Visualizing the Local: Radio and the Instantiation of Community

Saturday, January 7, 2012: 9:00 AM
Chicago Ballroom G (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Bill Kirkpatrick, Denison University
Visualizing the Local:  Radio and the Instantiation of Community


Bill Kirkpatrick, Denison University

During the network era of U.S. radio, national networks had the famous stars; small local stations, in contrast, could usually offer only amateur or semi-professional talent.  To compensate, local broadcasters promoted their programming using discourses of localism, constructing imagined local communities and appealing to hometown pride.  Through this framing, stations hoped that audiences would embrace second-rate talent that "sounded local."

Importantly, this localism frequently succeeded by extending the sensory borders of radio beyond the sonic and into the visual realm, instantiating radio's aural local imaginary in visual correlates.  In Youngstown, Ohio, for example, WKBN aired a local drama whose "fictional" setting was a real house that listeners could drive by and see.  Nationwide, radio created local personalities whose images could be circulated as hometown celebrities.  Even sports broadcasts elicited a desire to ratify the "heard" local community by referencing the "seen" local community: as one local basketball official said, broadcasting "cannot help but create a desire for the radio fan to attend a game and see who makes the noise." The result was what we might call "the precession of locality":  for radio audiences, it wasn't that the game occurred and radio simply aired it; instead, radio created the game that its visual instantiation then verified.

I argue, then, that in the programming strategies of local radio, the usual primacy of the visual over the aural was reversed, even changing how localities were imagined. Radio did not depend, in parasitic fashion, on the personalities and places of a locality to provide local identities that could then be broadcast.  Instead, lived local space and local radio personalities became visual paratexts for the audio program, newly viewed and interpreted through the local lens provided by radio.

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