Radio: at the heart of social media

Radio is perfectly positioned to be the ringmaster of social media exchanges within and even well beyond its broadcast footprint area. GRAEME ADDISON offers a bit of theory to back this up.

Radio is limited by being only an audio medium – right? Sure, it’s a ‘theatre of the mind’ but how far does that get you when all trends in journalism and entertainment point to radio digital commonsvisual media? Radio is instant and soon forgotten, right? It can’t sustain attention and pursue investigative details and data? Dead wrong!

Radio connects many dots. Because of its directness, openness and agility, it can position itself at the heart of social media. It can grab the attention of listeners (rather call them users) and send them to in-depth content via its web pages. With digital radio now on the cards almost everywhere, the transmedia power of radio will take a great leap forward.

And radio is not just sound. Using websites and its own social media channels radio can engage audiences via text, through news, gossip and video clips, with immediacy and a wide range of content. Talk is king and it leads on to other things.

Broadcaster John Keefe, senior editor for data news and journalism technology at WNYC public radio, based in New York, says he is most proud of coverage he gave to an Iowa party caucuses feature involving mashed-up data and mapping.

Far from being sidelined by current technology and media developments, radio is on the up in the digital era.  Smart radio stations are poised to be the ringmasters of social media exchanges within and even well beyond their broadcast footprint areas.

The theory? Well, take a look at these very simplified diagrams of networking.



Imagine these are groups of people communicating with each other. In the centralised situation at left, someone is an opinion leader or has a monopoly over what is communicated. In the highly distributed situation at right, nobody has a monopoly – everyone is tending to communicate equally with everyone else. The decentralised picture in the middle, various networks operate independently of each other but all have links to the central player.

Well, isn’t that what radio aims for – to be the central player? It’s more suited to the role than any competing mass medium. Because it is live it can start and keep up conversations; because it is immediate there is no delay in the network effect. Print can’t do this, it’s too slow; television carries production burdens and is slower; blogs and tweets meanwhile feed off what’s trending. Trends prompted by life itself and relayed on the airwaves. So Fig 2 suggests a clear strategy for radio stations: bring about the convergence of social media by playing the role of ringmaster.

Figure 2: CONVERGENCE OF NETWORKS (Graeme Addison)


Depicted here is a very oversimplified view of social networking, but you get the picture. Even within a limited footprint area there may be millions of network links (in several dimensions over time and space, not just flat as shown here). The key point is that no mass medium can command networks in the centralised way that characterised the old one-to-many model of broadcasting, print and TV. But neither are people simply interacting as equals within a completly distributed system: they need opinion leaders and they need sources of information.

So when you have Twitter, for instance, signalling a news event, it gets distributed directly among people all over the planet but also through mass media both globally and locally. Radio has the advantage of always being quickest off the mark. If its staff are trained to react by creating talked-about trends, a radio station can soon command a sort of quasi-monopoly as the first place we go to find out more. It’s all about the buzz that sharpens the brand edge of that station.

There’s much more to this theory than just a few network sketches. Most social media commentators confine themselves almost obsessively to the technology aspects of networking; but we also need to develop a deeper sociological understanding of networked communications.  This, of course, is a huge field. And one that is not exactly ignored but needs a lot more exploration than it’s getting.

The sociologist Emile Durkheim argued that people need to seek solidarity with each other. They do so in terms of their identities, social roles, values, hopes and fears. Solidarity is what maintains traditional communities but it also underlies the formation of communities in cyberspace. We look for guidance in communication networks because they act as bridges between individuals and the groups they belong to.

Another sociologist, Erving Goffman, said people engaged in symbolic interactions much like players in a drama: they have public roles but also private ones which they do not readily disclose. In the postmodern era, public and private roles are merging, opening all of us to far more exposure. We are all centres of our own cults of celebrity and this is reflected in social media. At the same time we look to the media to shape our ideas of what’s important and how we should show ourselves.

Radio is on the cusp of exciting times. As social media evolve, so will radio – at least where the strategists and the on-air presenters deliberately set out to position their stations at the heart of things. Technologically, the networking diagram above suggests that users are connecting with each other in multiple layers via all kinds of (diversifying) social media from Pinterest to Mxit to Snapchat and  much more.

It’s a massive a three-dimensional matrix across space and time. The system is already so extensive that it takes on the character of a world brain firing on all nodes with an incalculable number of connections. It’s growing by geometric progession.

There’s plenty of room here for all media to follow the networking convergence model I sketched above. But how does one go about plugging into the system and staying plugged in from moment to moment? A principle: there’s no substitute for human intelligence,  intuition and imagination. Essentially what station managers, presenters and journalists need to do is track social media usage within their broadcast footprint and get into the channels that attract the most users (in line with the station’s audience profile).

This requires science and shrewd sense. The dynamics are in the detail. I am well aware that this theoretical perspective is grossly oversimplified in terms of strategy and it raises ethical questions about privacy and good taste. But it’s the way to go if you want to befriend users and serve them.

Look again at the decentralised model: it shows clusters of users relating primarily to each other but then linking centrally to a node that seems to concentrate many threads. This is an active, moving, ever-changing scenario where the imagination of media people comes into play on a minute by minute basis, to allow communities to voice themselves.

Think community solidarity. Think public performance. People everywhere crave the opportunity to identify with each other and reveal themselves. Radio can serve them best because it’s fast, friendly and highly flexible. – Media for Africa blog.

  • Addison is a facilitator for the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism in Johannesburg.






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2 Responses to Radio: at the heart of social media

  1. Clive Emdon says:

    A really useful commentary. It is important for there to be radio services that enable ideas and conversations to become discussions and debates, which in turn become agenda. I found this in my experience of community radio.

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