Monday, 14 February 2011

Interview with David Hendy


David Hendy is a media historian with a broad interest in the social and cultural impact of broadcasting and cinema over the past two centuries; he's a reader in media and communication in University of Westminster.

He wrote the books Radio and the Global Age (2000) and Life on Air: a History of Radio Four (2007).

I had the chance of interview him.

1) When and where were you born?

I was born in 1962 in the small city of Wells in the west of England - and spent most of my childhood in the region.

2) What is your first memory of radio?

I suppose I remember being a small child, maybe about 2 or 3 years old, playing in the kitchen while my mother did the housework. While she loaded the washing-machine or prepared the evening meal, the radio would be on. It was mostly speech radio, so I'm guessing it was the BBC's old 'Home Service', which included news and plays and discussion programmes, plus a little music every now-and-then. And I can remember sitting next to the radio set one day in particular, to hear my father, who was being interviewed for some reason or another. But it wasn't until I was about ten or eleven that radio's peculiar magic took hold of me. I’d just rescued an old Bakelite radio set from my parents’ attic and installed it next to my bed. I listened mostly at bed-time, when the lights were off. My ear would be pressed hard against the cloth-covered loudspeaker, so the volume could be down low and I could evade discovery. In the darkness, I was transfixed by a small, round, blood-red bulb fixed to the dial. It pulsated into glowing life, decayed into invisibility, then into life again, as I turned slowly through the frequencies to try to catch the faint chatter of distant voices. Out of the electromagnetic swell of white noise, I heard programmes from Paris, Hilversum, Rome. But the ones that gripped me the most were from the other side of the Iron Curtain: Radio Tirana, Radio Moscow… Radio Peking. I can’t remember what they said. It didn’t seem to matter. What mattered was that as they spoke, I felt connected by a gossamer thread with someone 5,000 thousand miles away. As a teenager, then as a student, I briefly lost this connection with radio - I was, I suppose, too busy with other things. But perhaps subconsciously, something of this earlier experience remained, to be re-awakened later, in my late-20s.

3) How much time did you need to write the books Radio in the Global Age and Life on Air?

There are two very different answers to this. In the sense of actually sitting down and writing, Radio in the Global Age took about 1 year. But I started writing it only after several years of working at the BBC and several more years teaching about - and subconsciously thinking a lot about - how radio worked and what it's importance was. So in another sense, Radio in the Global Age was several years in the making. For Life on Air, again, I was drawing, in one sense, from many years of working in radio, listening to radio, talking to radio practitioners, and thinking about the subject. But in practical terms, I spent about a year planning and scheming and doing initial research, then about two years researching in the archives full-time, and finally another two years writing - so about five years altogether, though with some teaching and other work during this period.

4) What is your opinion about digital radio?

I feel ambivalent about digital radio. There's no doubt that digital phenomena such as podcasts and the ability to 'listen-again' to radio has improved my life in many ways. I no longer fear missing my favourite programme on, say BBC Radio 3 or BBC Radio 4: I simply subscribe to it as a podcast and then listen to it when driving the 50 miles or so between home and work. Sound quality's improved, too - and that makes a real difference when listening to music or drama. On the other hand, there are features of the digital revolution that have made little difference to me. Choice is supposed to have multiplied exponentially - but that, I think is more illusory than real, because so many of those who run radio stations are too unimaginative about the medium's possibilities and therefore end up producing programmes that all sound very much alike. Of course, Internet radio makes it theoretically possible to listen to any station or any genre of output from anywhere around the world. And, occasionally, I have taken advantage of this facility, tuning in to, say, a college radio station in the US. But, more often than not, I have experienced no real feeling of 'connection' to such stations. Finding them satisfies an idle curiosity, much as finding radio from beyond the Iron Curtain did when I was a child. But at some crucial psychic level, radio maintains a distinctive 'national' or local bond with its listeners. Perhaps it's because, in Britain, we have the BBC, which is a phenomenal resource that we take too much for granted, yet which has infiltrated British life to an extraordinary degree. Whatever the reason, I miss the BBC terribly when I am abroad. In 2010 spent a lengthy period working in the United States. But despite it being the land if infinite choice, I struggled to find any station - commercial or public service - which gave me pleasure in the way that BBC Radio 3 or 4 have done for years, and will continue, I hope, to give me pleasure for the rest of my life. And, one of the reasons these stations give pleasure, is that in a profound way they are a 'gift' - given to me without any expectation of me having to respond. There is value in passivity. It creates the space to absorb and to think. And there is danger, sometimes, in a forced 'interactivity that removes the opportunity for reflective space. To use the old radio metaphor, we sometimes need to stop 'transmitting' in order to enjoy simply 'receiving'.

5) Are you working on another book?

I'm currently working on two books. Almost finished is a small book called 'Public Service Broadcasting' for publication in 2012. It tries to explore what public service broadcasting is in terms of its role in civic life. My second book, much bigger in scale, is 'Media and the Making of the Modern Mind', which will be published by Oxford University Press in 2014. It explores the ways in which four 'new' media - radio, cinema, television and the internet - have each in turn changed the ways we think and have understood the world over the past 120 years. Some of the ideas in the book were explored, more briefly, in a five-part radio series I presented for the BBC in 2010, called 'Rewiring the Mind'.

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