Monday musings on Australian literature: World Radio Day

2021 marks the tenth anniversary of World Radio Day. Hands up if you knew that? I didn’t, even though I like listening to the radio, and do in fact listen to it most days.

Some background

An initiative, apparently, of the Spanish Radio Academy, World Radio Day was proclaimed by UNESCO in 2011, and was unanimously endorsed by the United Nations in 2012 as a UN Day. February 13 was chosen because this was the date, in 1946, that United Nations Radio was established.

The Day’s aims are to raise greater awareness among the public and the media of the importance of radio, to encourage decision-makers to establish and provide access to information through radio, and to enhance networking and international cooperation among broadcasters.

On its page for this year’s World Radio Day, UNESCO says:

Radio is a powerful medium for celebrating humanity in all its diversity and constitutes a platform for democratic discourse. At the global level, radio remains the most widely consumed medium. This unique ability to reach out the widest audience means radio can shape a society’s experience of diversity, stand as an arena for all voices to speak out, be represented and heard. Radio stations should serve diverse communities, offering a wide variety of programs, viewpoints and content, and reflect the diversity of audiences in their organizations and operations. 

2021 themes

As with most UN Days, World Radio Day is celebrated each year through specific themes. In 2020, it was Radio and Diversity, while in 2021 it is New World, New Radio – Evolution, Innovation, Connection:

  • Evolution. The world changes, radio evolves: focusing on radio’s resilience and sustainability.
  • Innovation. The world changes, radio adapts and innovates: focusing on radio’s need to adapt to new technologies to remain “the go-to medium of mobility, accessible” to everyone, everywhere.
  • Connection. The world changes, radio connects: focuses on the service radio provides, in times of, for example, natural disasters, socio-economic crises, and epidemics.

In a blog post promoting the day, Being Agency discusses the state of radio in Australia, particularly regarding the impact on radio of “the rise of on-demand audio.” It’s worth reading, if you are interested, but essentially they argue that, just as video didn’t kill radio despite all prognostications that it would, nor is podcasting and on-demand audio doing so now:

The problem with assuming that on-demand audio (like podcasts) is replacing radio, is the idea that the two formats are mutually exclusive. As a medium with more than a century of history, radio is known for evolving, innovating and adapting as the world changes, and the global shift to digital is no exception.

… radio shows are the most popular podcast category in Australia, accounting for 101.3 million downloads in 2020 out of a total 420.8 million, according to the Australian Podcast Ranker.

AktiMateMini Speaker (1 of 2), with iPod and Internet Radio

They also note that, given its ability to serve society “at times of crisis”, radio (particularly local ABC radio) was a crucial source of information during Australia’s 2019-20 bushfire season, and then through the current COVID-19 pandemic.

They discuss radio’s embracing the digital world, saying that people are listening to radio on a wide variety of devices. They have no crystal ball -“who knows what will happen tomorrow”, they say – but “the industry is definitely doing what it has done for decades and adapting in response to rapid technology changes”.

For more on radio in Australia, check out the National Film and Sound Archive’s page.

Radio and Australian literature

From its early days, radio has had a relationship with “literature”, first through radio serials and plays, and gradually also through book readings. There were also stories created especially for children, such as Ruth Park’s The muddleheaded wombat. Radio was, in its heyday, a major source of entertainment as well as of information. Jacqueline Kent, whose latest book is the biography, Vida, wrote a history of Australian radio, Out of the bakelite box (1983, revised 1990). She devotes a chapter – “You have to write your head off” – to the writers, noting that

… the people who wrote radio scripts for a living in the days of the bakelite box didn’t spend any time musing about their craft. People like Kay Keavney, Richard Lane, Peter Yeldham, Sumner Locke Elliott, Morris West, Eleanor Witcombe (see my Monday Musings), James Workman and dozens of others just put their heads down and worked at the typewriters or dictating machines. The result was that Australian radio produced some of the fastest and most professional radio script writers in the world.

I’m not sure on what she bases that final assessment but it is certainly the case that Australia produced many, many serials and plays in radio’s heyday. Many of these writers – some of them you’ll have recognised – went on to write in other forms, including novels, for the stage, and of course for television, but they told Kent that writing for radio provided an excellent training ground. Peter Yeldham comments that it taught “discipline … and the ability to create stories” while Kay Keavney said that for a writer, “radio was a marvellous medium” because it demanded so much of the imagination.

As well as providing entertainment for audiences, and work for writers, early radio also actively encouraged creativity, particularly in children. The ABC’s Argonauts program is best known for this. Kent writes

Many people who are now well known in the arts submitted their first poems, drawings, paintings or musical pieces as Argonauts. It’s a long, long list, and it includes poet and reviewer Fay Zwicky, critic and author Humphrey McQueen … Michael Dransfield, who was one of Australia’s most talented and promising young poets until his tragic death in 1973, was a senior prize-winner in the literature section of the [Argonauts’] Commonwealth Awards.

Like all media, of course, radio has had to change with the times. Gradually the serials and the plays decreased but book readings – a radio version of the audio-book – continued for some time. These days – in terms of spoken (not music) radio anyhow – information is god it seems, so now, instead of hearing plays and stories, we hear “about” them through programs like the ABC’s The Book Show, The Stage Show and Bookshelf. Instead of having opportunities to practise their craft, writers get to spruik their output! Better? Worse? Or, just different?

Finally …

I’ll end with Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO’s Director-General, who said that “More than ever, we need this universal humanist medium”. It supports the right to information and freedom of expression. Without radio, fundamental freedoms and cultural diversity “would be weakened … since community radio stations are the voices of the voiceless”. 

 What do you think? Is radio important to you? Is it living up to its potential?