The Solid State of Radio

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


    The ephemerality of radio is one of its defining characteristics. Shingler and Wieringa (1998) memorably describe radio as an invisible medium, while Hilmes (2013) refers to the “ghastly impermanence” of sound. And yet, the artefact of a radio is certainly real enough. This chapter explores the interplay between the physicality of radio and its existence as an intangible medium. It reflects on the attachment that can develop between a listener and their radio, before considering how modern radio manufacturers have sought to exploit this relationship through design.

    An emotional connection is often formed between a radio listener and the programming they enjoy. This sense of regard can subsequently inform a listener’s bond with the materiality of radio as an object. Lewis (2000) calls radio a “friend and trusted informant” and, as such, we tend to stick with a reliable model, rather than replace it with the latest design. A radio can also become a totem for other powerful memories, such as past family members, historic events, or perhaps time spent abroad. Whether the radio actually works is largely immaterial. The artefact serves its purpose as a symbolic reminder of the past.

    This sense of nostalgia has led many radio manufacturers to intentionally reference the past while offering the latest advances in radio and audio technology. Bluetooth streaming, DAB and smart speaker functionality are disguised within a veneer of “war time radio”, or designs “inspired by the style of the fifties and sixties”. Forty’s (1986) benchmark study identified three distinct stages in radio manufacturing, culminating in an era of technological futurism. This chapter suggests the need for a fourth design stage, which recognises a return to more classical radio forms. While the proliferation of platforms, content and station choice provide an inexhaustible supply of radio via a series of simple swipes or clicks, for many listeners there remains a preference for the human-machine interface of traditional knobs and dials. Unpicking this nostalgia for the medium’s supposed ‘golden age’ and its associated aesthetics, provides insight into the unique bond between the listener and the materiality of the radio.
    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationMedia Materialities
    Subtitle of host publicationForm, Format, and Ephemeral Meaning
    EditorsOliver Carter, Iain Taylor
    Number of pages22
    ISBN (Electronic)9781789388190
    ISBN (Print)9781789388176
    Publication statusPublished (VoR) - 12 Dec 2023


    • Radio
    • Materiality
    • Design
    • Haptics


    Dive into the research topics of 'The Solid State of Radio'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

    Cite this