Radiophilia (Carolyn Birdsall)

January 26, 2024 | 1:06:47

Today’s guest is Carolyn Birdsall, Associate Professor of Media Studies, University of Amsterdam. If you’re a scholar of sound or radio, you likely know her work, particularly her monograph Nazi Soundscapes (AUP, 2012) which was the recipient of the ASCA Book Award in 2013.  Her new book, Radiophilia (Bloomsbury, 2023), examines the love of radio through history. It will be a great value to anyone–from novice to expert–who wants to understand radio studies and think about where it should go in the future. In this wide-ranging interview, we discuss Carolyn’s career and both of her books. We also get into the present state of radio and media studies, as well as the kind of skeptical orientation to media that tends to set sound studies scholars apart from many of their peers.

And for our Patrons we’ll have Carolyn’s What’s Good segment, with something good to read, listen to, and do. You can join us at 

Today’s show was edited by Matt Parker. Transcript and web content by Katelyn Phan.


 [Robotic voice] This is Phantom Power

Mack Hagood: Welcome to another episode of Phantom Power, where we talk to incredibly smart and creative, talented people about sound.  I’m Mack Haggood. And if I sound a little Barry White-ish, it’s because I have COVID and I’m not feeling great. But I already had an interview in the can, and I just wanted to get this out to you on schedule if possible, I think that’s going to happen. 

And today’s guest is Carolyn Birdsall. If you’re a scholar of sound or radio, I imagine you already know her work. She’s one of those people who represent the benefit that I get personally out of doing this show, which is I get to finally meet people whose work I’ve been engaging with for a long time.

Carolyn’s definitely one of those people. There’s so much I could have talked to her about including her research on television sound or her methodological work on sensory history or doing oral history. Some of her theoretical work on epistemology and the humanities. But in this interview, I chose to focus on her two books first.

Her award winning 2012 book, Nazi Soundscapes. If there’s any canon at all in historical sound studies, Nazi Soundscapes certainly is in that canon. So we talked about that book for a while. And then we also talk about her new book, which is radiophilia. Radiophilia is a term that she coined as she examines the love of radio.

And I think of Radiophilia as an established scholar book. Quite often a scholar will make their name researching something very specific, say soundscapes in the Nazi era, for example. And they make their contributions there and then they build out a career and then later in their career after teaching for a decade or more and reading tons of other people’s work and really getting a strong sense of the lay of the land in their field of expertise. 

They put out something more general, something that’s a little more reflexive in terms of thinking about the field as a whole. Where the field has been, where it should go. And that’s the kind of book that a senior scholar tends to write in part because only a senior scholar could write that kind of book.

And I think Radiophilia is that type of book. I think it’s going to be of great value to anyone from a novice to an expert who wants to understand radio studies and to think about where it should go in the future.  So in the beginning of the interview, I talked to Carolyn about her background and then we kind of segue into the Nazi Soundscapes book.

And then I would say the second half of the conversation gets a little spicier because we do talk about the field of sound studies. We talk about media studies, some things that I get frustrated with, I kind of raised to her. We had a little bit of back and forth about the presence of fan studies in media studies and if it’s a little bit too much of a presence and yeah, I just enjoyed this conversation a lot. 

We have some really great things down the line coming for you. I kind of went over the entire schedule of the next eight shows in the last episode, so I won’t go over that again right now, but I will say that our next guest, assuming my health holds out,  is Robin Miles, the incredible audiobook narrator.

So, if you have any questions for Robin Miles, I know we’ve got some fans out there,  drop me a line, let me know, you know, hit me up on social media or send me an email. I let me know what you’d like me to ask her. You can find my contact information at, one other thing I want to mention just before we get into the interview, this interview could not have happened without the help of Matt Parker, a longtime Phantom Power listener who is currently a postdoc at The University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication.

He got in touch with me and was just talking about how much he enjoyed the show. We discussed some things. I listened to some of his amazing audio work. He’s done some work for places like the BBC and he volunteered to help out if I ever needed help with an episode. And indeed I needed help with this one.

You wouldn’t be hearing this. On time on schedule if it weren’t for Matt. So Matt, thank you so much. And also Katelyn Phan. Thanks for doing our web work as usual. My amazing assistant, Katelyn on the transcripts and making the website happen. And I should mention that at the end of today’s episode.

In our Patreon feed, our patrons will hear our what’s good segment where Carolyn Birdsell will talk about something good to do, something good to listen to, and something good to read. That’s always a feature on our episodes in our patron feed. Please think about becoming a patron. I would, I would really appreciate your support. 

Okay. Here it is, my interview with Carolyn Birdsall. I’m going to go to bed now,  enjoy this, and I’ll talk to you again soon.

Mack Hagood: Carolyn, welcome to the show.

Carolyn Birdsall: Thanks for having me.

Mack Hagood: I’ve been following your work for quite some time. So I’m really excited about meeting you and having this opportunity to talk. 

Carolyn Birdsall: Same here. I’m very excited. And I haven’t mentioned it before, but I’m a big fan of your work. 

Mack Hagood: Oh, wow. Well, thank you very much.

I thought maybe we could start off by hearing a little bit about your background, because I know you’re in the Netherlands, but I also know you studied in Australia, so maybe you could just start off with your early history, where did you grow up, what were you into as a kid, that sort of thing.

Carolyn Birdsall: Sure. So I’m originally from Sydney, Australia. So I grew up and lived there until my early 20s. And I haven’t really been asked this question that much before, and I think it’s often hard to reconstruct how different paths and interests all came together. But perhaps it’s important to mention that I took German and history as my main courses at high school.

And when I was a teenager, I spent several months living with a host family near the German city of Cologne, where more than 90 percent of the buildings were severely damaged or unlivable after 1945. So I guess already back then, I was 15, I spent quite some time walking around in an urban and sonic environment that was really quite different from where I was from and where the built environment spans preserved Roman mosaics or mosaic floors and a gothic cathedral through the architectural patchwork of post war reconstruction.

So I think there was already a spark of interest from that experience that drew me back to similar themes when I started to study at university. 

Mack Hagood: Oh, that’s really fascinating. So was this like an exchange program? 

Carolyn Birdsall: Yeah, the funny thing is that my German was really quite bad, but it was the mid nineties and there wasn’t internet.

And so I was just in this sort of funny bubble of going to high school and not really understanding a lot and lots of misunderstandings with the host family who were very nice and who I’m still in touch with. So it was really an experience of not being able to interact very well or communicate very well or make myself understood.

So just really having to observe and listen a lot to the things happening around me. And I think that it’s perhaps more of a formative experience than I’ve ever thought about until today. I think it’s something that made me interested in, in, in Germany, in these cities that went through enormous changes, political upheavals and reconstruction, but really coming at it from, from a kind of position of knowing some things, but also not knowing a lot. And only a really kind of incrementally later understanding and having frameworks for understanding some of the things that I observed and experienced.

Mack Hagood: I think that is a commonality among so many anthropologists and novelists and cultural scholars that there’s some early formative experience in another culture that kind of defamiliarizes everyday, and makes them realize that the home culture is peculiar in itself. And it’s just a kind of orientation to the world that you, that the only travel can really give you, but in only a certain kind of travel, right?

Like not going to a tourist destination, which has been made to be more like your home culture. Actually just being immersed in that way. 

Carolyn Birdsall: Yeah. So, I mean, I think that’s the kind of first spark and then I guess when I studied, you know, there, there wasn’t something called sound studies or sound history at the moment I went to study, but I did do like a double degree at the University of New South Wales and Sydney where I studied.

And so I think I was in a history program where I took all the courses on the history of print media and cinema. As well as urban gender and oral history. But then I was also in a media and communication program where I took courses on the history of media and radio and sound design. But kind of being between these two disciplines, I was often troubled.

By the technologically deterministic view in many of those courses and the reading we had. I remember in particular, there was often a quite un-nuanced account of national socialist uses of radio with state subsidized receivers, in which the authors essentially suggested that, in short,  ensured that all German listeners believed Nazi propaganda.

So I think that’s something that I experienced both in my history degree and in my media and communications degree. So I think that was something that I’d already had an interest in German history and urban environments. And then I started to see that the accounts of how radio was introduced and experienced were very simplistic and deterministic.

And I think it was really a sense of wanting to put the record straight, wanting to understand how things were probably not so straightforward, that in a very slow way put me on the path towards being interested in what eventually became a PhD project on the topic of radio Nazi soundscapes, but it was really a grasping and I think I had the good fortune of auditing a popular music studies course with a colleague whose name is Bruce Johnson, and he became a kind of informal mentor in all things sound related.

I actually visited an anechoic chamber with him at that time as part of an excursion. And he first gave me the tip to read Murray Schaeffer’s (1977) The Tuning of the World book which had been actually republished in the early nineties with the title, The Soundscape

And so I guess it was really just with his encouragement and slowly discovering the work of someone like Bruce Smith, who wrote a book called The Acoustic World of Early Modern England in 1999. And then later, obviously, Emily Thompson and Jonathan Stern’s work, that I kind of felt bolstered to pursue an interest in historical soundscapes and listening practices. I mean, it felt, at that moment, it felt like something out of space to be following this interest, but I saw that, “Okay, there are people who are doing it.”

And there was also a colleague who Bruce recommended called Helmi Järviluoma in Finland. And she was already doing comparative historical soundscape research in villages in Finland and elsewhere in Europe. So I thought, “Okay, there are people into this history of sound thing. It’s not totally mad.”

But you know, it did feel like all of my first steps. Also during my PhD, I always encountered people who said, “Wow, sound history, that’s really out there” or the history of listening. So it felt at that time to be a little bit left field to be pursuing this interest.

Mack Hagood: Well, I’d love to come back to your dissertation and your very important book, Nazi Soundscapes. But before, maybe we could finish the career trajectory part and the biography part and just where did you wind up? How did it turn out that you’re, you’re in the Netherlands and so forth? 

Carolyn Birdsall: I’d obviously, as I mentioned before, gotten a taste of living overseas and where perhaps today Sydney and Melbourne seem like global cities and maybe still far away and part of things. Back then, it still felt far away and not part of things. 

I was quite desperate to get back overseas. I managed to find a scholarship in Germany for part time English teaching at a high school, like a state.

It’s called D.A.D. And I was able to study at the University in Düsseldorf at the same time. And I started to attend oral history courses as well as more straightforward German history courses. And so it was there that I started to develop the idea that became my PhD project and was published as Nazi Soundscapes. 7:42

And I guess I didn’t entirely know at that time that a doctoral studies path would be the one I would pursue. I’d actually had thought at one point that, since this interest was so out there, I couldn’t quite see its place. I started to pursue audio engineering and I was doing theater sound design.

I was working for digital radio stations, but when I got to Germany and I was teaching, I followed up on an earlier contact I’d had with a researcher in Amsterdam who encouraged me to write a PhD proposal and it was successful. So that’s where I wrote my PhD at the University of Amsterdam. And I’ve also stayed on in the media studies department as a faculty member since 2009. 

Mack Hagood: So returning to Nazi Soundscapes, you were talking about the rather stereotypical portrayal of radio in Nazi Germany. And I remember you start off that book really talking about the sort of stereotypical role that sound plays in the world’s collective memory of Nazi Germany, you know, the noise of propaganda or the hectoring voice of Hitler or the complicit silence of people in the face of the Holocaust.

Were you sort of thinking from the start, I want to get underneath that and beyond this sort of stereotypical portrayal of sound, like what was your motivation in this project? 

Carolyn Birdsall: Sure. So, I mean, the original title of the PhD thesis was “Between Noise and Silence?” So I think, you know, obviously that initial motivation to question some of these cliches absolutely motivated me to start the PhD with this kind of questioning of the different kinds of, I guess, repertoire that have come down through popular media and cultural memory.

When it came to publishing the book, I thought, “Well, it would be a shame to kind of make that the main focus.” And I wanted to kind of bring out the stronger urban history component to thinking about sound technologies, embodied listening, and space. So I think it worked for starting the project and as a departure point or an entry point, but probably I would say where it ended up going with the research was really closer to what in fact became sound studies and these questions, methodological questions about researching historical soundscapes and kind of thinking about the historical past.

So I think a lot of those debates happening in cultural history, in memory studies, they did influence the way I came to this question of historical sound.

So I did actually do oral history interviews as part of the doctoral research. And Even though I kind of only really use them as bookends in the book at the beginning and the end, and I wrote more extensively about these interviews in other articles, they really did help me think about the way in which the needs of the present inform our act of life.

Asking questions about a particular period and its listening practices, its sound cultures. 

Mack Hagood: Yeah. So that the questions that you were going to ask those informants were informed by present day concerns and also their answers too, right? Will be informed by Germany in that particular moment or their surroundings in that particular moment.

Carolyn Birdsall: Absolutely. And I think it’s also perhaps the task of looking for something that was ephemeral often at the time of its emergence. So sound in social life, also makes you think about not just its ephemerality, but also the kind of very strange and creative ways you have to be with the sources that are available to find traces of those sounds.

So I think that kind of search for different bits of fragments and kind of puzzling them together within a kind of more coherent narrative about historical soundscapes and listening practices. It forces you to think about the nature of all these bits and pieces, whether they’re policies or newspaper articles or diaries, letters, autobiographies in addition to those oral history interviews I mentioned. 

So I think in a way it’s an elusive object of study even when you’re dealing with sound in the present. And then it becomes kind of interesting and challenging when you think about sound in the past.

Mack Hagood: So the concerns in Nazi Soundscapes you were thinking through the roles that radio and mediated sound played in fascist aesthetics, fascist culture, the construction of a fascist state. At least that was one of them. And actually now that I’m remembering, because you had this term that I’m thinking about. It’s clearly an effective term, which is affirmative resonance.

That’s like a key idea that I remember. Could you maybe talk a little bit about how radio was deployed in reality in Nazi Germany? Like, how does it differ from the quick stereotypical view that we generally have? 

Carolyn Birdsall: The nuanced account that you’ve mentioned is absolutely consistent with the changes that happen in terms of policy, in terms of production practices, the staffing of radio, the desire to have state subsidized receivers but also to control the listening of the public. Particularly in situations of collective or communal listening. For instance, at school or in radio stations, in places of entertainment and so forth.

 So absolutely, I would say this idea of a political misuse and an instrumentalization of radio for propaganda purposes is consistent with, without maybe a more simplistic idea of a propagandistic radio under national socialism. 

Mack Hagood: Well, the German people were using radio as an entertainment medium before the Nazis rose to power. So I would think any use of propaganda would have to somehow still appeal to an audience that had already been cultivated in terms of using the radio as an entertainment medium, right?

Carolyn Birdsall: Absolutely. So that’s part of why the study really starts in the Weimar period, and I’m looking at Dusseldorf in particular and this regional context of the Rhine Ruhr area. And I’m looking at how the changes in the historical soundscape in everyday life, but also in radio, in sound film, are part of a situation of negotiated change and continuity.

So I’m looking at the ways in which we already have a quite politicized urban soundscape in the context of the 1920s with a lot of battles and street fights between communists and national socialists, but also other right wing groups. So, in a way, even though there’s a tendency to really zoom in on national socialism, when you think about radio and politics, I tried to take a longer periodization. Already starting in the mid 1920s, to think about how certain changes and developments took place in the period prior to 1933. 

Mack Hagood: So what would a sort of daily experience of radio be like for a typical person? What kind of things would they be hearing? Would radio be listened to in that sort of stereotypical family hearth way that we conceptualize old time radio? Was it used more in public spaces? How would a typical person encounter? I know that’s a very big question.

Carolyn Birdsall: Absolutely. The kind of culture of experimentation that defined the Weimar Republic period, we see that as being productive in the years from the start of German radio, from like 1923 and 1924, through to the late 20s.

And even though we have a lot of aesthetic experimentation still happening around 1930/1931, we also can see that there are quite major changes happening in this period where the Depression started. We’re really kicked in. There are a lot of right wing attacks on radio, and that we kind of see a cautious tone emerging.

So, if we look at the period leading up to 1933, a lot of the major genres that we also know from the U.S. radio are established. So sport broadcasts, news, radio plays, and radio drama. A little bit less the kind of soap opera model, of course being in a public broadcast system, literary adaptations, all kinds of experiments around kind of news compilation reportage.

You know, that’s consistent across the whole period. Also the development around different types of music, operatic programming, as well as children’s programming, women’s programming. But I think what we start to see is in this kind of period where it becomes more cautious, there’s a preference for the safe bets.

So programming that’s not leaving program makers open to criticism. 

Mack Hagood: And what would the basis of these criticisms be? Was it already racialized? Like were they playing jazz and they would get criticism for playing? 

Carolyn Birdsall: Yeah. So, in the German context, we’re dealing with a very particular context where from the moment that radio was established, like regulated radio from 1923 onwards, there was a system of censorship.

There was a concept that radio had to be above party political concerns. So already in the period that we think of as being the kind of experimental period of German radio plays and radio-specific or radiophotic explorations. We also have script censorship already happening from the beginning.

And we have advisory boards who are checking scripts before programs are aired. So, I would say that there’s already a level of intervention that is unusual for other contexts. When we get to this later period, already prior to the Nazi takeover in 1933, there are new radio laws that allow for even more state-centralized control over radio.

All radio stations are fully owned by the federal radio board. They’re no longer partly commercial or privately owned in a few cases. That was the case. Interestingly, I would say there’s still a lot of continuity when we look at the genres across the period. So, you know, even though there is more propaganda also within entertainment programming, it’s definitely the case that the types of programs stay rather consistent and the attacks towards programs in the Weimar period in the early 30s from the right, it’s mainly racially motivated. 

So, it’s because there were a lot of left wing authors, people with Jewish backgrounds, but it’s also aesthetic. It’s really about there being an experimental aesthetic but associated with the Weimar period and that needs to be stopped and a culture called Völkisch in German. So folksy, programming needs to take place with more use of marching songs and anthems, but actually when those types of programs were instated in 1933 to roughly 1934/1935 they were highly unpopular. 

Until World War II, there’s a place given to militaristic songs in the context of public rallies and public events, commemorations. But in the kind of entertainment programs and news programs, there’s a little bit more of a sense that the propaganda has to be more finely tuned.

And I think that’s maybe also part of the cliche. It’s hard for us to imagine that there were a lot of light, entertainment and comedy programs on National Socialist Radio, but that’s actually what is often remembered if you have interviews with people. 

Mack Hagood: Oh wow. Even during the war?

Carolyn Birdsall: Absolutely

Mack Hagood: Yeah. I mean, I think the stereotype is Hitler using his outside voice instead of using the radio as an intimate medium, as in say the fireside chat, right?

Carolyn Birdsall: Absolutely.

Mack Hagood: It sounds like there were a lot of other types of programming and other ways to effectively appeal to people. Speaking of that, maybe, because I don’t think we quite nailed down that concept that I remember from the book, which is Affirmative Resonance. So now that we kind of understand radio programming in Nazi Germany, can you maybe talk a little bit about this concept that you developed?

Carolyn Birdsall: Sure. So, it’s a concept I adapted from a scholar whose name is Cornelia Epping Jaeger, and she was thinking about the role of the loudspeaker and the PA system in Nazi Germany, and she was really taking it from a media theoretical point of view, thinking about like what does the loudspeaker allow, what kinds of functions does it have, how is it developed and used during National Socialism?

And I guess I really want to take that more into an applied situation. And so with affirmative resonance, I was looking at the ways in which loudspeaker systems were being used in tandem with members of the crowds, participating in call and response, in singing, in shouting, in musical performance, the anthems being performed and sung.

And I was trying to think about the ways in which there’s sensory disciplining happening in these early years of National Socialism. Or even these first months of National Socialism. And how we know from reports that there’s a really a range of people who attend such events. People who are perhaps very motivated and involved in Nazi groups through to people who were partly intrigued or attracted to an event like this, to others who were passing through, or maybe just experienced the processions as they came to this site.

And so I found this concept of affirmative resonance to be really useful for thinking about this kind of sonic enfolding and participation of the people who are there, and who might not actually be actively participating in events. So they might not be singing, they may only be listening, but they’re experiencing the amplified volume and not only the affirmative resonance of confirming the power and the relevance of the national socialist party, but also the kind of effective nature of being exposed to a large volume of sound being produced by a huge crowd, I think some hundreds of thousands of people and its amplification.

Mack Hagood: Yeah, yeah, I really love that concept. And a friend of mine, Travis Bogan, and I have done some work on the role of fan noise, crowd noise in the National Football League. And the way that noise in that context is an affective resource that gets deployed. For example, it gets mic’d and put in the surround channels of the broadcast and this fan noise, this production of the audience. But it’s actually extremely valuable and something that the NFL monetizes.

Not only through television, but also through making the role of the crowd a part of the attraction of the event itself, that participatory engagement. What I really like about what you’re talking about with affirmative resonance is it’s capturing that dynamic, but also really thinking about it in terms of a kind of discipline.

We’re disciplining the senses to anticipate certain things, to enjoy certain things, to feel like I’m part of the group through sound. And that can be a really powerful political dynamic if we just look at something like a Trump rally. The joy of laughing at the elites together, of booing together. I mean it’s just a really powerful, effective resonance and resource that can be used for political purposes just as well as it can be used for commercial purposes.

Carolyn Birdsall: I would totally agree and I think it was interesting during the pandemic. I can’t speak for American football, but I know that in European soccer or football the absence of crowd sounds and noise was affecting gameplay. At least from anecdotal evidence, it seemed that the players themselves were suffering from the absence of that kind of volume of sound that they’re used to for better or for worse, but also in terms of the domestic television or screen experience, obviously a lot of people are watching some of those highlights with the sound off on smartphones and other digital devices.

But I think in terms of domestic television consumption, there’s a tendency to really put the volume up and for it to really enhance the experience of watching soccer matches. And so I found that to be a really interesting observation that at one point that I think they actually introduced canned audience sounds. I don’t know if they did that for the U. S. as well.

Mack Hagood: They did it extremely early on in the U. S. and in fact, Travis and I were planning to do a follow up article about that, but we just never really got around to it. Might be a little late now, but yeah. I don’t know if I want to think about the pandemic too much at this point.

Carolyn Birdsall: I think there is a tendency. For there to be a common agreement to not thematize the pandemic. And I knew that that was already the case in the commercial publishing industry. I read several articles about how publishers had not contracted any novels or other forms of books about the pandemic because there was a common understanding that the reading audience, whether it’s for fiction or for more scientific or academic books, that there is a real aversion to reflecting on the pandemic and that the general consensus is to try to not think about it as much as possible, even though obviously it’s not over and it still is affecting many people that there’s a real kind of sense in which people don’t want to dwell too much on the 2020-2021 period. 

Mack Hagood: Absolutely. I know I don’t want to. And then this is one of, you know, such an important lesson for cultural scholars. We need to attend to the silences just as much as to the noisier, more prevalent aspects of a culture, right? Like there, there’s a huge message in the lack of material that’s being generated about the pandemic.

[Distant siren noise]

Speaking of soundscapes, I’m listening to the quite different siren that you have over there. 

Carolyn Birdsall: Yeah, I live near a main road, so it’s funny. I did hear it, but I thought, “Oh, that’s just background”. 

Mack Hagood: Oh, no, I heard it loud and clear. I actually enjoyed it. Didn’t sound like a U.S. siren, so nice.

Well, now that we have you know, fully engaged with the rather dreadful topics of Nazism and the pandemic. Maybe we can turn to a happier topic, which is your recent book on the love of radio or what you call “radiophilia”. It’s an interesting thing to approach as a topic because it can mean many different things, right?

Like in one respect, radio is simply a portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. We could also think of radio as a specific type of broadcast and reception technology, a radio. But we can also think of it as a social practice. So, you know, there are technologies that are literally radio that we don’t typically think of as radio.

So for example I teach a large class called the smartphone and society. Typically there’ll be like 120 students in the room and I’ll ask them, “How many of you are radio users?” And typically only one or two students will raise their hand. And then I kind of point out to them, “Well, actually there are smartphones, like all the data they’re getting is coming through radio” But we don’t think of that as radio.

And maybe that’s kind of pedantic, but it’s sort of a reminder that this is a social construction when we talk about radio. There are things that are literally radio that we don’t think of as radio, like TV. TV and smartphones are radio, but there are things that are, that aren’t literally radio that are arguably pretty much the same as listening to radio in terms of a social practice.

So things like audio live streaming or Pandora or maybe something like Twitter spaces. If that still exists, I don’t go on Twitter anymore.

Or what we’re doing right now, podcasting. Right? Like when you’re trying to tackle this rather nebulous topic of radiophilia, the love of radio, what was your specific object of study? How do you delimit what you’re really going to focus on? 

Carolyn Birdsall: Great. Thanks for this fantastic question. I completely agree. There’s a huge span of things that we might define as radio that are not considered radio and then the other way around. So I think the lesson of radio in general as an object of study. And I guess here I really follow the work of Kate Lacey and she argues that because radio has been so influential in everyday life, it’s become so normalized that we actually find it difficult to see it as connected to certain aspects of present day media culture.

So I think that’s something that perhaps the historian in me is enthusiastic about that argument because I do see a lot of commonalities and actually when we had the book launch for my book, I got a question about clubhouse and about the way in which certain forms of social audio and are actually doing similar things with shared experiences of live content that actually, you know, does have its roots in radio.

So I would absolutely say that like, that’s a really interesting dimension to radio that is part of its attraction for me is that it. It tells us something about the past 100 years and certain developments in the larger media landscape that help us think about certain developments in the present, even if they’re not acknowledged.

And I think particularly because a lot of colleagues working in media, don’t have that historical interest and as well as there’s a temptation to buy some of the presesentism of tech discourse. So I think that’s, that’s a real kind of motivation for me in thinking about a hundred years of radiophilia is not just thinking about a hundred years of radio from early wireless audio.

And regulated broadcasting through to the present and thinking about internet radio as well as forms of digital audio like podcasting. But, you know, I realized there are important differences. And so, you know, I obviously in the book talk about what is it about the networked listening experience?

And, you know, what other things are happening as people engage with digital audio content, you know, with smartphones or through platforms. So, you know, on the one hand, acknowledging certain commonalities in terms of shared listening experiences and perhaps even a discourse of radioness has been discussed in the literature while understanding that there are, you know, things happening with algorithms and platform logics that really are important.

Far beyond what we were seeing with the types of, let’s say, radio audience interactions and fan groupings and practices happening around analog radio previously. So, I think that’s something that I want to kind of hold both instead, in a way. Like, I want to see radiophilia as obviously connected to a history of the thing we generally think of as radio and its bifurcation into other similar forms of let’s say citational modes whether it’s like Last FM or a podcast network like iHeart Radio that that in a way it’s using the thing we think of as radio for the purposes of podcasting, as a new media form.

Mack Hagood: What were you trying to convey in choosing this term, radiophilia? So are there connotations of that term that made you choose it over say, oh, I’m studying radio audiences or I’m studying listening to radio or I’m studying radio fandoms? Why this particular term? 

Carolyn Birdsall: I mean, it is a new term, radiophilia, like the way I define it in the book is rather as an expansive concept.

So I’m really talking about a love for or a strong attachment to radio. And I guess, you know, I’m trying to say that there are multiple ontologies of radio. So, you know,  I’m arguing that the exact conditions, forms, or media assemblages may differ across time and space. And I guess what I see is the kind of added value of this concept is it does force us as scholars to think about radio’s effective appeal.

All the things you mentioned, I see them as components within this larger complex that radiophilia is encompassing. So, audiences, their listening practices, their engagement as users with a technological device. Also thinking about a wide spectrum of practices that are associated with an emotional attachment, if not fandom, to, you know, radio as a technology in terms of particular stations or content or stars or announcers that they’re, that they’re engaged with. 

So in a way, even though these are different aspects you mentioned. So, audiences, fans, listening practices, radio use. I see them as really important, but I don’t think any of those single terms encompass this kind of larger complex that I’m trying to tackle with the radiophilia concepts. 

Mack Hagood: And I really appreciate this wider perspective you’re bringing to the table here, because this is probably an unpopular opinion of mine, but as a media scholar though, I feel like one of the blind spots we might have in the worlds of media studies and popular music studies these days is an outsized emphasis on fandom. 

You know, all of us who are passionate enough to actually study popular culture for a living. We’re almost by default, like huge fans of something, right?

Like whether it’s a TV genre or like a cinematic universe, I hate that term, but a particular artist, you know, singer, whatever. I think the focus on fandom can create these lacunae of thinking about how people really use. Media because I think how most people spend most of their time engaging with media is not in a fan relationship.

And I know that the sort of Henry Jenkins and Aca-Fan stuff was meant to be a corrective to previous eras of scholarship that didn’t take fandom seriously enough and I totally get that and appreciate that. I think there’s a lot of important work done in fan studies and so forth, but I sort of just have an almost perverse, you know obstinate desire in my own scholarship to focus on media that people don’t have a fan relationship to, but still love, right?

Like media that are meant to be ignored or help you ignore other things. So with white noise, other kinds of sonic wallpaper. What I like about your radiophilia concept is that you write that the study of radiophilia is not just about superfans or radio files. It’s also about sort of ordinary, habitual, mundane everyday listening, which I think is really important to include 

Carolyn Birdsall: Thanks. It’s interesting to hear about your aversion to fan studies. I think it’s interesting having seen fan studies moved from a kind of peripheral subfield of media studies to such a central place it now has. And I think that that can sometimes mean that some of the earlier countercultural vibes that came with early fan studies literature can seem a bit bewildering now that it’s so central to the field.

If you go to a conference, there are so many panels on fan studies and fan practices. I see it as something that has its own blind spots the same way that any subfield has its blind spots. I think it’s interesting for me to be interested in what fan studies has to offer, but not necessarily be interested in the same objects of study.

So I see like there’s a lot of great work being done. And in the book, I’ve really found that certain approaches developed by Matt Hills or Nicole Lamericks when it comes to thinking about kind of the effective relationship that fans develop in relationship to their object of desire, I found it really helpful to think about certain different aspects to that relation to affect thinking about also about cultural practices around media objects.

Thinking about also where you position certain types of productivity or creativity. Are we more invested in the kind of fan creativity, which is self created, or do we also acknowledge merchandise that is industry generated?

So there are a lot of different things happening in fan studies that helped me. I think about the range of ways that people might be effectively engaged in radio and sort of generate material cultures around that effective relation. So I totally wouldn’t dismiss the field, but I do have a certain discomfort around its narratives of history.

So I definitely, in the book, try to challenge some of the historical genealogies of fandom that are really invested in the ways in which the thing we think of as fandom now comes from 1930s sci-fi fans of print media and how that paves the way for sci-fi fandom into film and television. Most obviously with Star Trek fans who develop conventions and a lot of the conventions of what we think of as fan practice.

So part of what I was trying to do is think about how radio, which is very much neglected, in the fan studies field to a lesser extent. And, you know, we do find music fandom studies, but often not historical music fandom studies. And so I was really trying to think like, would there be other genealogies of media fandom similar to radio that might shift us away from this very kind of limited sci-fi narrative?

And I found that there’s some amazing work that’s been done about theater fan scrapbooks. Early movie fan scrapbooks about teenage girls and the ways in which they gathered souvenirs and programs and produced forms of sociality and fandom around theater and later cinema. And that was really helpful for me to think about how like, oh, we have these other genealogies of media fandom that That just starting to be published now, many of them, and they don’t take us back to reasserting this one story about 1930s sci fi fandom as the early history of fandom.

So, in a way, it’s helpful to engage with the film, but I see blind spots. I also see a kind of a skewing towards male taste cultures which has obviously been challenged by feminist found studies about fitting but still I guess from a historical point of view. I still experience some of the objects of study as being quite particular and sometimes a bit narrow, I would say.

Mack Hagood: Yeah. And, I definitely appreciate the work on affect that has been done in fan studies and I do think that these kinds of profound attachments and creativity of audiences are all very important. I just think it’s the exception rather than the rule in terms of time spent engaging with media.

That’s the exception and it’s rather extraordinary how much time our fields spend focused on the exceptional rather than the mundane and the everyday. 

Carolyn Birdsall: I think that’s actually a sign that we’re real sound studies people because sound studies has often been interested in less popular and often problematic objects like music, or in the case of your own work, problematic power relations with noise cancellation headphones, or in my case, problematic uses of sound technology in highly politicized situations. 

So I think there’s something to be said that while sound studies has a strong relationship to popular music studies and is often interested in the popular. There is a sense, I would say, in the sound studies field that, you know, the interest in cultural politics or the politics of sound creates with it a certain suspicion. I think about Aca-Fandom, or like being an Aca-Fan, I can’t say which is better, but I do see that as kind of symptomatic of the certain interests of our field is to say like, well, yes, we should look at very distinct cultural objects and things happening around them.

But, you know, in sound studies, like, what’s the larger picture of the media landscape, or, you know, you know, the situation that, well, the discursive frameworks that this particular thing takes place in. And that does tend to make us a bit more suspicious. So I guess in a way, writing a book about radiophilia.

I partly gave in to an idea about positive affects and thinking about being kind of effectively boosted in relationship to different forms of sound on radio or kind of a broader concept of radio. But perhaps in that sense, I’m still the grumpy sound scholar who’s like, “Yes, but…” 

Mack Hagood: I’m not even sure that we need to pair the skepticism about fandom with a negative take on cultural products.

I mean, radio is just something that’s very elastic in terms of your attention to it. And it’s open to many different kinds of engagement. Some of it is very passive and disinterested, but also could be very positive, right? Like you can really love something without really examining it or remixing it or doing some kind of fan art with it.

Right. Like if I just think about what sort of purchase that I made most recently that I love the most, I got a new mattress.

I love this mattress. And I love it precisely because it doesn’t draw attention to itself. I went home to visit people in my hometown and I had to sleep on other people’s mattresses and I hated it because I had to pay attention to those mattresses and they were keeping me awake.

Like, I love my mattress precisely because I don’t have to pay attention to it at all. And yet it’s a powerful, effective relationship I have with that thing. Right. And I think we could say the same thing about something like. Lo-fi girl, right? Like the hip hop beats to study too. People can really love that.

And they’re never ever going to make any fan art about it. I’m sure somebody will. There’s probably somebody making fan art about a mattress, but again, that would be the exception and not the rule.

Carolyn Birdsall: No, I totally hear you. I think that’s part of the reason why I really want to include that insight from sound studies about the kind of wide spectrum of attention people pay to any given sound or object in their environment, which is, you know, that kind of really large spectrum between something that we might call focused or attentive or active listening through to the distracted, the less invested, the background.

I think that’s really where we see the kind of sound studies ethos, I would say in our thinking. Yeah, but it is a spectrum or it is a continuum and it’s, it’s dynamic and it changes and you know, even if I am super invested or I am a super fan of a particular show, that doesn’t mean that my kind of engagement, attention, affective relationship to it is stable.

Right. Doesn’t mean I’ll listen to the end. Something I actually came across after I finished the radiophilia book was a fantastic new study by a colleague called Caetlin Benson-Allott, and the title of the study is called The Stuff of Spectatorship: Material Cultures of Film and Television, and I guess because I teach in a television and cross-media team in my media studies department, you know, I am always thinking about like, oh, how does this relate to other things happening in the media landscape, and I just really loved her book because, well, she’s talking about how, say, drinking soft drinks or being drunk while watching television or, you know, eating food in your living room, you know, is framing your experience of media.

But she’s also talking about how consuming TV week from the 80s onwards as opposed to another program magazine, but because I’m not from the U.S. I’ve forgotten the title. 

Mack Hagood: TV Guide. 

Carolyn Birdsall: Yes, thank you. Yeah, the differences between TV Week and TV Guide and how they framed television viewing experience differently in the US context.

And, you know, thinking about these different aspects to the kind of material cultures of homes, but also consumer culture. Eating, drinking, as we engage with different forms of film and television. I mean, she’s particularly interested in living room settings of the eighties and nineties.

And I found it to be kind of both really inspiring, but also maybe quite validating to my own study, which, you know, is thinking about the different media that play into or boost or fuel what we might call radiophilia. So whether it’s fan magazines, program magazines, films in the cinema about radio, different forms of merchandise or creating personal collections or…

Mack Hagood: Radio museums

Carolyn Birdsall: Radio museums! Radio exhibitions. And so there are other people who are trying to develop this strong, in a way, intermedial and material cultural sensibility in relation to lived experiences of media. So I would say that would be my tip for any listeners who are interested. Or who have ever watched television drunk or want to understand what it means.

I would highly recommend her book. 

Mack Hagood: That sounds fantastic. And that is one thing I really admired about this most recent book of yours. This attention to the intermedial effects and the ways that radio might be the study object or radiophilia, but we have to talk about all of this other constellation of media and environments in order to understand the love of radio and what it’s doing.

I wanted to talk a little bit about another theme in the book, which is the way that radiophilia has been pathologized. And I was particularly intrigued by the early days. In fact, I wished you had maybe written a little bit more about this. But you mentioned radio fever or going radio crazy, which are these diagnoses that I wasn’t too familiar with.

So I would love to hear about these pathologies. 

Carolyn Birdsall: Yeah, sure. So I mean, it’s really quite striking across different contexts in the world. We see that, you know, also coming off earlier fears of new media, whether it’s a cinema or even before that. The train or modern photography, photographic culture.

We also see with radio, a real tendency to worry firstly about the amateur. So often the person who’s characterized as a young man or middle aged man who’s a radio enthusiast or hobbyist who in the 1910s, let’s say, is surfing the waves of the global ether trying to you know, listen out for often Morse code and later music and voice, but particularly in the early periods, Morse code and trying to pick up signals from other places in the world and often doing that in the attic room or somewhere removed from the family environment.

So we have a kind of fear articulator or cultural anxiety in, in this early period about. Those amateurs and they often even claim the term themselves, like I’m radio crazy like I’m a fan. So actually it’s interesting, like the idea of the word amateur as being love, you know, immediately this kind of fan word is claimed by the early amateur groups and individuals. 

And yeah, there’s a lot of anxiety about them being antisocial, removing themselves from the domestic situation, being distracted and being easily influenced. And what we actually see is as radio is domesticated, we have regulated radio in different countries and we start to have the idea of radio as a domestic technology in the living room or in some countries kind of in the kitchen or expanded kitchen environment with the family in the domestic hub.

That fear is actually transferred to women. So what we see in early, let’s say regulated radio broadcasting in the twenties is really, and even into the thirties in some contexts, is this idea that you might get a radio fever or you might be somehow afflicted by being obsessed with radio, by being distracted.

And in the context of women in the domestic setting, it’s often situated as not being able to apply oneself to one’s domestic duties. So, you know, it’s very much a gender discourse.

Mack Hagood: Oh, so the radio is getting in the way of the ironing? 

Carolyn Birdsall: Absolutely. That women would become too nervous, that they would become too distracted, they wouldn’t be able to apply themselves and focus on domestic duties.

Mack Hagood: That’s such a difference from the kind of flow that people often describe about say podcasts that enables them to wash the dishes or mow the lawn and kind of get through these mundane tasks and feel more engaged in a way. 

Carolyn Birdsall: Yeah, it’s funny. I mean, we also hear that discourse to this idea of radio as being like a background that lightens the day that makes the day go faster that, you know, it starts to be used in factories in the twenties and thirties and also in the context of World War Two.

So there is also that concept of like radio and the rhythms of the domestic environment. But a lot of the things that happened later in our own media environment, whether it is the transistor radio or the iPod, or the iPhone or gaming, digital gaming that you know, we see these same kinds of culture anxieties about distraction, isolation, aggression, children and violence, criminality.

We see different kinds of reversioning, I would say of very similar discourses and what would have been elsewhere called techno pathologies in other literature. So, I think that’s maybe also, like, I am very interested in radio and I’m interested in how across this 100 year period different things happen in the way that people relate to either the thing we call radio or the different devices used to consume.

So whether it’s a headphone. Based or headset based sets as opposed to loudspeaker based sets or the transistor or the Walkman like, you know, these different devices do structure our kind of notions of intimacy and connection at the same time There are these strange kind of discursive patterns that you know do repeat themselves I think it’s really helpful to have these insights from other media historians that we can kind of frame and place them better.

Mack Hagood: Yeah, absolutely. And, you know, I feel very conflicted around this issue these days. I think I’m one of a number of people who was probably, you know, using the framing of moral panics around the media for quite some time, and I think it’s a really important insight. But at the same time, I think there are a number of scholars that I talk to, media scholars, who are sort of like, yeah, maybe some of those moral panics were actually pretty accurate.

And you know that our present day media environment truly is creating alienation and isolation in pretty profound ways and maybe encourages us to look back on some of those previous so called moral panics with a less jaundiced eye. I get the sense that scholars like Neil Postman are coming back into fashion.

I wanted to shift to maybe one last theme in the book, and I’m certainly leaving a lot out here, but folks folks can definitely get the book and dive in to get the full picture. But you also discuss these certain kinds of biases that have often suffused those the way we talk about radio and the way we study radio.

And so I was wondering if you could maybe talk about some examples of non-Western radio use. You mentioned earlier sort of like the masculine bias that tends to suffuse, you know, thinking about radio fandoms and so forth. So maybe from a feminist or non-Western perspective, are there any examples of radio use that are really different from what we typically imagine.

Carolyn Birdsall: Sure. So in the book, you know, I am calling for more global perspectives on radio research and it’s part of the research agenda I set up. I try to bring in examples where perhaps the domestic model of privatized radio consumption needs to be challenged because, you know, that radio is more of a public media, where transistor radios are carried into other environments.

I give the example from research about the Philippines that a lot of radio consumption historically happened at corner shops and in kind of tandem with local gossip and chatting with other people from your neighborhood so that there’s a kind of communal context of reception and interpretation.

Mack Hagood: Yeah, I love that. 

Carolyn Birdsall: And I think there’s also a really great contemporary work coming out, which comes back to the conversation we had earlier today about different expansive understandings of radio. We have a colleague whose name is Lori Kido Lopez. She’s published a bunch of articles, including one called mobile phones as participatory radio.

And she’s really interested in the way in which Hmong migrants in the US and you know, in their communities, whose producers and audiences often post what they call us, right? Like radio content, but it’s a form of teleconferencing. Using mobile phones and then often it’s posted as content onto YouTube.

And so she’s talking about, in these articles, about how there’s a form of sharing and informal archiving, but also a kind of shifting of the definition of what radio is. And I think that’s really helpful to understand that you know, that a form of teleconferencing with mobile phones could also be experienced by a group of listeners in a particular linguistic group, like the Hmong people she talks about in the US as mimicking the structures and relations that radio may have offered in a different context, more similar to community radio, but it’s, it’s happening with mobile phones and it’s being reposted and consumed again through YouTube.

So I think that’s like, there are some of the examples, like there are many more that I discuss in the book, which are just encouraging us to kind of maybe unlearn some of the historical narrations and assumptions about what the history of radio looks like, what radio is, and, and to really see that. In some countries, radio was established by newspaper barons, in other countries the newspapers tried to block radio news programming, so we have different kinds of assemblages happening, and it’s really important as part of a radio and sound studies agenda to kind of do some of the work that our colleagues have talked about as like a remapping of sound studies and kind of, you know, I wouldn’t quite say like always a decolonization, but just understanding how certain assumptions are sort of defaulting and also our citational practices.

So I think I mentioned to you before this book was largely written in the pandemic. So I wasn’t always able to do the same types of research that I had previously, but I really took that as an opportunity to read very widely. Really beyond my expertise, you know, different places, different time periods and to try to draw from some of the very exciting work that’s come out in radio podcast and sound studies that is expanding our understanding of what radio is, its audiences, the kind of practices that developed over this 100 year period of radio.

So I think that would be kind of, I would say the main agenda that I’m hoping that this radio affiliate book and this concept is advancing is. encouraging scholars and also the readers of the book to open their minds to the different types of ontologies of radios and the different, the kind of the differently formed notions of, of audience, of listener, of user that we sometimes take as too much of a given, I would say.

Mack Hagood: Oh, well, I think that invitation is a lovely place to end our conversation. You’ve been so generous with your time and your ideas. So thank you so much for talking to me. 

Carolyn Birdsall: Thank you, Mac. It’s been a pleasure.

Mack Hagood: So for our patrons, we end the show with our what’s good segment, where we ask our guests to recommend something good to Read, something good to listen to, and something good to do.

Carolyn, what do you have for us?

Carolyn Birdsall: Sure, so for something good to read, I have two non fiction books, so no fictional works today. I just started to read today a special series of the Resonance Journal. It’s titled, Militarized Ecologies: Auralities, Incorporations, Terrain. It’s edited by Alejandra Bronfman and Maria Edunes Azuazo.

They have a brilliant introduction that unpacks how sound militarism and ecologies relate to each other. And there’s also an interview conversation between Gasha Azounian and the sound producer and architect Mohamed Safa and I can’t recommend it enough. And maybe if I would be allowed to have a quick small plug, I’ve also just started to read Mckenzie Wark’s Raving.

Raving is an essay length book that visits the New York underground queer and trans rave scene and explores, in her words, trans practice of raving as a timely aesthetic for dancing in the ruins of this collapsing capital. You know, I haven’t finished it, so it’s still, like, I’m only halfway through. It’s a hundred pages, and it’s full of amazing ideas.

Yeah, embodied reflections. It has a glossary. It’s drawing on really different academic and other sources, it’s a beautiful piece of writing. I can’t recommend it highly enough. So that’s something good to read. And perhaps it will motivate people to also go dancing. And then for something good to listen to I’d like to recommend a website called It’s an online radio map launched in 2016 that allows the user to navigate a map of the globe and zoom into audio from thousands of local stations. And in doing so, as Adrian LaFrance wrote in the Atlantic, is that the interactive map lets you listen to the radio everywhere. So, you know, I’d say if you haven’t been before, it lets you go to the most isolated places outside of Alaska, it lets you zoom in on very dense cities with lots of different radio stations.

It’s a really interesting, sometimes unnerving experience of looking at the globe and spinning it around to tap into different real time live streams, internet radio.

Mack Hagood: Yeah, I love that app and a common complaint is that the internet is this vast network and yet it seems to keep us constrained in these little walled gardens these days and I just think that app is one of the best ways to break out. 

Carolyn Birdsall: Yeah. And the interesting thing. I just kind of looked up the latest information about it, and it turns out that it’s been subject to restrictions more recently. So the UK has stopped its UK users from listening to any stations outside of the UK.

That happened a few months ago, and also Turkey has banned radio garden from being accessed in the context of Turkish internet because they see it as an infringement of copyright. 

Mack Hagood: Wow. Well listen while you can. 

Carolyn Birdsall: Exactly. And then, yeah, for something good to do, I do realize that it might be too typical for a sound study scholar to recommend this, but I have a tip for what could be a sound or listening walk, but it could also be a logbook or take a more diary form.

And it’s really just a suggestion from the first page of Jonathan Stern’s sound studies reader from 2012. And on the very first page of that sound studies reader in the introduction, he says the following. We live in a world whose sonic texture is constantly transforming and has been for centuries. New, never before heard sounds like ringtones enter and leave everyday life in the course of a few years.

Then he says, Take a good listen around you for a few days and consider what others are hearing. How many of the sounds of everyday life existed 10 years ago, 20 or 30 years ago. So it’s just really a question, I guess at any point or, you know, whether, you know, you want to be more mobile or less mobile, just to, to kind of just take in your immediate environment and think about what’s distinctive.

I think you pointed out that the siren going past my window sounds really different. To what a siren would sound like where you live. And, you know, I’m sure if we had a soundscape recording from outside the same window 20 years ago, it’s quite possible it was a slightly different tone or a different sound that was used by the same service.

So yeah, maybe it’s like a typical sound history exercise, but I think it’s one that, you know, is really very much about thinking about the particular place and time that you’re in, in a given moment. How it might be characterized now, but also how it might relate to different moments of the past. And I think the example of the mobile phone ringtone is a really good one because you know, there was this kind of wave of personalized ringtones and really within two or three years.

It became very passé and not done to have, to have music or annoying yeah, annoying sounds as your ringtone or to even let, let your sound let the sound of your phone be on at all. So I’m actually someone who permanently has my phone on silent. So you know, I think I’m quite typical in that regard.

Mack Hagood: Yeah. That is such a good thing, that is already a historical moment. It is pretty amazing. Wonderful. Thank you for these suggestions. And, I do really think that listening in this way, doing a sort of sound observation meditation in terms of historicity is a great variation on that theme and one that I’m going to try out.

Carolyn Birdsall: Thank you. 

Mack Hagood: All right. Well, thanks so much.