Radio Fields: Debra Spitulnik Vidali: A House of Wires upon Wires


Radio Fields: Chapter 13:
A House of Wires Upon Wires

Sensuous and Linguistic Entanglements of Evidence and Epistemologies in the Study of Radio Culture

by Debra Spitulnik Vidali

Taken from Radio Fields: Anthropology and Wireless Sound in the 21st Century, by Lucas Bessire and Daniel Fisher, with an Afterword by Faye Ginsburg
Debra Spitulnik Vidali is an associate professor of anthropology at Emory University. Author of numerous essays on the topic of radio, she has also written extensively on people’s relationships with media and language in Zambia.

Provenance: this piece was scanned from the book Radio Fields and converted to HTML by John Tranter, March 2016. The ten photographs that accompany this piece were selected, captioned and added by John Tranter without prior approval of the author. This piece has yet to receive added material deleted to accommodate the length desired for the book version, and paragraph numbers. Later!

When I was a little boy, I listened to programs in my own languages, and in [the] Bemba [language] they used to say ‘kuno kuhanda kwashikapepele’ [here at the house of endless activity]. Especially David Yumba. It means ‘here is a place of many wires.’ As a kid, I would imagine that you had to crawl under all these wires, and whatever you said there would be picked up. The broadcaster sat there hunched up under the wires and spoke. They also said ‘handa ya nsalensale’ [a house of wires upon wires].
 — Lawson Chishimba, Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation Radio disc jockey
David Yumba in office, 1989, photo courtesy Debra Spitulnik Vidali
David Yumba in office, 1989, photo courtesy Debra Spitulnik Vidali
Competition Quiz No. 3

1. Your wireless set is full of wires. Why, then, do we call it ‘Wireless’?

2. For what inventions or discoveries were the following men and women famous: (a) Marconi? (b) Priestley? (c) Curie? (d) Whittle? (e) Pasteur? (f) Edison?…
 — African Listener 9 (Northern Rhodesia, September 1952), 16

Media cultures are permeated by the twin discourses of technological mystique and no-nonsense technical manipulation. The idioms of the former: traveling voices and people, activated powers, transformed worlds, enveloped and transported selves. The voice of the latter: push here, move this, connect that, open, close, listen. The juxtaposition in the epigraphs of the personal, lyrical memories of a radio DJ with the dry, colonial voice of authoritative knowledge testing captures this tension between mystery and science, between creative world making and practical technology. It also provides a window into the multidimensional story of radio’s meanings in both contemporary Zambia and colonial Zambia (then, Northern Rhodesia). In this chapter, I wish to activate this tension between the voice of imagination and the voice of science and also to activate these metaphors of wires, tangles of wires, and being wireless to open conversations about the nature of evidence and knowledge production in the study of media culture. My questions are just as much about the nature of media anthropology’s subject — in this case radio culture — as they are about our work, our writing practices, and our relations to them.

I begin with two sections that explore what it means to document the phenomenology of sound and hearing. In the first, I suggest how researchers might experiment in the documentation of their own media captivations as a way to sharpen their ability to tune in and find language for documenting other people’s media captivations. In the second, I argue that the phenomenology of auditory experience, particularly that within radio culture, is entangled with material and ideological meanings and that this necessitates methodologies and research frames that can capture complex nexuses of relations shaping ways-of-hearing, as well as ones that remain modest about their ability to capture subjective realities. Building on these points, the second half of the chapter explores how evidence from language matters for the production of knowledge about sonic cultures. I argue that language can never be taken as a transparent window into subjective experience, thought, or cultural categories. At the same time, I show how different orders of linguistic data — such as nicknames for radio personalities, modes of address, circulating radio phrases, words used by avid radio listeners, and indigenous words for radio — provide important arenas for exploring the complex phenomenology of sonic cultures and ways-of-hearing. All along, the chapter can be read as one that relies on language to argue and to uncover but that remains wary about languages ontological fixity.

microphone-lores Sharpening the Documentation of Media Captivations

Much like the scholars of a different kind of mediation — spirit mediumship — many media anthropologists have been attracted to their subject because of its connections with transformational and imaginative powers. For many of us, there is wonder and aesthetic appreciation much like that suggested by DJ Chishimba’s remarks in the epigraph. At the same time, in professional writing, we often downplay these personal attachments, passions, and pleasures. It might be said that we often work as social scientists to balance imagination with fact, to separate juicy from dry, and to allow our research subjects to revel in the former ends of these dyads while downplaying our own emotions and our encounters with mystery.[Note 1]


Amber Lincoln, History Felt: Installation view. Hierarchy Gallery, Ethnographic Terminalia 2014. Photo credit: Trudi Lynn Smith. Sound utterances are, by their nature, ephemeral. Analog and digital methods of recording may preserve their content but their situational context — Ranciere’s ‘mise en scene of words’ (Ranciere 2014:44) — can never be restored. Kwame Phillips and Debra Spitulnik Vidali’s ‘Kabusha Radio Remix/Your Questions Answered by Pioneering Zambian Talk Show Host, David Yumba (1923-1990)’ constructs its own archive. The radio host Yumba’s recordings, transcripts, and letters construct new relationships with novel sets of speakers and listeners, thus drawing attention to the possibilities of archives as troves of memory and knowledge-making. Central to the installation is a reengineered 60-minute Kabusha ‘radio program’ produced by Phillips and Vidali that mimics its original format. This version, however, juxtaposes Yumba’s recorded responses as answers to present-day Bemba archive workers’ inquiries about politics and technicalities of archives, as well as ‘anonymous’ letter writers about current Zambian politics.

Several years ago, I accepted an invitation to reflect on my personal attachments with radio and with one Zambian radio broadcaster in particular, within the context of an essay for an edited volume titled Personal Encounters in Anthropology. This broadcaster was Lawson Chishimba, quoted in the epigraph. In that essay, I wrote about how ‘his voice burned a permanent mark on my auditory memory’ with its dramatic and unpredictable contours, its hint of mischief, and its unusual blend of sharp and rumbling tonalities (2003,186). An excerpt:

His voice had more contours, more ups and downs than those of most Zambians I met… It was a gravely voice, but not deep — more like the voice of a smoker or someone who can’t clear his throat. Yet Lawson never sounded congested. It was just as if his voice were flowing over some little pebbles at the back of his throat. And he talked fast, very animated, always making exclamations like ‘ooh’ and ‘aah.’ So in the midst of this he would sometimes let out a little bit of a squeak. Kind of like his voice had cracked, like he had strained it across too many fluctuating contours or too much excited delivery. (Ibid., 186)

While my writing centered mainly on Lawson’s life — relaying his own love of the magic of broadcasting, ethnographically depicting his work behind the microphone, and narrating a chronology of his career — I also shared how I was a fan of his, how our lives intersected in complex and puzzling ways, and how I grieved over his death in 2000. In the essay, I did not explore the larger epistemological ramifications of my auditory experiences and my search for language to describe both them and Lawson’s unique voice qualities. I simply crossed the passion-dispassion divide in a very ‘normal’ genre-sanctioned way: in an essay under the rubric of ‘personal encounters.’

Reflecting now on my attempt to capture auditory recollections and render sounds into language, I am led to larger questions about the production of knowledge in the study of media culture. What might open up for us as scholars, if we were to more directly foreground and interrogate our own relations to the media cultures that we choose to document? What might this open up for an anthropological understanding of media cultures themselves? This entails more than choosing a writing style that is personal or ethnographically reflexive. It is about pushing research toward more phenomenological types of descriptions and discoveries. The magic of being transported by voices and images, the perceived textures of sound, what being riveted feels like — these are difficult to document. They are easily lost in the perfect storm of privacy, the ineffability of experience, delimiting anthropological research frames, and a scarcity of communication resources that can relay and value them. [2] Creating space to explore and express our own magical experiences might sharpen our skills in documenting those of others.

Recording a play at the Central African Broadcasting Station in Northern Rhodesia © WRTH Radio Heritage Foundation Collection: Courtesy Radio Heritage Foundation at, with thanks to Debra Spitulnik Vidali.
Recording a play at the Central African Broadcasting Station in Northern Rhodesia © WRTH Radio Heritage Foundation Collection: Courtesy Radio Heritage Foundation at, with thanks to Debra Spitulnik Vidali.

microphone-lores Sharpening the Documentation of Auditory Worlds and Soundscapes

The phenomenology of auditory experience and pleasure (both ethnographic subjects’ and researchers’) has been treated extensively within the field of ethnomusicology. It also figures prominently within the subfield of the anthropology of the senses. While a growing anthropological literature on radio addresses listener positioning and the affective tenors associated with programs, personalities, and even stations (Fisher 2009; Katriel 2004; Kunreuther 2006), the more experience-near phenomenology of auditory worlds (or ways-of-hearing) is still relatively underdocumented. Paddy Scannell is a useful starting point for thinking about the ‘complex phenomenological projection[s]’ of media (1996, 14), but the challenge remains to explore beyond a text-centered position on media ‘projection’ or beyond an ethnographic/interview-data middle zone that relies mainly on media users’ brief comments about their affective attachments.

Here, I propose using Steven Feld’s (1996) concept of ‘acoustemology’ (i.e., acoustic epistemology) and Thomas Porcello’s (2005) concept of ‘te-choustemology’ (i.e., acoustic epistemology as it is interlinked with epistemology about technologies) to move this conversation forward. Both Feld and Porcello argue that forms of knowing about sound are culture and place specific and that the phenomenology of hearing is shaped by culturally specific acoustic epistemologies. Further, for Porcello, technological mediation impacts these acoustic epistemologies. Porcello proposes that it is not possible to disentangle people’s knowledge, interpretation, and experiences of technologically produced sound from their knowledge, interpretation, and experiences of the technology that produces it.

Radio listener, Nigeria, 1960s.
Radio listener, Nigeria, 1960s.

The 1960s saw the start of the BBC African Service and a greater interest generally in African affairs. Here a Nigerian listener tunes into the African Service on the BBC.

Porcello’s proposal significantly expands Roger Silverstone’s (1994) important concept of media as doubly articulated, that is, simultaneously (1) conveyors of ideological content and (2) material objects with particular cultural meanings. Particularly with regard to the latter type of articulation, the implication of Porcello’s approach is that the experience of a medium’s materiality on one plane (e.g., as a device with a certain history) affects the experience of the medium’s materiality on another plane (e.g., the perception of sound quality). Such entanglements abound for the case of radio. Radio’s materiality is multifaceted and complexly overlaid — interpreted in various parts of the world and at different times — as a box that magically speaks, a technology that can be carried, a machine that needs battery or electrical power, a commodity with social status, a commodity within a hierarchy of other electronic commodities, and so on (Crisell 2006; Larkin 2008, 48; Vidali 1998-1999, 2002). This materiality crisscrosses the ideological, moral, and affective resonances of radio sounds, voices, personalities, and content, as well as a past-present-future of coexisting voices, sounds, and genres within oral and auditory culture.

Rudolf Arnheim, by John Gay, 1950s - NPG x128693 - © National Portrait Gallery, London
Rudolf Arnheim, by John Gay, 1950s – NPG x128693 – © National Portrait Gallery, London

One of the earliest theorists to tackle such complexities of radio was film critic Rudolf Arnheim (1936). In his far-reaching book, titled simply Radio, Arnheim writes about the dynamic nature of radio broadcasting, with its sounds of different intensities, layers, oscillation from one listening perspective to another, and complex connections to imagination, memory, and thought. Fast-forward five decades plus, and one hears echoes in the field ethnomusicology with Chris Watermans ‘densely textured soundscapes’ (1990, 214) and Felds phenomenology of foregrounded and backgrounded relations among sounds which are ‘multilayered, overlapping, alternating, and interlocking’ (1990, 265).

Not only does Arnheim try to explain the ‘enigma of radiophony’ (Cardinal 2007, 23); he captures the mobility of radio sound and its potential for forging connections across public and private spaces. The clever vignette which opens Radio’s chapter 11 illustrates these insights:

While the reader of this book was making himself acquainted with the last pages of the previous chapter, a pleasant baritone voice from the loudspeaker beside him is giving out stock exchange quotations; now there is silence except for the slight noises and cracklings, the reader closes the book and gets ready to go out, and suddenly an entirely different voice from the loudspeaker announces that he will now hear Beethoven’s 8th Symphony. The reader puts on his coat and cuts off Beethoven’s introductory bars in the middle by a pressure of his finger. But the music persists, though more distant and raucous, drifting up the stair from the hall-porter’s room. The reader … bangs the front door, but Beethoven follows him down the street, loud and strident from the shoemaker’s back room, softly from the second floor of a villa, braying across the market-place from a little cafe. (1936, 258-259).

While Arnheim moves from this passage to pessimistic mass-culture arguments about the dangers of ‘all hear[ing] the same thing’ (ibid., 259), he nonetheless suggests the complex relationships between the materiality of radio soundscapes and the subjective experience of them in social lives.

Leo Sarkisian with his first recording
Leo Sarkisian with his first recording
Leo Sarkisian’s Launch from Monrovia: In May of 1965 the first radio broadcast of Music Time in Africa rang out from VOA short-wave transmitters from Mambo Point, Liberia. Leo’s First Recording: The 30-minute, hosted radio show, presented African music across the African continent in the English language.The program’s creator was Leo Sarkisian (born January 4, 1921). Leo collected original music and cultural information directly from the place and people who made it and used the material as content for his weekly broadcasts. He recorded music himself, collected it from radio stations, and from listeners and local musicians.

As there is no ideal starting point in the documentation of radio soundscapes and auditory worlds, how does one begin to ethnographically document them and what might be called acoustic practices of ‘worlding’ (cf. Stewart 2007)? One strategy might be to adopt George Marcus’s (1995) ‘follow the X’ formula, originally introduced as a framework for research design in multisited research. Marcus proposes that multisited research can be anchored through a selection of one of the following strategies: follow the people, follow the metaphor, follow the thing, follow the plot, follow the life, or follow the conflict. Adapting this to radio, for example, one might ‘follow the sound,’ as Arnheim imaginatively does, that is, that persistent broadcast of Beethovens 8th Symphony. Or one might ‘follow the person,’ as Arnheim also does while tracking his own imagined reader. For the case of radio, I would add that an additional strategy is to ‘follow the machine’ (see Vidali 2002) or to ‘follow sounds’ in one location. Let me introduce ‘follow the language’ or ‘follow the labels’ as a further permutation of these strategies for object construction and ethnographic entry point. Indeed, if as Feld (1990) argues, a major part of examining the cultural meanings/experiences of sound in a particular place/culture requires investigating the very language and even metalanguage used to describe sound, then language itself can be taken as a powerful entry point and anchor for a wider research agenda into radio cultures. In the remaining half of this chapter, I pursue this strategy on a number of linguistic levels.

microphone-lores Tuning In to Nicknames and Other Linguistic ‘Captures’ of Sound

In colonial Zambia during the 1950s, many radio broadcasters’ on-air names were simultaneously about sounds and about excitement, fast speed, and constant activity, all features that were strongly tangled up with radios perceived ‘modernity’ at the time (Debra Spitulnik Vidali 1998-1999). These themes resonate with DJ Chishimba’s childhood memories in the epigraph, namely, about the broadcasting institution being a place of ‘endless activity.’ [3]

In a 1988 interview broadcast on Radio Zambia, former colonial broadcaster Andreya Masiye explained some of these nicknames and their associations: ‘Kateka was Mfumfumfu. In other words: ‘Dishing out a lot of information.’ Alick Nkhata was known as Kapandula: ‘One who was very good at analyzing issues.’[4] I was known as Kabvulumvulu: ‘One who was going around like a whirlwind.’ Things like that.’ [5]

Masiye’s name derives directly from the Kabvulumvulu (Nyanja language, ‘Whirlwind’) program which he initiated in 1953. In the program, Masiye moved quickly across the country — like a whirlwind — recording ordinary people’s opinions about everyday problems and changing social norms. In his onomatopoetic name (eponymous of the program title), one can hear a whirring sound (transliterated as ‘bvooloo-mvooloo’) and envision its busy bearer, both moving fast and traveling remarkable distances. In colonial Zambia, the speaking styles of early broadcasters also became the basis for their popular nicknames, regardless of program titles, as former colonial broadcaster Edward Kateka explains to researcher Graham Mytton in this 1971 interview excerpt: [6]

GM: Mfumfumfu, yes this is what everybody calls you. What is the meaning of this word, mfumfumfu?

EK: Well, mfumfumfu is a word — ‘the flow of words without stopping.’ [7] You see, I used to read the ten pages in five minutes without stopping. You see. This came from the, you know, a four-gallon tin, with only one end open, and you put — you fill it with water, and that sound which it makes — mfu-mfu-mfu — which water makes — mfu-mfu-mfu-mfu. And well, well, ‘This person talks like a bucket of water, the flow of that water, as in mfu-mfu-mfu.’

Emphasizing one syllable at a time (mfu-mfu-mfu), Kateka provides a rendering of how ‘flow’ is experienced as both continuous and punctuated. There is a rhythm. A container with a narrow opening has what could be described as punctuated gasps of air along with the sound of pouring liquid. This sound is akin to what is represented in English as glug-glug-glug, also an onomatopoetic form that uses syllable reduplication. In the Bemba language (from which mfumfumfu derives), the use of onomatopoeia, often conjoined with syllable reduplication, is also present in other words denoting sounds, movements, natural forces, and animal names. This raises questions about the extent to which culturally specific and language-specific habits and patterns of word formation might support such kinds of onomatopoeia when it comes to talk about sound and sound quality. My suggestion is that sonic ways of knowing and being in the world intersect with linguistic habits and grammatical resources. Attending to these intersections potentially generates a whole new arena for understanding radio culture. And the zone of nicknames is just one place where this auditory world opens up.

This material also provides a very brief but vivid snapshot of the enigma of radiophony: Arnheim’s fundamental point that radio sound does not have psychological resonance or ‘meaning’ on one plane only. The nicknames and the comments about them highlight the complex entanglement of sound, rhythm, speaker’s personality, speaker’s role, and media content in the experience of radio sound. They also point to the important place of acoustic interconnections and analogies. The phenomenology of radio listening is shaped by experiences with other environmental sounds, natural sounds, whirlwinds, echoing chugs as water is poured out of a container, memories of other voices and attachments to them, and so on.

Such names, labels, and other linguistic practices are revealing of culturally specific meanings and subjective experiences, but they cannot be taken as direct and transparent windows into cultural categories, thought, or experiencing subjectivities (Silverstein 1993). Researchers need to proceed with both caution and creativity, taking linguistic material as clues about acoustemologies and subjective experiences of media, without reifying the linguistic data as evidence of a concrete thing — be it a sound or an experience — that exists outside or prior to language. Such nicknames simply point to a rich relational nexus within what might be called Zambian hearing culture: one that includes natural sounds, one that makes analogies across sound/water/ air flow and movement, and one with a type of acoustemology that includes evaluation of speaker’s personality, speaker’s role, and content in the experience of sound.

Radio Cassette Player Listeners at the Marketplace in Kasama, Zambia. Photo by D.S.Vidali.
Radio Cassette Player Listeners at the Marketplace in Kasama, Zambia. Photo by D.S.Vidali.


How might a caution around linguistic objectification of sound and sound experiences play out more broadly in the documentation of soundscapes and auditory worlds? Arnheim creates a vivid scene around dynamic textures of sound: ‘cracklings,’ ‘drifting,’ ‘braying.’ But are these the terms — and sound qualities — that matter for the person whom Arnheim follows? If the person and scene were real, would Arnheim’s rendition adequately capture what is being experienced? Arriving at more emic terms might require different modalities of research. And perhaps such emic concepts are mainly visible only in pockets, as with highly salient modes of labeling via nicknames, internally within a professional register, or in rich descriptions that a single speaker with particular insight shares with the ethnographer. I leave these as open questions, ones which were not on my radar when I conducted fieldwork in Zambia but ones which I would certainly want to ask about radio culture now.

Radio Freedom worker G.Mqwebu reports on a Soweto commemmoration in Lusaka, Zambia, 1966.
Radio Freedom worker G.Mqwebu reports on a Soweto commemmoration in Lusaka, Zambia, 1966.

The larger research agenda that I propose here extends the positions of scholars such as Feld (1996) and Paul Stoller (1997): attending to sensory domains such as sound is not about adding a new research topic as much as it is about a potentially radical shift in epistemological frames. For the case of radio culture, this plays out on at least three scales of ethnographic description: the phenomenological, the material, and the sociohistorical. Taking the first, if ‘one’s sonic way of knowing and being in the world’ is central to what it means to live as a person (Feld and Brenneis 2004, 462), then this fundamentally informs both radio reception and radio production. Ways of hearing and sounding — and ways of being an acoustically attuned being — may be much more central as organizing and orienting cultural logics than many scholars have yet to give them credit for, even as such techniques of the body are unavoidably central to critical ethnographies of radio (see other contributors in this volume). And it may very well be the case that the familiar Eurocentric and even textcentric frames of talk-based interviewing and collecting self-report about radio worlds, practices, habits, and reactions unduly flattens this phenomenological realm.

The second ethnographic perspective, the material, intersects or is potentially completely enmeshed with the phenomenological realm. So too for the third, the sociohistorical. And the epistemological stakes are parallel. The challenge again is not only to more richly document and explore the meaning of radio or radio programs for a particular people, in a particular place, with more attention to auditory experiences and the meanings of sounds. Nor is it merely about considering how radio, like other public and private sounds, participates in ‘historically layered relationships in sound’ (Feld and Brenneis 2004, 469; also see Kunreuther 2006), although this is crucial. It is about entertaining possibilities for acoustemologies to become manifest in different ways in historical and social formations and experimenting with the language of description in ways that may diverge from familiar Eurocentric and even textcentric frames. It is about simultaneously pushing and reflecting on the limits of commensurability, translation, and inference.

microphone-lores Other Pockets of Insight from the Zone of Language

The zone of language as it relates to the study of media cultures is vast. It is not just about language selection or which language is selected as the preferred variety in a particular medium, be it radio, television, film, novels, or newsprint. It also encompasses rhetorics, the modes of address that are used to construct audiences and publics, and the turns of phrase that are used to hide or elevate interests and ideologies. Attending to language means taking into account the social circulation of media phrases. And finally, it is about our word choices. To illustrate this, we can return to the epigraphs.

The first question in Quiz No. 3, published in the Northern Rhodesian newspaper the African Listener (1952), poses a linguistic paradox: ‘Your wireless set is full of wires. Why, then, do we call it ‘Wireless’?’ The theme of Quiz No. 3 was ‘Science,’ and its author was Mr. R. J. Seal of the Northern Rhodesia African Education Department. The magazine announced that Seal was to judge the answers and that ‘his decision will be final.’[8] A substantial cash prize was promised for the reader who gave the ‘correct solution’ to brain- teaser questions about radio, the causes of measles and malaria, and the famous inventions of Marconi and Pasteur.

Announcement for the African Listener number One.
Announcement for the African Listener number One.

Begun in 1952, sixteen years after the introduction of radio into the region, the African Listener was a British colonial magazine for the growing radio audience in central and southern Africa. The magazine was full of program schedules, photos of happy listeners, and columns about agriculture and heath care. As part of an ongoing colonial effort in public relations, it invited readers to connect with the project of broadcasting, through friendly, albeit paternalistic, modes of address and numerous competitions based on listeners’ participation.

From the perspective of the present, the quiz is a curious artifact representing a Western genre which unites knowledge and pleasure. Truth, expertise, and indoctrination merge with competitive performance, entertainment, and winning money. The quiz, and its embedding in the African Listener, is also a microcosm of an entire social field of technologies that worked to shape colonial subjects and establish colonial governmentality. This involved the manufacture of radio consumers and membership in a national collective, as well as the disciplining of regimes of knowledge, such as science and medicine, and, especially, the performance of that knowledge in a competitive format. The two processes converge in the case of the quiz, as an audience-participation genre that relies on previous exposure to science education programs. The modes of address and reference in the first question reveal how this field of relations was mapped out. The radio owner as listener/participant is personalized and directly addressed (‘Your wireless’), the first-personal plural and a timeless verb tense are used to establish a broader collectivity and a collective truth (‘we call’), and the European male expert (‘his decision’) is positioned as the arbiter between this ‘you’ and ‘we.’

OK Jazz Band, circa 1957. See Wikipedia at
OK Jazz Band, circa 1957. See Wikipedia at

From Wikipedia: 1950-1959: The musicians who started OK Jazz included Vicky Longomba, Jean Serge Essous, François Luambo Makiadi, De La Lune, Augustin Moniania Roitelet, La Monta LiBerlin, Saturnin Pandi, Nicolas Bosuma Bakili Dessoin and vocalist Philippe Lando Rossignol. They used to play at Loningisa Studios in Kinshasa as individual artists, before they got together to form a band in June 1956. The name OK Jazz originated from the bar in which they played which was named OK Bar, owned by Oscar Kashama. The new band played regularly at a specific studio in the city during the week and on some weekends they played at weddings. In 1957, the lead vocalist, Philippe Lando Rossignol, quit OK Jazz and was replaced by Edo Nganga, from Congo-Brazzaville. Later in the same year, Isaac Musekiwa, a saxophonist from Zimbabwe joined the band. Up to that time the band’s leadership was shared between Vicky Longomba, Essous and Franco.

Much more can be said about this fashioning of early radio and listener participation, particularly as it supported the double-faceted colonial project of ‘modernizing’ Africa and regulating African populations to do productive labor within the imperial economy. But question number one remains unanswered. How ironic that the name of the radio machine was a contradiction of what lay inside. How could wires be inside the wireless? Even early broadcasters, according to DJ Chishimba, talked about the radio station as being full of wires. And for enchanted radio listeners such as the young Chishimba, there was probably no other place on earth that was less wireless than the radio workplace.

The answer to the linguistic paradox is that, despite the tangle of wires in the studio and in the radio set, what was wireless was the space between these different ends of the communication process. According to the answer from a subsequent issue of the African Listener, ‘The word wireless is used because there is no wire connecting the receiving set to the broadcasting station as is the case in ordinary telegraphy and telephones, where there are wires between the sender and the receiver.’ [9] There were no wires in the space between machines and listeners or in the space between studios and villages. Despite the visible technology of wires, something invisible was happening. This was called wireless.

In addition to the linguistic contradiction (How could something with wires be wireless?), question number one also opens up a broader question about denotation: What does the label ‘wireless’ stand for? Does it denote the radio set itself or something else, like the technology or the transmission? While scholars of radio culture use an updated vocabulary — ‘wireless’ is now ‘radio’ — such questions of denotation continue to trouble talk about radio. And this has implications for both constructing and representing units of analysis. Radio is not necessarily fixed or singular, but the single word radio potentially steers thinking this way. Or, perhaps better put, ‘it’ is simultaneously singularly singular, variably singular, and multiplex. Radio is the machine, the transmission, the institution, a program, a voice, and/or the sounds.
microphone-lores Language as a Window into Reception History

Experiments in colonial broadcasting in this area date back to the late 1930s, and the first official government broadcasting service for Northern Rhodesia was inaugurated on September 18,1940.[10] By the time of my field research in the late 1980s, nearly fifty years had passed since radio’s introduction. While I attempted to elicit oral histories of people’s experiences with early radio, these were difficult to get. Many people could talk about their favorite programs and personalities from the colonial period, but they had dim memories of what their first listening experiences were actually like. Others could not describe their own first encounters with radio but could remember the reactions of others. For example, during a research interview, one woman recalled her grandmother’s reaction to radio: ‘She couldn’t believe it. She used to say, ‘How could that man be speaking from that box all day without getting tired?’’ Significantly, this perception of radio talk as an overflow of speaking resonates strongly with the idea of mfumfumfu, ‘the flow of words without stopping’ (the nickname for 1950s broadcaster Edward Kateka), described earlier.

The Ever Ready battery company sponsored the first "saucepan special" radios.
The Ever Ready battery company sponsored the first “saucepan special” radios.

The names on the dial of the "saucepan special" radio set are specifically African.
The names on the dial of the “saucepan special” radio set are specifically African.

Beyond a report by colonial information officer Harry Franklin (1950) containing excerpts from listeners letters and the listeners letters published in the newspaper the African Listener, there is little record of how colonial Zambians actually talked about radio and its powers. But traces do remain. According to letter writer Diamon Simukwai, radio is a machine that ‘speaks’ within the domestic space. The speech of this ‘Wonderful Machine’ makes homes ‘happy,’ evenings ‘jolly,’ and owners such as Joshua Amisi ‘proud’ (ibid., 7-8,12). [11] These and other early commentators replicated British colonial modes of speaking about radio as a crucial technology for modernizing Africa and Africans, most likely borrowing from the very words of radio broadcasts. For example, in the words of letter writer Henry Kumwenda, radio brings ‘modern world general knowledge’ and is a means for Africans to ‘wake up’ (ibid., 11). By reproducing radio discourse, newly literate and beginning speakers of English such as Kumwenda also helped to canonize a basic set of English-language expressions for talking about both modernity and media technology. In such ways, radio and radio listening provided a crucial enabling technology for modernity’s varied forms: as a governmental project, a mode of organizing experience, and a set of wider social discourses.

Script and original letters, 1989, Photo D.S. Vidali.
Script and original letters, 1989, Photo D.S. Vidali.


The language of these early letters, like the language of nicknames, is revealing of acoustemologies and subjective experiences, but it cannot be taken as an unproblematic window into the early reception of radio or colonial consciousness. Rather, it is better understood as pointing toward these ontological realities, ones that may only be approximated. Moreover, the language of the early letters does not stand in isolation but rather needs to be viewed as part of a larger communicative ecology, one with its own conditions of production and circulation and of which we can see a nexus of traces and hints that again inform it only loosely and not deterministically.

Without implying that there is some more pure, or less mediated, way to get at the phenomenology of reception — past or otherwise — I wish to consider what can be illuminated about early reception experiences by looking closely at indigenous Bemba-language words for radio and broadcasting (in the two tables below). A significant majority of early radio listeners in colonial Zambia spoke the Bemba language, which by the 1940s had emerged as the major lingua franca in the Copperbelt and coal-mining towns. Because of its widely recognized political, economic, and social value both for Zambia’s migrant labor workforce and for the powerful rural-based Bemba chieftaincy, Bemba was selected as one of the four indigenous languages of colonial Zambia to be used in early radio.

  Table: Bemba Verbs for Broadcasting

Disperse; cause to disperse; distribute; publish; broadcast. Examples: basalanganya ilyashi, ‘they broadcast news’


Spread or scatter information; broadcast. Examples: basabankanyapo pamwela, ‘they broadcast out on air’

  Table: Bemba Nouns for Radio and Broadcasting
Meaning: radio set, radio broadcasting
Singular, Plural Class — Class Semantics
waileeshi, baa-waileeshi

1a / 2a — human, personal

waileeshi, ama-waileeshi

9a / 6  — unmarked animacy

leedyo, baa-leedyo

ia / 2a — human, personal

leedyo, ama-leedyo

9a / 6  — unmarked animacy

cilimba, baa-cilimba

1a / 2a — human, personal

ici-limba, ifi-limba

7 / 8  — inanimate

Meaning: radio station
Singular, Plural Class — Class Semantics
leedyo, baa-leedyo

ia / 2a — human, personal

leedyo, ama-leedyo

9a / 6  — unmarked animacy

Meaning: broadcasting station
Singular, Plural Class — Class Semantics
umu-labasa, imi-labasa

3 / 4  — agentive, alive

Meaning: broadcasting
Singular, Plural Class — Class Semantics
umu-labasa, imi-labasa

3 / 4  — agentive, alive

Meaning: musical instrument
Singular, Plural Class — Class Semantics
ici-limba, ifi-limba

7 / 8  — inanimate

Both verbs in the top table above predate the introduction of radio.

The first, -salanganya (disperse, distribute), is used to describe the distribution of food by a chief among his subjects, the spread of news or gossip across long distances, and electronic broadcasting.

The second, –sabankanya, describes actions such as the spread of news or rumors, either through face-to-face or electronic communication. The use of these verbs in the new domains of media need not be seen as a case of semantic extension, per se, but rather as a consistent use of primary meanings.

In the second table, in contrast to the verbs, only one Bemba noun for radio derives from an existing word, namely, the common Bemba word for musical instrument: (i)cilimba. The other nouns were either borrowed directly from English or newly coined. For example, waileeshi (wireless) and leedyo (radio) are straightforward cases of loan words assimilated into Bemba from English originals. They illustrate the widespread pattern of word borrowing in which things and the words used to name them are borrowed in tandem.

The origins of umulabasa, ‘broadcasting; broadcasting station,’ are less certain. The form is built from the root -labasa and the singular prefix umu-. One plausible origin is that the word was coined after a pronunciation of the radio stations call letters, LBS (Lusaka Broadcasting Station), with la-ba-sa being the basis for the root. [12] In this process — similar to the process in which the verb to xerox means ‘to copy’ — the proper name for the radio station (LBS) could have become the name for broadcasting in general.

The etymological patterns in the table above illustrate two simultaneous modalities of linguistic innovation. One emphasizes the newness and Europeanness of the radio technology, that is, its unnameability with existing Bemba words and nameability with English ones. The other emphasizes its similarities to what preceded it: musical instruments, spreading out, diffusion, dispersal, and even chiefly redistribution of resources and services.

The realm of grammar is one area that tells still more about word meaning and potential experiential realities. All nouns in the table are part of the Bemba noun class system, which is a system for grammatically tracking nouns in the language with obligatory agreement markers on adjectives and other parts of speech. Noun class systems are analogous to the gender systems of European languages. Each noun belongs to a noun class and pluralizes according to its noun class pattern. For example, the noun for radio — ici-limba — pluralizes as ifi-limba. Its noun class membership is indicated by prefixes and the way singular nouns in class 7 always pluralize in class 8. According to standard citation conventions, ‘class 7/8’ is a shorthand for nouns that follow this pluralization pattern. Bantu languages such as Bemba have anywhere between fifteen and approximately twenty-four different noun classes, a dramatic contrast to the much smaller number of noun genders in European languages. Bemba has twenty different noun classes, each characterized by distinct semantic values such as ‘human,’ ‘animate,’ ‘inanimate,’ ‘long,’ and ‘small’ (Vidali 1987, 1988).

The class memberships of the Bemba nouns for radio technology reveal some intriguing semantic associations. Consider that of umulabasa/ imilabasa, ‘broadcasting,’ which occur in class 3/4 (umu-limi-). In Bemba, class 3/4 nouns denote phenomena that are agentive, generative, and expansive, such as spiritual beings, natural forces, and other animate entities (Vidali 1987, 56-61). Broadcasting is classed alongside umupashi, ‘ancestral spirit’; umweela, ‘air’; umulopa, ‘blood’; umulumbe, ‘story’; umusowa, ‘wailing’; and umulilo, ‘fire.’ Such groupings suggest a framing of radio as a living, vibrant phenomenon. This resonates with the semantic associations of early listeners descriptions of radio as an agentive and transformative technology.

A similar perception of broadcasting as agentive and alive is also intimated by the membership of waileeshi, leedyo, and cilimba in a subclass of the human class 1/2, which has the values ‘human’ and ‘personal’ at its semantic core. Class ia/2a words include most kin terms, most occupational names, and numerous animal names, particularly animals that possess the capacity of speech in folktales. The grammatical grouping of words for radio among the ranks of these nouns suggests that, conceptually, radio was viewed in a similar fashion as humans and other speaking beings.

It should be noted, however, that there is some fluidity to the class statuses of waileeshi, leedyo, cilimba, and their corresponding plurals. The assignments to class ia/2a are not fixed in stone. The nouns cilimba/baacilimba (ia/2a) coexist with the historically prior icilimba/ifilimba (7/8), which belong to the generic class of inanimate objects. Waileeshi and leedyo also occur with the grammatical markings of class 9a/6, which tends to be for nouns denoting inanimate things. In short, the three distinct singular/plural pairs that belong to class ia/2a, known for its nouns denoting humans and humanlike creatures, all have alternate forms that belong to inanimate or unmarked classes. The dual class memberships thus reflect a tension between radio being perceived as ‘humanlike’ and as ‘thinglike.’

Unknown African group of Lusaka radio journalists
Unknown African group of Lusaka radio journalists
In sum, the linguistic material yields two general insights. First, the new technologies of radio broadcasting were initially intelligible by reference to both indigenous and nonindigenous idioms and practices. They were described through analogies with local practices of information dissemination and music, while entirely new words (‘wireless’) and discursive practices (reading out radio station call letters) were also assimilated into local languages. The second set of insights is more tentative. The noun class memberships may suggest unique interpretations of radio’s meanings. However, the data remains inconclusive because with Bantu noun classes, as with the gender systems of European languages, class membership does not transparently indicate semantic value (Vidali 1987,1988). As with the English word radio, there is a fluidity of denotation, as well as a polyvocality of connotations that echo through layers of culture and language.

microphone-lores Conclusion

Language, like sound and radio, does not stop in one place. In this chapter, I have attempted to activate conversations about how both language and sound (or, better, ways of languaging and ways of sounding) matter for the study of radio culture. Along one line of thinking, it might be said that looking at language and sonic cultures is just one more arena for research effort to be extended: an option, an add-on, something that gets itemized in an ethnographic division of labor. But in another line of thinking, attending to both language and sound is indispensible for theorizing, methodologically uncovering, and representing radio cultures. This chapter, joining others in this volume, offers a number of suggestions for how such work might be done, what is at stake in it epistemologically, and how it plays out in the investigation of Zambian radio culture. While the twin discourses of technological mystique and no-nonsense technical manipulation typify the poles of mediated experiences, as well as conventional options for investigation and representation, I have suggested here that such poles are better engaged as entanglements with a hermeneutic circle, along with our very language(s) of documentation and evidence.


Endnote links: If you click on the number that identifies the endnote, you will be taken back to the point in the text where the endnote anchor occurs; and vice versa.

I wish to extend my deepest gratitude to my undergraduate teachers Hubert Dreyfus and Hans Sluga (UC-Berkeley) for bringing me into the work of Heidegger and Wittgenstein, respectively, and to my graduate teachers Michael Silverstein and John Goldsmith (University of Chicago) for their rich training in the complexities of the language-culture interface, issues of evidentiality, and Bantu linguistics. For research support, I am indebted to the Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation, University of Zambia, National Science Foundation, Fulbright-Hays, and Emory University. Special thanks go to Lawson Chishimba, Graham Mytton, volume editors Lucas Bessire and Daniel Fisher, and my father, who first introduced me to the beauty, mystery, and everydayness of sonic cultures.

[Note 1] See Van Maanen 1988 on these genre conventions and some well-known exceptions to this personal/scientific dichotomy.

[2] Anthropologist Alfred Gell describes his own ‘methodological deafness’ to the rich auditory worlds of Umeda people. Writes Gell, one must approach ‘the auditory domain, including natural sounds, language and song, as cultural systems in their own right, and not just adjuncts to culture at large, but as foundations, thematic at every level of cultural experience’ (1995, 233).

[3] It should be noted, however, that Chishimba’s childhood dates to the subsequent decade, the 1960s, a period in which colonial rule ended and Zambia gained its independence (1964).

[4] Literally, Kapandula means ‘The Analyzer’ or ‘The Splitter’ (Bemba language, -pandula, ‘chop, split’).

[5] Andreya Masiye, speaking in an interview with Maxwell Malawo on Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation, Radio 2, October 1,1988.

[6] Personal audiotape collection of Graham Mytton, London.

[7] The onomatopoeic word mfumfumfu is used in the Bemba language to describe flowing or gurgling sounds. It does not have a precise literal translation, akin to the one Kateka provides. It is related to the onomatopoeic verb -fumfumuna ‘pour out,’ ‘run out.’

[8] African Listener 9 (September 1952), 16.

[9] African Listener 11 (November 1952), 4.

[10] This section is based on Debra Spitulnik Vidali 1998-1999; see for more detailed discussion.

[11] The word ‘happy’ appears in both the letters of Simukwai and Munthali; the word ‘jolly’ appears in Munthali’s letter (Franklin 1950, 8).

[12] I thank Michael Mann (London) for this suggestion.


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An African man enjoying his radio broadcast.
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An African family enjoying their "saucepan special" radio set.
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