agencies and departments began to use radio and television to disseminate information to the public, particularly on education and public health”. (Storr, 2016)
Leaders also saw radio as a means to support the development of the West Indian Federation as proximity meant that radio broadcasts went beyond the confines of one island. The federation frizzled out early in its evolution and at the time, so too did the idea of regional broadcast media.
Public and private
By the late 1980s and early 1990s and over the course of the next 20 years, Caribbean broadcast media evolved into a combination of private and public entities. Deregulation, liberalisation, and privatisation policies were implemented, opening those markets to intense competition. State broadcasting entities were retained, some in the shape of public service broadcasting with few countries opting out of broadcasting completely.
The number of radio broadcasters in each territory increased exponentially. In Trinidad and Tobago, radio frequencies on the FM band went from three in the early 1990s to 36 in the 2000s. Despite the increase in media channels and the obvious rise in profits, commercialisation was blamed for a decline in the quality of broadcast content. Analysts throughout the region lamented the rise of sensationalism and more entertainment-oriented reporting, as well as the blurring of boundaries between news and advertising.
Convergence also caused concern among media scholars, (McChesney, 1999; McChesney and Nichols, 2010; Schudson, 2008). They noted that democracy suffers when citizens are presented with content that is less diverse, informative and educational. In the regional landscape, media convergence was blatant as publishing companies that already owned newspapers invested in radio and television frequencies.
In the current radio broadcast arena, the predictions of Aggarwal and Gupta ring true, that “smaller and specific listener groups will be the micro-concept of future radio” (2001, p.191). Radio stations are identifying as brands and as such they are integrating listeners into groups, making them feel members of a unique community. Corderio (2012) adds to the thinking by arguing that stations invest in “celebrities and well-known presenters” as this increases the feeling that community listeners experience.
According to Caribbean scholar, Janet Morrison, this situation has eroded from being positive, where a community of listeners is established as a result of radio formats, to the media now being used to keep people apart instead of bringing them together. She added that, despite all the options available, the media in the Caribbean have been niche-marketed into a culture of separatism (Morrison, 2015). Essentially, what has happened over the past several decades is that the notion that local broadcast media should be used to address national development needs has been negated for commercialism. Popular music sanctioned by foreign charts is in heavy rotation and broadcasters have been fashioning their way of speaking to be similar to announcers heard abroad (with an accent included).
Concerns regarding the quality and appropriateness of the content being broadcast occasionally appear in newspaper articles and letters to the editor, or can be heard in conversations on street corners, or in taxis. Thinly veiled lewd jokes, songs with lyrics not suitable for children, opinionated, careless commentary that is not supported by a professional viewpoint, or in some cases even supported by facts, are some of the major every day complaints.
Broadcasting Authorities which exist in each territory are ill-equipped to monitor the number of stations and have instead become reactionary bodies rather than regulatory. Investigations, sanctions, fines are only conducted and issued if a complaint is received from a member of the public. In the case of Trinidad and Tobago, a privately owned company that records content has to be paid to retrieve offensive content that was broadcast before an investigation can even begin, as the authority is ill-equipped to record and play-back all broadcast content.
Artistes and activists continue to call for more airplay and representation after all this time. Despite a mass of talent in various genres and more recorded content than ever before, one or two stations in each Caribbean country could be said to play 50 per cent or more of local content throughout the year, usually on 5-10 per cent of the radio stations. Most broadcasters showcase local content in a seasonal way and take pride in it. As carnivals and festivals draw near in each territory, radio frequencies turn sharply inwards and spend a few weeks or months a year with certain songs on repeat.
An interactive forum
Talk radio offers a mediated interpersonal communication experience for its audience. It provides listeners with a sense of personal contact and a forum to discuss and to learn about societal issues (Rubin & Step, 2000). The “two-way”, “call in”, or “talk back” format is especially effective because this interactive forum meets specific health, agricultural and educational needs, involve the community and encourage discussion of development issues. (Higgins & Moss, 1982; Jamison & McAnany, 1978; O’Sullivan-Ryan & Kaplun, 1980; White, 1983).
In the regional talk-show arena, when discussing issues of national concern, a shock-jock style of attacking politicians, arguing and rehashing problems rather than discussing solutions seems to permeate regional airwaves. A shock jock is defined as a radio disc jockey who tests the boundaries of language use and good taste (Delta, 2009). Telephone calls are taken from the public, which usually degenerate into a litany of complaints about the performance of government officials and agencies. Analytical, informed commentary can only be found on a select few frequencies and the people hosting the discussion are at times affiliated with a political party or have not revealed that they may have a biased viewpoint. Instead, they are viewed as journalists, when in fact, they are citizens with a platform, not meaning to uphold journalistic ethics or practices.
Lule (2012) suggests that radio was crucially involved with the upheavals of globalisation during the twentieth century. The adaptation in the Caribbean of the shock jock personality could be said to be the result of globalisation. Perhaps the adopting of this radio style could be more aptly attributed to Americanisation, a phenomenon described as becoming American in character; to assimilate to the customs and institutions of the United States of America. As the majority of shock-jock personalities are American, this perspective may be closer to the truth.
Corbridge (2000) suggests that some Caribbean nations have been passive victims of Americanisation due to the “forces of cultural imperialism”. The theme is also discussed extensively in the work of novelist, V.S Naipaul’s Mimic Men (1967) in which he posits that Trinidad and Tobago’s culture was quickly diluted during the US Army occupation of the Chaguaramas airbase.
The Power of RadioBasic Skills Manual suggests that, even if not a journalist by training, a good radio host requires “cultural sensitivity and accurate knowledge about an audience from what style of programs listeners prefer to what topics interest them.” The text also suggests that an experienced radio professional should not make listeners feel like just a part of a crowd, or use sexist or patronising language.
Public broadcasting services run by regional governments are seen as being selective in their content and discussion,whether due to instruction or self-censorship. Within the context of a former Prime Minister entering a privately-owned radio station to complain to the announcers and calling for them to be suspended and even fired, one can appreciate why self-censorship could be an issue among many media outlets in the region.
Constraints on investigative reporting
The small size of Caribbean states has also been blamed for the decline in the quality of journalism and broadcast content. Consider that a journalist or broadcaster may have gone to school with a sitting politician, or is a close or distant cousin of a businessman being investigated. The likelihood that the connections and the loyalty to ties that bind could hamper quality investigations and indepth reporting is potentially higher due to the small population size of Caribbean states. Media ownership again plays a role here as owners may not want something reported, investigated, or discussed if it could possibly result in adverse effects on the businesses of their friends and relatives or affect another of their own business interests, as people/entities invested in media outlets usually own other businesses or operate as part of a conglomerate.
Other threats to broadcasting have emerged from new technologies, such as the Internet, which has provided the public with more access to content and information as well as the ability to avoid commercials and promote a customised playlist. Large retail stores have taken to creating their own playlists interrupted only by their own advertising played between popular songs to avoid information about a competitor being heard in-store over the radio and also to set the tone for the experience while shopping.
The Internet has also opened up possibilities for anyone to become a content creator. Be it an entire Internet-based radio station, pre-recorded podcasts, features, news, a talk show, drama series or any other variation of audio content, it is being produced in the Caribbean. While the reach of these productions may not match that of live on-air radio available on the FM Band in the Caribbean, the market for them continues to grow. The flexibility of choosing when we listen and watch content has become important, although not at the speed or with the availability of developed states.
Broadcasters in the region are beginning fully to explore the possibilities by recording live content and uploading to online platforms for listeners to access later. Cameras in the studio that show live footage of the DJs and presenters at work have also become commonplace and are particularly popular among the Caribbean Diaspora.
Content creators based online have also been able to transition to work in broadcast, some being recruited by radio stations to be hired as on-air personalities based on their entertaining content and large following on Facebook and Instagram. The concept of being a citizen journalist is also prevalent in the Caribbean, with broadcast media outlets taking news, entertainment and other content directly from online sources.
In other cases, a story originates online and is then investigated further. The instantaneous nature of social media platforms has left some media houses grasping at straws to keep up, while some have successfully broadened their reach by adding content online throughout the day.
Radio remains the most pervasive electronic medium in the English-speaking Caribbean because it is less expensive, less technologically complex, portable and available to satisfy the needs of less literate populations. Unlike visual media, audio does not require one’s full attention and can be listened to while performing other tasks, such as commuting, exercising and doing household chores (Ek, 2016). Radio’s reach is also consistent among all age groups and both sexes (Arbitron, 2006). With such a persuasive medium, there are definite concerns about the possible negative effects content can have on listeners.
In 1979, Denis McQuail suggested that no matter the location, questions of whether the content which is aired is changing something, preventing something, facilitating something or reinforcing and reaffirming something, should be asked. That question is still relevant today.
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Kimiko Scott is a behaviour change communicator. Her research interests include the impact of radio and audio broadcast on society. She has worked as an on-air presenter, voice-talent, host since 2007, and currently co-hosts a morning “drivetime” radio programme. She is also Executive Director at A Plus Communications Limited, a company that offers data-driven communication solutions.