Teaching Political Power and Popular Mobilization on the Radio: India, British East Africa, and France

AHA Session 113
Society for Advancing the History of South Asia 6
Saturday, January 3, 2015: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
New York Ballroom East (Sheraton New York, Third Floor)
Judith Coffin, University of Texas at Austin
Derek W. Vaillant, University of Michigan

Session Abstract

As radio broadcasts are increasingly digitized and available for consultation, historians using these new sources are able to see the exercise of political power and its popular reception in new ways.  This panel brings together historians of France, British East Africa, and South Asia to examine state attempts to use radio to mobilize populations.  These papers look at how political leaders adapted to the airwaves and analyses how radio shaped politics and governance.  Radio’s siren song to political leaders was the unprecedented possibility to rally fractious populations, but in practice it proved difficult to mobilize populations. Politicians struggled to adapt older traditions of political communication to the airwaves in ways that would prove effective at unifying diverse and divergent groups of people.  In prewar France, Evan Spritzer shows that French political leaders tried to address radio audiences with the meandering, didactic style honed in legislative speeches, which proved woefully unable to stand up to the looming threat of fascism. 

The reception of radio broadcasting challenged the visions held by elite political planners in the colonial context as well.  Caroline Ritter shows that British plans to create individual radio listeners were thwarted by East African collective radio listening practices. In studying how British officials tried to construct listeners in India and in East Africa, we can better understand how they conceptualized the colonized.  Isabel Huacujo Alonso uses colonial news bulletins to show how British officials drew boundaries among Indian listeners, looking at debates over which languages to use to broadcast to different people. Colonial documents have revealed British attempts to retain and reform its empire in the face of mid-twentieth century challenges; looking at the politics of creating radio listeners sheds new light on transformations in colonial subjecthood.

These case studies move from metropole to colony and across three continents, encouraging a transnational comparison in the development of new radio audiences and the shifting boundaries of state power projected over the airwaves. Listening to radio casts new light on particular vocal styles and strategies used to mobilize, to rally, and to unify—and to contest.  From conflicting voices on the French airwaves to colonial attempts to draw populations closer to Britain, radio was at the forefront of political struggle, and radio’s new audience pushback against elite planners speaks to the limits of state power. These studies pose questions about the links between radio audiences and citizenship, and encourage greater reflection on the emergence of radio at the juncture of political power, rhetorical tradition, and new technologies for mobilization.

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