By Saif Ahmad Khan
Edited by Shambhavi Singh, Senior editor, The Indian Economist
Much on the lines of every medium of mass communication including television and newspaper, radio which is popularly referred to as a blind medium, too has its own set of strengths and weaknesses. The success of any medium of mass communication to a great extent depends on the kind of reach it enjoys among the masses. The penetration level of the medium determines its popularity, and this factor by itself is closely intertwined with finances. The cheaper the medium, the greater will be its reach or scope of penetration. This argument holds true for radio. As compared to other forms of electronic communication specifically television, radio is far cheaper. The difference in price between an average television set and a radio transistor is massive enough to claim without any prejudice that radio happens to be the cheapest or rather the most affordable medium of mass communication which the masses could avail of.
Arguably, radio’s biggest strength is the fact that it is affordable. With the progress of technology, radio now comes pre-installed in cell phones. What this technological revolution has done is that it has made radio more widely available, and while people might not be purchasing radio transistors per se but still they are in possession of the radio either via their cell phones or cars. Secondly, radio unlike newspaper, has the ability to appeal to the illiterates and the most backward strata of the society. To read a newspaper one needs to be literate, which in plain and simple terms can be defined as the ability to read and write. The roadblocks or limitations which the newspaper faces because of literacy are effectively used as an advantage for the popularity of the radio. In order to be informed or entertained via radio one need not necessarily be literate. Any person, be it a farmer in the rural areas or a government official operating from New Delhi, can listen to the radio and interpret the messages sent out through the same. Radio scores over newspaper because it defies the barriers of literacy through aural communication.
Thirdly, radio as a medium of mass communication offers incredible mobility to its audience. A radio listener can carry his radio along with himself to almost every place which he visits. One can listen to the radio while travelling in the train or waiting at the bus stop. But this is not true in the case of television as viewers cannot carry their heavy television sets while travelling from one place to another. A television set has a fixed place, for example, in most homes it is placed in the living room wherein every member can come and watch television programmes of his or her interest. Radio on the other hand is close to being “omnipresent”. As mentioned earlier, one can just walk with his radio. Another important strength of radio is that it provides great amount of flexibility to its audience or rather its listeners. Most of the people simultaneously manage some other activity while listening to the radio. For example, people listen to the radio while cooking, driving and even studying, thus accomplishing dual tasks. This characteristic of the radio is not enjoyed by television or newspaper because they are mediums which manifest themselves physically. The audience is supposed to concentrate and be more vigilant in the case of television and newspaper rather than radio.
Whenever we analyze the strengths and weaknesses of any given medium, we should never view that medium in isolation but in comparative terms. This is so because it serves as an objective means of analysis which if free from any kind of subjective bias which arise during the course of the study. Hence, we shall now discuss the limitations of radio in the realm of mass communication in relative or comparative terms. Firstly, it is argued that radio as a medium propels imagination. While listening to the radio it is said the listeners or the audience shape images inside their minds. But the fact that radio does not communicate any visuals whatsoever can be regarded as one of its foremost weaknesses. Visuals possess this inherent ability of charming the audience. If a given person is provided with the option of following news in regards to a terrorist attack, say 9/11, on a television set or a radio transistor then in most cases he or she would go for the former. It shall happen so because visuals are more believable. Naturally, the audience would be more interested in seeing visuals of the hijacked aircrafts ramming into the twin towers instead of merely hearing commentary in regards to the same. This shows that in certain situations where the viewers are tempted towards visuals, radio might be forced onto the back foot because it lacks visuals.
To inform the people about the latest developments taking place at the national and international stage is one of the lead features of any medium of mass communication. Sometimes, the audience might like to retain or record certain bits or pieces of information which it is exposed to at the time of contact with a particular medium of mass communication. For example, a person might like an editorial or news report published in a newspaper. He might want to possess that bit of information out of curiosity or solely for the purpose of knowledge so that what he can do is that he can bring a pair of scissors, take a cut out of the report and keep it with himself. In this way he would be able to preserve knowledge. However, preserving knowledge in the case of radio is either impossible or minimal. Unless people sit with a voice recording instrument they cannot record messages communicated via radio. At times one might not know what the content of the programme is, that is he or she is not aware of what one is following on the radio. He might come across information which one would like to record and keep with himself, but this is not possible because messages once delivered through the radio cannot be brought back. Radio is not like a newspaper which is physically present with its audience. You can keep a copy of a newspaper article with yourself but it is very hard for one to keep a recording of a radio programme. Some might argue that this limitation of the radio has become redundant with the emergence of internet radio where archives of radio programmes are easily available but this argument is flawed. Not all radio programmes maintain online archives and not even half, forget all, radio listeners would go online searching for the recording of radio programmes. Hence, if we see things from a research perspective, information can be extracted from newspapers and referred to at a later period of time but in the case of radio such an exercise is not possible.
Thirdly, every medium has a set of people to whom it does not appeal. But in the case of television and newspaper, if there is no complete communication then there can be at least partial communication. A man might not know how to read a particular language but he might understand it. In such a case, another man can read the newspaper for him and eventually, the other person might overcome the communication barriers which arise out of literacy related issues. Similarly, a person may be blind and cannot see television but he can infer some information from television by listening to it. This kind of flexibility is not offered by the radio. A deaf man or a person with hearing disabilities cannot listen to the radio. The radio is a useless instrument for him. He gains nothing out of it, and there is no possibility of another person writing down everything which is being said on the radio just for this disabled person to be informed via radio because messages on the radio are delivered continuously at an astoundingly fast pace. Lastly, from the perspective of the audience, one can say that radio is not a highly retentive medium. People are more likely to remember what they see and read rather than what they hear. Visual images appearing on the television screen of the victorious Indian Cricket Team at the 2011 ICC World Cup can be more easily remembered and recalled rather than commentary describing the victory celebrations inside the stadium on the radio. A student is much more likely to remember and reproduce in his exam what he studied in his textbook while reading rather than reproducing something which he heard during class lectures. Hence, chances of people forgetting messages conveyed through the radio are pretty high. We can conclude by stating that despite all the limitations which the radio faces, it has for years served as one of the most prominent mediums of mass communication. In places like India where poverty and illiteracy are widespread, radio has played the role of democratizing information communication by reaching out to the poorest of the poor.
(This article was originally written as part of an academic exercise at AJK Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia.)