At a time of huge expansion in the number and variety of radio stations available worldwide, why is there so little choice? And how can radio retain its parochial appeal in the face of globalisation and corporate ownership? In attempting to explore such questions, David Hendy's engaging and wide-ranging study offers a galaxy of fascinating insights and revelations within a sky of sweeping generalisations.
The book's international scope is impressive, incorporating studies of the role of music radio in South Africa, the use of radio as a tool of genocide during the Rwandan civil war and a comparison of radio listening habits across Europe. This approach lends context to the analysis of the global reach of radio, the hierarchies of ownership that dominate it and the tensions between local audience needs and mass production.
Hendy covers industrial, economic and technological considerations with equal authority and energy and has gathered together a wide range of research perspectives - music genres, audience habits, the impact of digital broadcasting - as well as a number of prominent radio theorists.
Hendy has expertly collated a good deal of worthwhile material, particularly in relation to music stations and niche programming. But he begins to flounder when relying on his own research, too much of which betrays a superficial methodology and leads to somewhat wobbly assertions, especially in his treatment of the BBC.
Although the BBC's prominence in United Kingdom and world radio is unarguable, Hendy does not offer an adequate analysis of its dominance. The dramatic changes to Radio 1 in the early 1990s are presented as an example of how a determined vision can buck the mainstream trend. But the argument fails to acknowledge either the BBC imperatives that drove the policy or the haemorrhaging of listeners that resulted. Radio 2, which wrought equally dramatic changes more gradually and without offending its audience, is not even mentioned.
Hendy's chapter on production is equally patchy. It relies on too few sources and makes no distinction between producers working in teams on daily or weekly strands and those making solo productions. The legendary producer Piers Plowright is quoted without reference to the untypical nature of his position as a hallowed radio feature artist.
The approach to Radio 4 struck me as exceptionally flimsy - though that may be because it is the station I know most about. Hendy shows a certain naivety when trying to explain the cost of Radio 4 without first analysing the particular demands of its eccentric mix of news, specialist magazines, drama, comedy and documentaries. It was refreshing to encounter an academic who is unafraid to engage with the industry's own research, but I do wish he had been a bit more critical of the material. He quotes the vapid generalisations put out by Radio 4 during James Boyle's tenure as controller without questioning their premise. It almost made me long for a nice, meaty bit of Marxist scorn.
Finally, though, what was missing was a sense of the journalistic mission of radio. It is not good enough to compare the patterns, the semiotic interludes, even the economic contrasts between live and packaged programming, between high and low costs and between local and global interests, unless you have a keen grasp of what journalism there is to do and of radio's dynamic ability to make live, immediate and unadorned political debate and current affairs.
Despite such distortions, media students and radio professionals should welcome the vast sweep and irrepressible enthusiasm of this important survey as a significant contribution to the expanding discipline of radio studies.
Sally Feldman is dean, School of Media, London College of Printing.
Radio in the Global Age
Author - David Hendy
ISBN - 0 7456 2068 X and 2069 8
Publisher - Polity
Price - £50.00 and £14.99
Pages - 208