First Monday

The new role of radio and its public in the age of social network sites by Tiziano Bonini

A culture of co–creation is emerging in art, design, architecture (Armstrong and Stojmirovic, 2011), music, video, literature and other productive fields like manufacturing, urban agriculture and biotech. Many of the tools of production and distribution used by professionals are available to the broader public. Publics are becoming more and more productive (Jenkins, 1992; Arvidsson, 2011). The rise of these phenomena suggests that a new modality of value creation is affirming itself in the information economy (Arvidsson and Colleoni, 2012). This emerging co–creation culture and a new theory of value also affect the radiophonic medium. The combination between radio and social networks sites (SNS) brought to completion a long historical process by virtue of which the distance with the public decreases, as Walter Benjamin already understood in his work on the relation between radio and society. In this paper I will focus on the changes that the publics of radio have undergone in the last stage of this “history of distance”, since they started to use social media, in particular Facebook: change in the publicness of publics; in the value of publics (publics are participating into the production process); in the speaker–to–listener relationship (where a new form of intimacy is becoming predominant) and in the listener–to–listener one; in the role and ethic of the radio producer (which is becoming more curatorial and less productive). To do this I will have to mix two different fields of studies: the radio studies tradition and emerging studies about social media.


Introduction: Remixing Benjamin
Facebook: A dramaturgical approach
Doing radio in the age of Facebook



Introduction: Remixing Benjamin

The relation between radio and its public has always been based on a mutual act of faith: radio does not know its listeners, it never saw them and, for a long time, it never heard from them. Radio and its listeners have always been strangers to each other. Listeners never knew who the voices on the radio belonged to. The radio and its audience believe in each other without knowing each other. For a long time, until phone calls from listeners were introduced (in Italy this happened in 1969 with the programme Chiamate Roma 3131), the audience could only listen to the radio, without ever participating. Before the telephone, the only means of interaction between radio and listeners was mail: too little to speak of audience participation. From its invention, until the introduction of live telephone calls, radio has always been a top–down, push medium, from the centre to the periphery, with no space for feedback. The telephone, and subsequently mobile phones, e–mail, Internet streaming, blogs and social media progressively reversed the communication flow, re–establishing a balance in favour of the public. Finally, contemporary radio has become a potentially participative tool. With SNS (social networking sites) we are facing a paradigmatic change in the relation between radio and its audience: listeners are becoming the real content of radio. McLuhan already understood this when he claimed that “in electronic media user is content” [1]. This has never been more true than today.

The first scholars to understand the value of radio as a social medium, rather than as a content distributor, were Brecht and Benjamin. Yet before Brecht, and even more remarkably, it was Walter Benjamin who realised radio’s radical potential as a “social medium”. Adorno and Horkheimer considered radio a tool for propaganda and to spread a stupefying kind of entertainment (Gilloch, 2002); Benjamin, having produced 90 programmes for the public radio of the Weimar Republic between 1929 and 1933, had a deeper knowledge of this means of communication, maintained, on the contrary, a positive outlook on radio. It had the ability, in Benjamin’s view, to transform the public’s relation to culture and politics (Baudouin, 2009). In his “Conversation with Ernst Schoen” (1929), Benjamin claims that radio should not be a means to circulate an outdated bourgeois culture or a mere entertainment medium: it should instead occupy a middle ground between sombre and dry educational broadcasts and the low–mindedness of vaudeville shows.

It is in Reflections on radio (1930), however, that Benjamin expresses the most fruitful ideas for our own times: “The crucial failing of [radio] has been to perpetuate the fundamental separation between practitioners and the public, a separation that is at odds with its technological basis. [...] The public has to be turned into the witnesses of interviews and conversations in which now this person and now that one has the opportunity to make himself heard” (Benjamin, 2003). The radio that Benjamin is advocating is a medium that reduces the distance between transmitter and receiver, allowing both the author/presenter and the listener to play the role of producers, who contribute to creating the radio narrative. The importance that Benjamin attributes to active reception is in stark contrast with the hypnotic effect of Nazi aesthetics [2] and with the allure of a radio show seen as a product to be consumed. Benjamin juxtaposes the aestheticisation of politics and art embodied by Nazism (and more in general by propaganda and consumer culture) with the politicisation of art, something which requires, in his view, a more active and participant role for the listener.

Benjamin further developed this theme in “The Author as Producer” (1934), a paper in which he pointed out the need for a new intellectual/producer figure (writer, photographer, radio drama author, film director) and the end of the distance between writer and reader due to the advent of new mechanical and electrical reproduction technologies. Benjamin noticed that more and more people had started to become “collaborators” in his own time through the rise of the newspaper, as editors created new columns according to the current tastes of their readers. These spaces were meant to make readers feel in touch with their culture, and in this sense the reader became a kind of author (Navas, 2005). Benjamin saw the reader as redefining the literary text; his example is the Russian press:

“For as writing gains in breadth what it loses in depth, the conventional distinction between author and public, which is upheld by the bourgeois press, begins in the Soviet press to disappear. For the reader is at all times ready to become a writer that is, a describer, but also a prescriber. As an expert even if not on a subject but only on the post he occupies — he gains access to authorship.”

A focus on the public’s feedback can also be found in another short essay from 1932, “Two Types of Popularity”, in which he assesses the role of radio as a pedagogical tool. Benjamin is convinced that the public should be respected, rather than being given content in a top–down fashion; it should also perceive that its interests are “real” and are being taken into account by the speaker. Benjamin puts the transmitter and the receiver on the same horizontal plane, way before technology was able to provide concrete means to connect these two poles in real time. Benjamin saw the seeds of the listener’s alienation in the broadcast communication (be it commercial, political, or educational) that was developing in Europe and in the rest of the world. The voicelessness and passivity typical of the broadcast model could be redeemed by a network–based idea of radio technology and by an educational approach that was horizontal rather than top–down (speaker and listeners as producers). Benjamin’s ideas are especially relevant today for their focus on listener feedback. The German philosopher grasped the distinctive quality of a fledgling electronically mediated society, namely its potential for public participation/production. Benjamin’s analysis is useful because it reminds us that social participation/production is not only a consequence of the wealth of the networks (Benkler, 2006), nor a new phenomenon rising from the spread of ICTs. The distance between media producers and their publics began to shrink with the development of new electronic media. Internet, and social network sites in particular, have finally provided the technological platform for a yet to be realised theoretical intuition. Benjamin’s frame of mind should be reassessed to thoroughly understand how the Internet is changing the relation between radio and its public. For the first time in the history of radio, its audience — once invisible, private, and passive — is being deeply transformed into public actors, visible, networked and audible, thanks to the stage offered to them by social networking sites, which we will now try to better understand using a dramaturgical approach.



Facebook: A dramaturgical approach

Social networking sites (SNS), such as Facebook, allow individuals to present themselves, manage their social networks and establish or maintain connections with others [3]. Facebook provides a stage for people to present themselves, to show off and to indulge in “self–branding”, constructing and showing an image of themselves that they want to project (Tse, 2008), engaging in what Erving Goffman (1959) calls “impression management” and in “identity management” (DiMicco and Millen, 2007). In our view, to better understand SNS we should look at SNS users as performers and attempt to analyze SNS under a dramaturgical approach. Goffman’s so–called “dramaturgical approach” compares people’s everyday self–presentation to stage acting, where the performer plays a role for an audience in a front stage area and then retreats to a backstage where he will change back to a non–performer role. Goffman’s (1959) well–established model to analyse the performance of the self applies not only to face–to–face interaction, but also to asynchronous and real–time interaction on the Internet. According to Westlake (2008), while Goffman could not have predicted the dynamics of computer–mediated interaction, his model could work also in this new context:

“While certain elements that Goffman defined as part of the ‘front stage’ are absent in computer–mediated interaction (visual cues such as clothing and facial expression and aural cues such as tone) they are replaced in chat and Web sites by more ‘staged’ elements such as font, photos, music, and graphics.” [4]

One of the reasons why self–presentation on SNS may be different from face–to–face is that online one may ‘inspect, edit and revise’ [5] one’s self–presentation before it is made available to others; in a word, SNS users can refine and fine–tune their online image as many times as they want before acting in public. SNS provide users/performers with a refined set of strategies to control their own stage. Facebook is, as Alice Mathias (2007) writes,

“an online community theater. We customize in a backstage makeup room — the Edit Profile page, where we can add a few Favorite Books or touch up our About Me section — we deliver our lines on the very public stage of friends’ walls or photo albums. And because every time we join a network, post a link or make another friend it’s immediately made visible to others via the News Feed, every Facebook act is a soliloquy to our anonymous audience.”

As Crawford puts it, “On social networking platforms, users craft their self–image through a process of fabulation” [6]. This process of fabulation is aided by the medium's asynchronicity. Asynchronicity gives people time to manage their self–presentations more strategically [7]. Facebook users/performers employ a set of multimedia strategies to tell their story (multimedia storytelling) and to manage a self–presented image: text (status updates, personal notes and private messages), photographs (customized photo albums, homemade photos, photo tagging, profile photos), sound (audio clips such as SoundCloud songs, homemade music and sounds, links to online sound contents) video/music (YouTube music videos), video (YouTube/Vimeo/Dailymotion videos, homemade videos). The unseen audience of our SNS profiles (our friends list) works as a team in a performance where “dramaturgical cooperation” [8] is achieved in order to affirm each other’s performances. The phenomenon of “liking” contents posted on Facebook by our friends is an example of this dramaturgical cooperation. The activity of liking, according to a recent survey by Hampton, et al. (2011), is the most popular one among Facebook users. Twenty–six percent of all Facebook users indicate that they “like” contents contributed by another Facebook user at least once a day, with a peak of 44 percent among users who are 18–22 years old [9].

SNS users/performers need an audience to stage a presentation of themselves and the choice of the proper audience is based on the concept of what Goffman calls “audience segregation”. This concept refers to actions that are meant to prevent an audience presented with a specific role from witnessing another role played by the self–presenter. Goffman (1959) refers to this as “front region control.” “By keeping different targets away from one another, people can avoid the awkwardness of trying to present disparate images of themselves to two or more targets simultaneously.” [10] On Facebook, for example, users not only choose the proper audience by accepting or refusing a friend request, but they can also segregate their audience (their friends) into different groups and networks, making sure their posts and contents are available to different kind of audiences, i.e., making sure that different performances (notes, status updates, photos and videos) are addressed to different targets. As users are provided with a refined set of tools for “front region control” and “audience segregation”, SNS can be conceived as a tremendously effective surveillance tool: users (and brands) exploit SNS to learn more about their audience and maintain their existing relationships [11]. Westlake calls it “performative surveillance” [12]. The home page of Facebook is a perfect tool of surveillance and not surprisingly one of the most popular sections of the whole social network.

Drawing from this dramaturgical perspective, we might be able to better understand a useful concept coined by English sociologist Vincent Miller about communication on social media being of a ‘phatic’ nature:

“Here (in the world of SNS) communication has been subordinated to the role of the simple maintenance of ever expanding networks and the notion of a connected presence. This has resulted in a rise of what I have called ‘phatic media’ in which communication without content has taken precedence.” [13]

The purpose of phatic communication is a social one, to express sociability and maintain connections or bonds [14]. SNS are, according to Miller, a glimpse into a future media/communications world in which connection takes precedence over content [15]. Social networking profiles push the networking practice to the forefront by giving more prominence to friends and links than to the text being produced by the author. The overall result of the rising popularity of SNS is, according to Miller, that

“in phatic media culture, content is not king but keeping in touch is. A clear example of phatic media culture is the ‘smile’ emoticon published on her Facebook Wall by the world pop star Lady Gaga, 9 April 2012, that received 854 shares, 120,030 likes and 11,672 comments. More important than anything said, is the connection to the other that becomes significant. Thus the text message, the short call, the brief email, the short blog update or comment, becomes part of a mediated phatic sociability necessary to maintain connected presence in an ever-expanding social network.” [16]

In a word: the network is the message. The phatic side of communication on SNS underlined by Miller is nothing but a consequence of the use of SNS as a performative stage. On SNS, content producing is an audience–oriented activity. We need content because of our audience. Since we have an audience, we feel the need to provide it with new material. We produce content as a performative act. Producing/publishing contents (produced by others — links — or directly by ourselves) is the way we communicate ourselves on SNS. Every post — a new status, a note, a video, a link to an article or cause — says something about the person who published it.

Phatic communication on SNS shows that the core activity and the deep meaning of this kind of medium is networking. The emergence of a phatic media culture as theorised by Miller and the rising of a network society (Castells, 2000) contradict those sociologists who fear that computer–mediated communication may shape a generation of increasingly lonely individuals (Putnam, 2000; Turkle, 2011). Recent research suggests that CMC and the Internet do not replace more traditional modes of interaction; on the contrary, they strengthen traditional forms of sociability (Uslaner, 2004; Räsänen and Kouvo, 2007). Hampton, et al. (2011) recently reported survey results showing that Internet users had wider social networks than people who do not connect to the Web:

“the more frequently someone uses the Internet, the larger his network tends to be. The average person who uses the Internet at home several times per day has a network of 732 ties, while someone who uses the Internet only once a day has a network of 616 ties. Users of MySpace (694 ties) and Facebook (648) have a statistically similar number of social ties. Users of LinkedIn (786) and Twitter (838) have significantly larger overall networks than Facebook users.” [17]

One recurring theme to emerge from much of this research is that most people, at least so far, are primarily using SNS to enhance their off–line relationships, not to supplant them: SNS provide a platform to put our social capital (off–line and online relationships) on stage.



Doing radio in the age of Facebook

Seventy years passed from the publication of Arnheim’s essay on radio to the invention of Facebook. In that famous book, Radio: An art of sound, Arnheim (1972) noted radio’s distinctive characteristic, the sightless nature of listening, the mutual invisibility between transmitter and receiver. As he wrote, “radio organises the world for the ear”. Arnheim was the first to praise radio specifically for its aural language, and to recognise the “blindness” of radio listening as an advantage rather than an impairment, a way to eschew the limitations of vision. A flight not from images themselves, but from the mechanisms of visual perception. Since Arnheim’s times, however, many things have changed and new inventions have been introduced: the transistor, telephone, Internet, broadband, satellites, iPod, blogs and SNS. Each one of these implants onto the radio machine’s body have generated a new hybrid and modified listening patterns. While it is still possible to tune into a radio set in the kitchen, as was the case in Arnheim’s time, this is nowadays a residual form of listening. Radio listening still maintains some elements of blindness, but the way in which we now experience this medium is no longer totally disembodied and immaterial.

The story of radio and its public could be told also as a story in which each technological stage corresponds to an increasing reduction of distance, a distance which is a function of technological innovation: at its peak in the first stage, marked by a total lack of feedback from the public, and at its lowest in the last phase, during which the public not only gives feedback but is also publicly and mutually connected. The following paragraphs are an attempt at summarizing the four stages of this “history of distance”:

First stage (1920–1945): An invisible medium for an invisible public

In this first historical phase radio, the new medium of the early twentieth century, is really, as Brecht maintained originally in 1932 (Brecht, 1964), an outdated device, used for political propaganda, for educational purposes and to spread consumer culture. In any case, no contribution on the public’s part is required, apart from the possibility of communicating with radio stations through the asynchronous medium of mail. The speakers are invisible (blindness represents the main feature of radio, according to Arnheim, 1972) and the communication model is only one: broadcasting, a one–to–many communication model. The public is also invisible and not audible. It is made up of individuals who are not linked in a network and who can only listen, without taking part in the conversation; they cannot publicly manifest their emotions or opinions to the speaker or the radio show. If they don’t like a show publics cannot express their comments, as Walter Benjamin (1931) underlined: “publics can do nothing but switch off the radio”.

The invention of focus groups (Stanton–Lazarsfeld Program Analyzer, 1937, as reported by Douglas, 2004) and of the first audience surveys makes listening habits measurable, but public sentiment remains undetected.

Second stage (1945–1994): An invisible medium for an audible public

This second stage is marked by the appearance of the transistor, which makes radio listening mobile, by the introduction of the telephone in radio’s productive practices and by the birth of underground radio (pirate radio and free radio, according to the definitions given by Hendy, 2001) in Europe during the 1960s and 1970s. Transistor, telephone and underground radio contribute significantly to blurring the lines between producers and listeners. In Paris, during the first days of May 1968, demonstrators reclaim radio strategically thanks to transistors in order to communicate and organise protests in the streets (Sullerot, 1968; Bonini, 2009); between 1959 and 1964 the pirate radio stations of baby boomers (listeners who are tired of the public stations in their countries and decide to create their own means of communication) are born in international waters off–shore from Holland, Denmark and the U.K. (Borgnino, 1997); in Italy between 1969 and 1975 (and in France between 1977 and 1981) hundreds of free radio stations (radio libere/radio libres) — unlicensed broadcasting stations — are created, shifting the balance of communication towards civil society (Lewis and Booth, 1990; Menduni, 2004). “In 1977 Felix Guattari proudly announced that the Italian free radio stations had succeded in creating the first electronic agora: the immense permanent meeting of the airwaves. The listeners were now broadcasters.” [18] The situationist dream of breaking down the boundary between media producers and consumers is (partly) coming true. Free radio station, as well as giving voice to sectors of society that were previously ignored, introduce a significant use of the telephone to communicate with their public. Audience participation through the telephone dates back to the mid–1940s for U.S. commercial radio stations (talk back radio format) and to the mid–1960s for European public radio, but free radios make the “talk radio/open microphone” format the distinctive feature of their communication model (Bonini, et al., 2006). The public of free radio stations is in part a productive one, it participates in a collective conversation, as Benjamin imagined in 1934. Listeners begin to take part in radio production, both by creating new radio stations and by using the telephone. The public is still not visible, but it has become audible. The opinions and emotions of listeners are becoming increasingly public, but not measurable. The possibility of connecting more than one telephone line to the radio mixer allows the presenter to speak to several listeners simultaneously, or to make them interact with each other horizontally, so that more people are involved in the radiophonic conversation (Pinseler, 2008). However a large part of the public — those not calling the radio — remains passive, private and not linked together.

Third stage (1994–2004): An invisible medium for a readable public

The technological innovations of this third phase are mobile telephones, text messaging, the World Wide Web, audio streaming, e–mail messages and subsequently blogs and podcasting. Mobile telephones further facilitate listener participation in the radio conversation. The possibility of calling the radio station from a public place with a mobile phone transforms the role of the audience: from private citizens to potential reporters, or citizen journalists. The public’s contribution to radio content production evolves and strengthens. Listeners begin producing information streams from the places in which they are calling from (traffic news, current affairs, local news, etc.). Caterpillar is a perfect example of this model: a radio programme born in 1997 and aired by Radio2 Rai, it transformed listeners living abroad as foreign correspondents.

Text and e–mail messages update the private relation between presenter and listener, until then based only on letters. The speed at which short digital texts can be transmitted thanks to text messaging and e–mail increases public feedback to radio stations. This increase in textual flows becomes an invaluable source of information for producers; the information, filtered and re–elaborated, is then transformed in new content ready to enter the radio flow. Software designed to manage e–mail and text messages enables radio stations to organise contents received by e–mail or text message in real time, to choose the most appropriate ones for the programme and to broadcast them a few seconds or minutes after receiving them. Thus both the spatial and temporal distance between producer and listener is reduced. The readability and real time access of text messaging and e–mail enhances the publicness of the public’s opinions and sentiments. The public is not only audible but also easily readable. Its emotions and opinions, however, still remain untrackable.

The invention of streaming technology (1995) and subsequently of blogs (1999) and podcasting (2004) further advance the move towards public participation in audio communication introduced by free radios in the 1960s and 1970s. Free radios were the first to shift the balance of emission from the institutions towards the individual. The encounter between radio and the Internet is another step forward in this direction, bringing this process of de–institutionalisation of communication to a completion. Netcasters, bloggers and podcasters do not limit themselves to participating in the radio flow produced by traditional broadcasters, but they create their own sound media. Web radio and podcasting are “bypass” technologies, allowing individuals to bypass the entire established radio industry (Dearman and Galloway, 2005). The radio studio has been outsourced: “radio” is wherever I can stream or record a podcast. Listeners (at least a small part of them) have become producers of themselves and online platforms like Mixcloud, Soundcloud, Audioboo, Spreaker, Jelli Radio and others perfectly embody this principle.

Fourth stage (2004–ongoing): A visible medium for a networked public

The rise of social networking sites (SNS) is the milestone of this fourth stage. SNS exist since 1997 (boyd and Ellison, 2007) but the social network that integrated better with radio has been Facebook (FB), created in 2004, followed by Twitter. The fans/friends/followers of a radio station’s or presenter’s FB or Twitter profile are a public which is very different from a traditional one: this is due to the specific characteristics of the medium and to a change in consumer culture brought about by the rise of the information economy. The traditional public of broadcasting media still fits the definition given by Gabriel de Tarde (1989), as Arvidsson underlines: “a public is a mediated association amongst strangers who are united by a however momentary affective intensity that is directed towards a common thing.” (a brand, a celebrity, a news story, a radio programme) (Arvidsson, 2013). The new public emerging from the hybridisation of broadcast and ICT technologies is more productive (Arvidsson, 2011) and networked.

Two brilliant examples of the emergence of the culture of co–creation in radio are the German feature programme Mehrspur, aired by public station SWR2, which, since 2009, asks listeners through social networks to take part into the production flow of their radio documentaries and the project Radio Ambulante, an online South American platform which produces radio documentaries through crowdsourcing tools. All these kinds of publics are networked.

Networked publics are publics that are restructured by networked technologies [19]. These kinds of publics, according to danah boyd, all share four fundamental affordances that make them different from all the previous mediated publics: persistence, replicability, scalability and searchability [20]. Persistence means that in SNS the public’s expressions are automatically recorded and archived. This means that feedbacks (opinions, feelings and comments) of every listener are public and since they can remain online for a long time they can also have a role in shaping the reputation of the radio station. Replicability means that the content produced in networked publics is easily replicable. Scalability in networked publics refers to the possibility of tremendous — albeit not guaranteed — visibility. This means that, for example, unique listeners commenting and talking about a radio show on its social network profile can reach a wide audience. Searchability means that content produced by networked publics can be easily accessed.

Each one of these four historical phases in the relation between radio and its listeners produces a different kind of public. To this day we can observe every day the overlapping of these different publics. The same radio listeners belong to different publics. The fourth phase, the networked publics one, is the last stage of a historical trajectory starting, according to Benjamin, with the invention of electric media. The distance between the authors of the radio message and its listeners has been increasingly reduced throughout the history of radio, almost disappearing with the emergence of networked publics. The affordances of networked publics gave rise to a series of fundamental changes in how the relation between radio and its public is conceived.

a) Change in the publicness of publics (more visible, more audible)

The presence of the public within radio programmes goes from zero grade — the telephone — which implies only the presence of a voice, invisible and disembodied, to the most advanced stage so far — Facebook — in which the public has a face, a name, a personal space for discussion (the Wall), a bio–cultural profile (the Info section), a collective intelligence (the Home Page), a General Sentiment (Arvidsson, 2011). It is the end of the public as a mass that is blind (it cannot see the source of the sound), invisible (it cannot be seen by the transmitter), passive (it cannot take part in the conversation) and insensitive (it cannot manifest its emotions towards the speaker). The implant of SNS on the body of the radio medium renders the immaterial capital made up by the listeners public and tangible. While until recently the public was invisible to radio and was confined to its private sphere except in the case of phone calls during a programme, today listeners linked to the online profile of a radio programme are no longer invisible or private (as underlined by Gazi, et al., 2011), and the same goes for their opinions and emotions. And if emotions and opinions are no longer invisible or private, they are measurable. For the first time in Radio history, listeners are not only numbers: their feelings, opinions and reputation are trackable and measurable through netnographic methods (Kozinets, 2010). To this end Arvidsson claims that “the remediation of social relations that has accompanied the rise of consumer culture has effectively managed to transform the nature of affect, from something private or at least located in small interaction systems, to something that acquires an objective existence as a value creating ‘substance’ in the public domain. Social media have taken this process one step further” (Arvidsson, 2013).

b) Change in the speaker–to–listener relation

The new communication model that derives from the short–circuit between radio and social media is a hybrid model, partly still broadcast, partly already networked. Radio is still a one–to–many means of communication. However, telephone already made it partly a one–to–one medium (phone interview) and many–to–one (open mic, phone talk radio); to this we have to add SNS, which are at once a one–to–one (chat), one–to–many (tweets, FB notes or posts), many–to–many (FB Home, Twitter hashtags), many–to–one (FB comments) kind of media. The mix between radio and SNS considerably modifies both the hierarchical/vertical relation between the speaker/presenter and the public, and the horizontal relation between each listener. Both types of relation are approaching a less hierarchical dynamic typical of peer–to–peer culture. When a programme’s presenter and one of his or her listeners become friends on FB they establish a bi–directional relation: both can navigate on each other’s profile, both can watch each other’s online performance and at the same time be an actor in it. They can both enact two types of performance, public and private: they can comment posts on each other’s walls or reply to each other’s tweets, send each other private messages or communicate by chat in real time. For the first time in the history of radio the speaker and the listener can easily communicate privately, far from the ears of other listeners, “off–air”. This gives rise to a “backstage” behaviour between presenter and listener that was previously unimaginable.

Up to now we have been talking about SNS without making any distinction between them. In the conclusion to this section it is important to highlight some differences, especially between the two currently most popular SNS, Facebook and Twitter. Business entrepreneurs Naval Ravikant and Adam Rifkin suggest that Twitter’s value is increased by the fact that Twitter is in part an interest graph, thus revealing more of the user’s behaviours than a purely friends–based social graph. Their notion of an interest graph describes a network that differs from a social graph in three important respects: it promotes one–way following rather than two–way reciprocal relationships; it is organized around shared interests, not personal relationships; it is public and not private by default. We suggest that Facebook fan pages — the most popular tool among radio makers — are a mix of an interest graph and a social graph. Listeners/fans of a radio programme on Facebook maintain quite the same communication potential as the listeners/friends of a radio programme, but radio makers cannot explore the profiles of their fans as they can do with their friends. The quality of information retrieved from the Facebook fans of a radio programme can vary from listener to listener and depends on the level of privacy set by every single listener. Moreover, private communication (backstage behaviour) between listeners/fans and radio makers is restricted to private messages, while the chat function is disabled.

c) Change in the listener–to–listener relation

At the same time, the relation between listeners is similarly changing. Fans of a radio programme can establish links online, exchange public comments on the programme’s wall, express more or less appreciation for specific contents, exchange contents on their personal walls, write each other private messages or chat with each other. The radio’s public has never been so publicised. While before SNS the concept of radio public was a purely abstract entity, which could be understood sociologically and analysed statistically, today this public is no longer only an imagined one (Anderson, 1991). People who listen frequently to a radio programme and are its fans on FB have the opportunity, for the first time, to see and recognise each other, to communicate, to create new links while bypassing the centre, in other words the radio programme itself. “The gatekeeping function of mass media is challenged as individuals use digital media to spread messages much farther and more widely than was ever historically possible” (Gurak, 2001). While a radio public is an invisible group of people who are not linked together, the SNS audience of a radio programme is instead a visible group of people/nodes in a network, connected by links of variable intensity which in some cases can produce strong links that transcend the broadcaster.

d) Change in the value of publics (SNS public: social capital = mass media public: economic capital)

This visible group of people/nodes/links is the most important new feature produced by the hybridisation between radio and SNS. A radio programme’s network of friends/fans on SNS represents its specific social capital (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992). While the wider (and invisible) radio public, as charted by audience rating companies, still constitutes the programme’s economic capital, the more restricted public of social media should in my view be considered the real social capital of a programme, a tangible and visible capital, the meaning of which is well explained by Bourdieu and Wacquant, when they define social capital as “the sum of the resources, actual or virtual, that accrue to an individual or a group by virtue of possessing a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition” [21].

There is however an ongoing discussion on the strength of links within online social networks. As Ellison, et al. (2007) have noted,

“researchers have emphasized the importance of Internet–based linkages for the formation of weak ties (Granovetter, 1973), which serve as the foundation of bridging social capital, a term coined by Putnam (2000). It is possible that new forms of social capital and relationship building will occur in online social network sites. Bridging social capital might be augmented by such sites, which support loose social ties, allowing users to create and maintain larger, diffuse networks of relationships from which they could potentially draw resources (Donath and boyd, 2004; Resnick, 2001). Donath and boyd (2004) hypothesize that SNS could greatly increase the weak ties one could form and maintain, because the technology is well–suited to maintaining such ties cheaply and easily.” [22]

The definition of bridging social capital — a kind of capital better suited for information diffusion (Putnam, 2000) and made of weak ties which are loose connections between individuals who may provide useful information or new perspectives for one another but typically not an emotional support — seems to fit the kind of ties normally found on SNS. If we consider the networked public that forms around a radio programme its bridging social capital, we can expect this listener based network to produce, if not emotional and substantive support, then at least a certain amount of benefits in terms of news, tastes, information retrieval, cultural trends, comments and reviews. If we observe the SNS of the most popular radio programmes we will realise that this is already taking place: listeners anticipate/continue on SNS a discussion on the themes introduced by the radio show, adding comments, contents, links, references, quotations, suggestions. Moreover, the personal information and the public wall posts in the listeners’ SNS profiles can help radio producers to better understand who is hiding behind a comment or link, helping them to assess the reputation of the listeners/producers and consequently decide if they can trust them or not. The reputation (and trustability) of each single listener belonging to the network of a radio programme contributes to the general reputation of that specific networked public, and, due to the transitive property, it constitues the reputational capital of that radio programme. This reputational capital is of great value for radio producers, because, as Arvidsson (2013) puts it:

“Reputation is the form social capital takes among strangers. The higher a person’s reputation, the easier for her to initiate processes, recruit talented co–workers. Finally reputation enhances the enjoyment of participation.”

On the public stage of SNS reputation is conferred on an actor by the members of a public. Since on this stage radio producers and listeners can act at the same time as actors and audience, their reputation (both the producer’s and the the listener’s) is continuously being evaluated by the networked public. It is therefore in the radio producer’s interest to develop, nurture and take care of this reputational capital and to manage the establishment of a high quality and highly satisfied networked public. Ellison, Steinfield and Lampe showed a clear empirical relationship between a wealthy social network and the production of bonding and bridging social capital: the larger the network, the quicker the response from the friends; the greater the network, the greater the social capital produced (in terms of benefits received by the network) [23]. Ellison, Lampe, Steinfield and Vitak clearly demonstrated that Facebook “enables individuals to: maintain a larger set of weak ties; make ephemeral connections persistent; lower the barriers to initial interaction; make it easier to seek information and support from one’s social network and to provide these resources to others.” [24]

For radio makers, a wide network of friends/fans is of great importance for their future. Even if the fans’ network does not generate a tangible economic value like the radio audience already does, it nevertheless generates a great reputational capital. The message of the SNS public of a radio programme is the network itself, because this network is able to produce value. The value embedded in the networked public is not already convertible into economic capital, but the crisis of traditional mass advertising will lead to a future increase and refining of tools for the capitalization of the wealth of networked publics linked to radio programmes and stations. Besides, building networked and productive publics for radio could be of strategic importance for public service media. Public service media are loosing audiences and legitimacy since they are abdicating from serving listeners as citizens (Syvertsen, 1999). Since making and participating mean “connecting” and creating social relations, as Gauntlett (2011) has brilliantly showed, building and nurturing wealthy and productive networked publics for public service media could be an opportunity to legitimize their service as a real public one, a service that provides listeners with tools to let them participate and create new social relations among each other.

e) Change in the role of radio author (from producer to curator)

Radio is increasingly becoming an aggregator, a filter for the abundance of information, useful especially for the non–prosumer listeners, who do not publish videos and have no time to explore friends’ profiles, which are a true goldmine to discover new trends. The radio author’s job thus resembles more and more that of a translator, of someone who connects two worlds — niches and mass culture — by delving into niches and re–emerging with a little treasure trove that can then be used productively. The producer’s function in the age of Facebook is thus to drag contents emerging from small islands, small communities and to translate and adapt them for the public of large continents, transforming them into mass culture. Radio authors and producers are becoming more and more similar to the figure of the curator, a cultural shift in the role of all kinds of author’s labour already noted by Brian Eno in 1991, as Reynolds (2011) reminds us:

“Curatorship is arguably the big new job of our times: it is the task of re–evaluating, filtering, digesting, and connecting together. In an age saturated with new artifacts and information, it is perhaps the curator, the connection maker, who is the new storyteller, the meta–author.”

Radio producers do not have to look for contents, as they did in the twentieth century. Contents come to them, they are “everywhere” (SNS Home Pages), producers merely have to take them. Their job is no longer to seek, but to select. They do not have to know everything, they only have to keep an eye out for interesting material and decide what to use and what to discard. This is how the value production process in radio works in the era of SNS: listeners enact their tastes online, the radio author (increasingly a producer, as Benjamin predicted) re–interprets and re–elaborates them, providing the audience with a dramaturgically constructed listening experience in which it finds its contents mixed together. Listeners comment and supply new material to the community of listeners/producers so that the process can start again.




Radio flow’s production process in the Facebook era is similar to that of mineral processing. The listeners/producers are the miners extracting the raw mineral (content in the shape of a brilliant comment, a note, a videoclip, an excerpt of a film taken from YouTube, a brand new SoundCloud song, a link to an article, etc.) that is then refined, processed, elaborated by the author/producer. The author/producer adds value to the content discovered by the listeners/producers by giving a dramaturgical shape to that content, by linking it to a complex architecture of sense based on dramaturgical rules (the radio programme). The author/speaker and the listeners are both producers of the programme: they cooperate, through SNS, on the design and the production of radio contents. As Castells noted, “Networks de–centre performance and share decision–making.” [25] Radio makers (authors/presenters/producers) and radio listeners, once they are connected through SNS, belong to the same horizontal and multipolar network. On the SNS stage everyone, radio makers and listeners alike, are able to perform, to take part, to alternatively play the role of the actor (contributing with contents) and of the audience (contributing with comments and liking).

As Benjamin hoped, the boundaries between authors and “readers” are, once and for all, broken down. The extent to which listeners take part in this production process is still controlled by radio makers, who give value to user–generated contents. Much has been written about the ambivalent status of this content as a source of both intrinsic reward and potential exploitation (Andrejevic, 2011). When can we still speak of co–creation and when does cooperation become free–labor exploitation (Terranova, 2000; Fuchs, 2010; Formenti, 2011)? Ippolita, et al. (2009) maintain that exploitation is embedded in SNS: “Herein lies the perversity of social networks: however radical they may be, they will always be data–mined. They are designed to be exploited.” Banks and Humphreys (2008) claim instead that the users clearly enjoy and benefit from online activities, even if they generate value for commercial Web sites. They suggest that user–generated contents should be understood in terms of mutual benefit (identity and reputational benefits) rather than of exploitation. The boundary between willing participation and commercial exploitation in the world of SNS is still blurred. However, although it raises some interesting points, exploitation theories do not in themselves explain ongoing changes, as Arvidsson and Colleoni (2012) argue.

To a certain extent, the attention required by traditional media of a passive public was already a form of exploitation and production of economic value: this was the late ’70s approach of Canadian media theorist Dallas Smythe (2001), who claimed that viewers were exploited as their viewing time was appropriated by media companies and sold on as “audience commodity”. The (passive) attention economy of old media publics is being updated and (partly) replaced by the (productive) reputation economy of networked publics, or “Like economy”, as Gerlitz and Helmond (2011) defined it, where value is determined by direct forms of user engagement. The new intimacy between radio and its public emerging with SNS is reshaping the notion of public and radio production practices. Whether this new intimacy is potentially liberating and democratic, in the direction indicated by Benjamin (“politicisation of art”), or a means towards a further exploitation is not only a question linked to the new social network platforms but can also be moulded and managed by human factors. Radio producers and listeners can use radio and SNS to engage themselves in a fruitful exchange of contents and build a more democratic and participative model of communication or, on the contrary, reproduce the old hypnotic, Pavlovian broadcast communication based on a master (media/radio/SNS) — slave (public/fan/follower) relation. To conclude, in my view the boundary between exploitation and co–creation is an ethical one: radio producers’ behaviour on SNS should be ethical, in the sense intended by Arvidsson (2013):

“the ability to contribute to a public increasing its strength and vitality. In the case of productive publics this involves both technical brilliance (the traditional radiophonic skills, n.d.a.) and the ability to engage and confront with others (the listeners n.d.a.) producing transitory forms of communion.”

This, Arvidsson notes, is quite close to the definition of virtue in the Aristotelian tradition, where virtue refers to those character traits that allow a person to be an excellent member of a community. This “ethical labour” (Coleman, 2005), even if not driven by altruistic reasons, should be preferable to an exploitative behaviour just because of its higher sustainability in the long term. End of article


About the author

Tiziano Bonini, Ph.D. in media and public sphere from Siena University, is a researcher in media sociology at IULM University, Milan, where he teaches radio Theory. His last book, Così lontano, così vicino: Tattiche mediali per abitare lo spazio (Verona: Ombre Corte, 2010) is about migrants, media and the sense of ‘home’. He was one of the contributors of the recently published book Radio content in the digital age: The evolution of a sound medium (Angeliki Gazi, Guy Starkey and Stanislaw Jedrzejewski (editors); Bristol: Intellect, 2011). He also works as a freelance radio producer for Italian public and private national radio.
E–mail: tiziano [dot] bonini [at] iulm [dot] it



An extended and updated version of this paper will be published in T. Bonini and B. Monclus (editors), 2014. Radio audiences and participation in the age of network society. London: Routledge.



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Editorial history

Received 9 December 2012; accepted 2 May 2014.

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This paper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

The new role of radio and its public in the age of social network sites
by Tiziano Bonini.
First Monday, Volume 19, Number 6 - 2 June 2014