Radio Survived the Video Star and it’s still Number 1

Why the UN is correct to choose radio for communicating ideas of gender equality

Benjamin F Owen

buggles On 1 August 1981, as MTV flickered for the first time over televisions screens, the synth-doctored voice of Trevor Horn heralded the death of radio. ‘Video killed the radio star’, whined his backing signers. ‘Pictures came and broke your heart’, yodelled Horn.

In an article on this blog this opine of late 70s synthpop has been adopted as part of an assertion that women are ‘being notably encouraged and pushed into expiring public platforms’ under the pretence of feminism. ‘Radio’, argues Cole, ‘is a notably dying platform … and won’t expose female voices to any new global audience.’

‘Why then’, asks Cole, ‘does the UN deem radio a significant platform for women?’ It is a good question, providing the assertions are correct, how or why an institution that has for decades researched and campaigned against gender inequality has formed an agenda so rudimentary and out of touch with the modern world. Why is the UN not encouraging women into ‘current and more important’ public platforms?

The article’s assertions are, however, unsubstantiated and its criticisms have a developed world centric bias.

For billions of women, what we in the west would consider current public platforms are just not accessible due to economic and developmental barriers. For those living in developing patriarchal countries, there is next to zero internet access. In Timor-Leste, less than 1% of the population have access to the internet. Facebook and Twitter, giant platforms of social campaigning in the west, are all but unknown. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, 98.3% of the population do not have access to the blogs and articles that disseminate ideas of equality across Europe and North America. In Iraq, the English language and internet based TED talks, lauded by Cole, are available to barely 7% of the mainly Arabic speaking population. Only 40% of the world’s population, estimates the UN, has internet access, with speeds and prices varying widely.

Equally, television is not universal. In Tanzania, figures for 2004 showed that only 6.1% of households had a TV and in 2002, 95.5% of Ugandan households had to make do without an evening sat in front of the box. The comedy panel show, let alone the debate surrounding the sex of its participants, is an alien concept in Ethiopia.

Radio, on the other hand, holds many advantages over these so called ‘current’ mediums in spreading the ideas of gender equality. Firstly it’s cheap. In societies where it would take many lifetimes to save up enough money for an ipad or a laptop, the radio offers an affordable receiver of information. Using your body as the antenna, at a cost of pennies, the most basic radio can be made out of nothing more than a diode and an earpiece. Better reception can be acquired by the addition of a length of copper wire. Secondly, it’s cheaper and easier to broadcast than television. No expensive cameras and lighting needed; just a microphone and a transmitter.

Further, radios use less electricity than the up and coming public platforms. To use the arcane language of the British Empire, even in darkest Africa, a wind-up radio can still enlighten minds to new ideas where mains electricity is non-existent. Further still, where modern platforms often require at least basic literacy and a knowledge of European or Asian languages, Radio provides the best opportunity for poor, illiterate vulnerable women and their societies to receive information and ideas of equality and liberty in a form they can understand.

Even taking the western centric view taken in Cole’s article, it is worth noting that Radio is not a dying medium in more developed countries. In the UK, for example, the radio audience is actually increasing!

In 2013, 91% of adults in the UK listened to radio, up 1.4 million since the previous year, with an average listening time of 21.3 hours per week. 2012 listening figures were up 340,000 on 2011 and although 2011 radio experienced a marginal decline in audience from 2010, there were still 709,000 more tuning in than in 2009. Likewise, in the USA, radio increased its weekly audience by 700,000 in the year up to 2013, to 241.8 million listeners aged 12 and above (91% of the population). Since 2009, the United States has seen over 5.3 million more people tuning in regularly. Contrary to the assertion that ‘very few people listen to radio anymore’, very few people don’t.

Although not comprehensive, these figures are hardly implicative of a media platform on its way to being confined ‘to the obscure fringes of society’, as asserted by Cole. In comparison, the number of UK households with a TV has only been increasing around 200,000 or 300,000 year on year for the past ten years with around 93 or 94% of the population tuning in. Only 83% of the UK households have access to the internet.

Thirty years after The Buggles’ tuneful(ish) declaration of the death of radio, far from surviving on its death bed drip fed by nostalgics and hipsters, radio has seen the demise of MTV’s video jockeys and is finding new and larger audiences, going toe to toe with television and annihilating the internet in the battle for ratings.

It is a medium that is less susceptible to economic, developmental and educational barriers. Unlike more recent and emerging public platforms, to listen to, or to even own, a radio, you don’t have to be rich, you don’t need electricity and you don’t even have to be able to read.

This is not a case perpetuating, as Cole argues, an ‘age of accepting mediocrity’ in which women are made to accept substandard and obscure platforms on the basis that ‘it’s better than nothing’. By looking at the figures and the wider global picture, one will see that, instead, the UN are encouraging women to use a strong, enduring and truly universal platform that, in large parts of the world, in societies where, generally speaking, women are at their most vulnerable, where people don’t have computer tablets and smart phones, reaches more people than both internet and television combined.

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