When Cindy Wieringa and I wrote On Air back in the late 1990s, we were tired of reading about radio as a ‘blind medium,’ which made it seem defective, disabled and impaired, like there was something inherently lacking with it. That wasn’t our experience. For me as an avid radio listener and Cindy as a broadcast journalist working in radio, the medium was powerful, magical even, ubiquitous, imaginative, intimate and alive. We wanted to get this across in our book. We set out to celebrate what had made radio such an important and popular mass medium for so long and establish what was going to sustain it in the future. We had no doubt that it had a future and that the worldwide web or Internet (still quite new at that time) was going to make radio even more vital as an inexpensive global medium used as a lifeline by millions of people all over the planet (maybe even beyond!). Academically, we felt that radio had been largely neglected in favour of film and television, certainly within media and cultural studies, and so we pooled our knowledge, experience and enthusiasm to produce a book that would not only celebrate the achievements of those working in radio but also to alert students to the amazing potential of this medium as a means of communication, entertainment, education and as a career destination.
Thankfully, the response to our book was almost universally positive when it was published in 1998. Our message was clearly one that many people were desperate to hear after years of negativity and neglect. The book appeared at the very moment that the Radio Studies Network was formed in the UK, which quickly spread out around the world to unite radio scholars, educators and practitioners across the globe. It was a wonderful time to be teaching and researching radio. In On Air, we tried to do as much as possible by including a historical timeline of the medium, identifying the unwritten protocols of using its codes and conventions, providing discussion and analysis of a range of genres, not just music and news but also drama, comedy and documentary, phone-ons and game shows. We adopted a wide-ranging theoretical approach to radio that explored different ways of thinking about radio and how audiences use it and relate to radio broadcasters.
The brief was to write a text book for A-level and undergraduate students but we wanted it to be much more than that and so created something that might appeal to a more general readership. I think we achieved it. We tried to strike a balance between theory and practice, so that while I wrote most of the theory and did a lot of the analytical stuff, Cindy concentrated on explaining how radio programmes are made and discussed examples and instances of radio from her own career working in Australia and Hong Kong. Yet it didn’t really work like that, as Cindy was full of ideas that went way beyond her own experience, while I was increasingly intrigued by how radio programmes are made and therefore drew extensively on practical guides and the insights of established professional broadcasters. The book certainly made an impact and has been much quoted by other radio theorists around the world ever since, playing a decisive role in the formation of Radio Studies as an academic discipline.