Wednesday, November 16, 2011

An Airwave Surfer’s Lament

Published in the Fiji Times as “Words of inspiration” in the Column “Off the Wall with Padre James Bhagwan,” Wednesday, November 16, 2011

With Fiji about to get its next “free to air” television channel the hype of who has the best coverage, programmes, and presenters is bound to intensify as the broadcast war shifts into a new genre – from radio to television. With a small share of the pie in terms of advertising revenue, competition across the media will be tougher, especially in the broadcast media

The “hype” around coverage, audience (listeners and viewers) and programmes around which businesses can market their products will benefit advertisers with competitive rates being offered. It will benefit whichever station can get the advertisers and audience to believe its “hype”. But will it really benefit the audience?

As someone who has had some experience in radio, television and print in the local commercial, state-owned and government media organizations, I continue to be increasingly concerned about what is being churned out on our airwaves, in terms of content.

As the commercial broadcast media strives to outdo its competition, the public interest has taken a back seat to “keeping up with the Joneses” – in other words international media marketing of music and television is dictating what we hear and see. Here’s a little newsflash: the “Joneses” don’t live here.

Of course there is a place for Top 40 music, the hits of US, UK, Australia and everywhere else on radio – it’s popular. Of course there is a place for the latest crime, action, comedy and drama television serials from the same countries – they’re popular. They are a big part of the global popular culture. But is that it? Is that all there is? Are the words at the end of the Warner Brothers’ Loonytoons Cartoons “That’s All Folks” true?

The sad thing is that, all those who run commercial broadcast companies, and they’re all commercial broadcast companies now, regardless of who owns them; all those who will talk about giving the listener or viewer what they want have the benefit of growing up in a time when they were exposed and shaped by the very things they now ignored. Yet even with the benefit of this exposure, they neglect to offer the same exposure to the next generation.

When I was growing up, radio was it. Even when video came in, radio how we connected with the world – the whole world. It was our world-wide-web. But it wasn’t just a diet of Top 40 music and news. I heard classical music, jazz, I learned about the world through the little transistor radio I had.

When people talked on the radio (not just the broadcasters or “personalities” but ordinary people – sometimes doing extraordinary things), we paid attention to what they said. We heard the voices and the words of people who inspired nations, and the world. We heard their messages.

Now we just listen to the music inspired by the people inspired by these words. Now we don’t listen but we watch. Image is what counts. We no longer pay attention to what is being said but what the speaking is wearing, how they look – shallow visual attraction wins over depth of message. How sad.

I believe that radio still is the dominant media in Fiji. Media theorist Marshall McLuhan writes about the difference between television and radio:

“TV is a cool medium. It rejects hot figures and hot issues [...]” He continues that hot characters appearing on TV appeared “rendered as a cartoon” while “Radio [was] a cool medium and [took] cartoon characters seriously.”

McLuhan states “Radio affects most intimately, person-to-person, offering a world of unspoken communication between writer-speaker and the listener. That is the immediate aspect of radio. A private experience. The subliminal depths of radio are charged with the resonating echoes of tribal horns and antique drums. This is inherent in the very nature of this medium, with its power to turn the psyche and society into a single echo chamber.”

McLuhan believed the power of intimacy and the potential for creating relationships in a shared personal and communal experience (kinship) through radio broadcasting by “offering a world of unspoken communication between writer-speaker and listener”.

Radio has the power to involve people in one another in terms of “the power to re-tribalize mankind” reversing individualism into collectivism. But this power is largely unnoticed in western cultures. Or it is noticed and for commercial interests, ignored.

It is ironic that despite a strong oral/aural culture and a traditionally relationship-oriented community, this has also proved to be the case in Fiji, as the introduction of television and certain aspects of commercial radio have fragmented the aural and oral community which radio once fostered.

While the internet is touted as the information superhighway, less than 30% of the world has access to the internet. That means the majority of the world – at least 70% is without internet access. Half of the now 7 billion people that inhabit this planet have water problems. A quarter of the world lives without electricity. Radio remains still the best means of communication, whether plugged into the “grid”, powered by batteries, hand, the sun or if you are fortunate to own one – on your mobile phone.

The funny thing is that whether it is radio or television, at the end of the day the same excuse is given. The choice of an audience that has a limited menu is really no choice at all. As for the advertisers, the sponsors – well, they will sponsor whatever the audience listens to – and in most cases they have had the same broad exposure that the broadcasters have had.

So broadcasters, is it going to be the same dismissive response and talk of commercial markets? Or are you willing to open your airwaves up to some radical radio and television programmes and content such as local music on the English language stations, history (and not just the “on this day in history” kind) , arts and culture?

You provide the narrative, the story of our nation. Please don’t let it be just a soundtrack or a short filler.

“Be still, stand in love, pay attention.”


Rev. J.S. Bhagwan has won awards in Radio (PIBA/AFTRS), TV (Commonwealth Vision Award) and Print media (FAME), and is currently a student of the International Graduate School of Theology at the Methodist Theological University in Seoul, South Korea. Email: (Facebook/Twitter).

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