Audience empowerment and the politics of representation in two radio talk shows in post- apartheid South Africa J E ND ELE H UNGBO
Introduction The medium of radio, just like any other media form, has seen different forms of transformation in Africa. These transformations have occurred both in the policies governing the use of media as well as in the technologies that produce them and make them available to their audiences. In the process of doing this, most media consumers or what is generally known as the audience have also mutated from passive receivers of media content to become active participants and more interestingly producers of content that keeps each medium going. As we move from the understanding of media as a phenomenon directed at a unified audience to the appreciation of the diversity of different publics at which media messages are directed, it becomes important to view audience as a form of problematised entity whose practices of reception dwell both in the technological presence of a particular medium coupled with the social context in which individuals or groups of receivers attempt to use media messages. As scholars like Lawrence Grossberg, Debra Spitulnik and others have observed, both technology and social context determine the reading of media texts or the reception of messages sent out through the media (Grossberg 1987; Spitulnik 2002). Though questions of ‘the economics of ownership’ (Spitulnik 2002: 340) are important in understanding the level of access which different people have to media, there is a broader sense in which this economical question also relates to the kind of social relations, and by extension power relations that exist simultaneously with media technologies in each society. The interest in the relationship between mass media and politics is borne out of several factors. In the first instance, mass media are often seen as major platforms for the articulation of public opinion on matters of policy which have the potential to affect the lives of the people. Second, the media represent a crucial aspect of the public sphere especially in Africa (mainly because of the strictures that still characterise the space for public engagement) through which political actors constantly seek to actualise their aspirations for democratisation, transparency and accountability. These acts of negotiation through the media provide an opportunity for understanding the dynamics of social power which defines subjectivities in society. Such dynamics of power have
been collectively crystallised in Antonio Gramsci’s (1971) conceptualisation of cultural hegemony. Hegemony, as William Rowe and Vivian Scheling argue, ‘highlights the negotiations which take place on a cultural level between dominant and subaltern groups’ (1991: 9). Since modern statehood seems to have rendered unfashionable the open display of authoritarian tendencies, even in Africa where such tendencies have been quite reluctant in disappearing, a closer look at popular culture forms like radio may offer a great opportunity in understanding the way power relations are set up, maintained or contested in everyday life. In addition to the above, the mass media in seeing themselves as ‘the fourth estate of the realm’ have self-assigned to themselves a significant role in governance which combines the tasks of contributing to the actualisation of state policies while at the same time holding state actors to their responsibility of ensuring that the people are not discounted in the course of governance. Radio has been a very crucial part of the media especially in Africa where the medium enjoys a pride of place because of the ease of access which combines with other factors to make radio the medium for the majority of the people on the continent. Talk shows are interactive programmes which allow for a great deal of audience participation. They allow the audience to be part of the creation of their content through the use of communication technologies like letters, telephones and the internet. In some instances, such participation may be in form of studio appearances or just being part of a studio audience. Drawing inspiration from Rubin and Step, Tanja Bosch defines talk radio as ‘a format characterized by conversation that is initiated by a programme host and usually involves listeners who telephone to participate in the discussion about topics such as politics, sports or current events’ (Bosch 2011: 76). With talk shows, broadcasting and by extension radio, acquires one major characteristic that makes it a significant aspect of civil society and the quest for democratic participation by people in their own affairs. This major characteristic is in the fact that it elevates broadcasting from the level of the mere provision of information to a new pedestal where it becomes an instrument for participatory deliberation about public affairs. And as Steve Buckley et al. argue:
Where broadcasting is not only informative but also participatory, it can help to build capacities that contribute to a healthy governance environment, cultivating collaborative leadership capabilities, self confidence, and collective engagement. The audience, including those who are otherwise marginalized and without voice, can contribute to setting the agenda, express themselves, influence their community or society, and call for government action.