Radio and affective rhythms
in the everyday
RMIT Europe, Barcelona
First published in The Radio Journal — International Studies in Broadcast and Audio Media, Volume 7 Number 2. © Intellect Ltd 2009. Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/rajo.7.2.171/1
This article explores the role of radio sound in establishing what I term ‘affective rhythms’ in everyday life. Through exploring the affective qualities of radio sound and its capacity for mood generation in the home, this article explores personal affective states and personal organization. The term affective rhythm relates both to mood and to routine. It is the combination of both that allows the possibility of thinking about sound and affect, and how they relate to, and integrate with, routine everyday life. The notion of ‘affective rhythm’ forces us to consider the idea of mood in the light of the routine nature of everyday domestic life.
radio in the home
Paragraph 1 follows:
Gretta is 36, divorced, and lives in a fourth floor council flat. She has two sons, Nick, who is 12, and Stephen, who is 19. I met Gretta at a lone parent social group. She lives on social benefits but also works as much as she can to earn extra money. Since separating from her husband, she has seen some very bad times, spending a few months living in bed and breakfast accommodation, and struggling just to survive. Gretta has brought herself and her sons through these times, and now lives relatively comfortably. In the time that I knew Gretta, she became involved with three different men, and each relationship affected her radio listening choices and routines. When I first talked to her she didn’t have a relationship, and hadn’t had one since her divorce a year before.
She listened to the radio a lot at that time:
This article draws on anthropological research into radio and domestic soundscapes undertaken in Bristol, in the south west of England, from the mid-to-late 1990s. The research investigated the role of radio sound in domestic settings and sought to understand why radio is often referred to as ‘a friend’ or as ‘company’. Radio sound was considered as part of the material culture of the home, and over the course of three years, using an ethnographic approach, I talked to more than fifty people in depth and often on more than one occasion about their radio listening and domestic soundscapes. I joined a social group for lone parents to get to know a group of people on a more social level, and I attended listener panel meetings for two local commercial radio stations. I found that radio sound often plays a key role in the creation and maintenance of textured domestic soundscapes (Tacchi 2002), which, in turn, play a key role in the maintenance of dynamic and affective equilibrium.
This article explores affective aspects of domestic living. It is about individual ‘mood’, or ‘feeling’, in the routine of everyday life. It is about individuals and how they ‘feel’ in the context of wider society. It is about establishing the notion of ‘affective rhythms’ in everyday life. It explores the affective qualities of radio sound and its capacity for mood generation in the home. As such it is about personal affective states and personal organization. (See note  )
Shortly after my first meeting with Gretta, she met a man whom she had known years before. He was living in Cardiff, in South Wales, and she began to tune into Red Dragon, a commercial music station based in Wales, that plays a mixture of chart hits from the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. This man was then sent to prison, and for a while she maintained her relationship with him and kept listening to Red Dragon. She especially liked an evening request show, Charlie Power’s Love Hour. She began to buy a lot of what she describes as ‘sloppy music’ tapes, the kind of music that she previously listened to when she was feeling down and wanted to ‘wallow in it’. Now this music took on a different meaning in her life; now it reminded her of her friend in prison and their romance.
Gretta was unable to maintain this relationship for long — after a while, he refused to allow her to visit and stopped writing to her. She didn’t understand why this was, but eventually accepted that the romance had come to an end. At this time, she began working part time as a catering assistant and started to see a fellow worker. He introduced her to music from the 1950s and 1960s. She reverted to Classic Gold as her radio station and listened to the tapes that he lent to her.
Meanwhile, as this relationship broke down, she became involved with a man called Mark whom she had met through her previous boyfriend in prison. He was also in prison, and in fact virtually the whole of their relationship took place with him in prison. He had few visitors or people to write to, and Gretta felt sorry for him. He was much younger than Gretta, in his early 20s. One of the ways that Gretta and Mark ‘related’ to one another was through radio. For him, it was a very important link to the outside world. She visited him fortnightly and wrote to him daily; he telephoned her three times a week. He often wrote about what he had been listening to on the radio, and she began to listen to ‘his’ stations. They were GWR FM and Talk Radio UK. He, in return, started to listen to Classic Gold. One of the ways in which they communicated their feelings was through discussion of music that they had heard or liked.
Mark dominated Gretta’s thoughts for the period of their relationship; when she talked to me about radio at that time, it was almost always with reference to his listening habits, likes and dislikes. Their musical tastes were one of the things that brought them together, as far as Gretta was concerned. She was not as keen as he was on Talk Radio, but she would listen:
Gretta would attempt to tune into whatever she thought or hoped Mark was listening to, and try to get requests played on the air for him. She also sent music to him:
The term ‘affective rhythm’ relates both to mood and to routine. It is the combination of both that allows the possibility of thinking about affect, and how it relates to, and integrates with, routine everyday life — it is about how rhythm can to some extent manage affect. On a day-to-day basis, we operate knowledge that does not require tangible or concrete evidence; we call it feeling, and regard it as part of our active personalities, part of what makes us who we are as individuals in a globalized world.
While material culture studies tells us that objects themselves have limited intrinsic meanings until they are appropriated and objectified into social worlds, until they are made meaningful within the mundane (Miller 1987), John Dewey insists that the general significance of artistic objects is lost once they are separated or extracted from both ‘their conditions of origin and operation in experience’ and placed on a gallery wall or in an exhibition cabinet (2005: 2). Accordingly, it is in the everyday events which constitute ‘experience’ that meanings can be uncovered and theories developed.
Charles Keil (1994) asks us to consider music as a creative act rather than an object that is fixed. While the ‘embodied meaning’ of a piece of music may be elicited through a close analysis of its syntactic structures, the ‘engendered feeling’ is only elicited through exploring that music as processual. Engendered feeling is about processual, motor responses, while embodied meaning is about syntactic, mental understanding. Keil’s aim is, through ‘emphasising less syntactic, under specified aspects of music’ to ‘reveal that part of expression not inherent in form or syntax’ (1994: 55). Keil demonstrates the need for a more ‘processual methodology’ which will explore and lead to an understanding of how performance-based music, and engendered feeling, works.
Likewise, Tia DeNora’s work on music in everyday (2000) life strongly advocates a focus on practices and processes rather than text, product or structure. In a similar way, this study of the consumption of radio sound is concerned not so much with its form or syntax but rather how it is used and its affective qualities. My research shows that it is precisely its affective quality that makes radio sound appropriate as a domestic accompaniment, the ways in which it aids mood creation and maintenance. It is ‘processual’, that is, it is not fixed, it fits into and impacts upon the processes of everyday domestic life — its routine. Like music, radio sound can be understood as an ‘aesthetic technology’ that serves as ‘an instrument of social ordering’ (DeNora 2000: 7).
Mood and emotion in context
I use ‘emotion’ and ‘affect’ to talk about everyday emotional states or feelings. Some define affect as different to emotion and to feeling, so that affect relates to the unconscious (Massumi 2002), feeling to personal sensation, emotion to the social. I don’t follow these distinctions, and indeed elsewhere also use terms like sentiment to explore ‘affective aspects’ evoked or caused by radio sound.
In my use of the term affect, I mean the feeling-filled aspects of everyday living. In everyday speech, when talking about emotion it is likely that it is strong, definable emotions that are being referenced, such as anger, happiness, love. Here, while these distinct emotions are present, it is emotion in a less obvious and more mundane form that I am concerned with — everyday, affective dimensions to peoples’ lives — and I go on to talk about this in terms of mood. Dewey notes that ‘experience is emotional but there are no separate things called emotions in it’ (2005: 43). While simple and discrete emotions such as joy, sorrow, hope and fear may be good to think and talk about, they are not entities in themselves that enter ‘full-made upon the scene’. Rather, ‘[…] emotions are qualities […] of a complex experience that moves and changes’ (2005: 43). Nevertheless, I do use the words emotion and affect, and mood and feeling, in some ways interchangeably. In all cases, I am referring to the mundane.
Michelle Rosaldo stressed the role of culture in the creation of self and feeling not only its role in what we think but also in how we feel about and live our lives (1984: 141). As such, affects are culturally informed interpretations, informing body, self and identity. Rosaldo says ‘it thus becomes, in principle, no more difficult to say of people that they “feel” than that they “think”’ (1984), that affect is no more individual than belief. Rosaldo says ‘feeling is forever given shape through thought and that thought is laden with emotional meaning’ (1984: 143). Emotions are ‘thoughts somehow felt’. They are ‘embodied thoughts’ that possess a sort of urgency that lets us know we are somehow involved. Emotions allow us to feel involved in the social world. Feelings engage the self in thinking. They are social practices, structured by our understanding, which itself is culturally embedded. But how do we ‘get at’ emotional or affective dimensions of everyday life?
Kathleen Stewart writes about ‘ordinary affects’ as the things that happen in everyday life that give it motion and make things feel like ‘something’ (2007). They are about capacities to affect and to be affected. Her book, ‘Ordinary Affects’, presents a series of observations of contemporary American life, what Stewart calls ‘disparate scenes’, that do not contain the ‘obvious meaning’ of words or symbols, but do contain affects — the sensation that something is happening. Her intention is to present a series of ordinary affects that do not contain meaning as such, but that ‘build intensities’. They are ‘animate’, they ‘conduct force’ and ‘map connections and disjunctures’. What she seems to be suggesting is that by selecting a series of thoughts and descriptions that relate in some way to, or account for, ordinary affect and by presenting these in her book just as they are (through her own literary devices, of course) with no interpretation, she is in fact challenging our view of the human condition and the way in which our language and concepts condition our approach to the study of human life. She is, I think, making a point about our neglect for that aspect of human experience that is hard to explain in language and does not follow sentential logic.
Patricia Clough (2007) identifies an ‘affective turn’ in critical theory. She defines ‘affectivity’ as bodily responses, often subconscious, as bodily capacity to affect and be affected. Michael Hardt (2007), in the foreword to Clough’s edited book, The Affective Turn, refers to the work of the philosopher Spinoza. He talks about the human project being about building capacity or agency to replace encounters where we are affected by external causes with encounters determined by internal causes. He says external causes may be sad or joyful, whereas internal causes are always joyful. This I question because, based on my research, the deliberate enhancement or even creation of melancholic or self-pitying, depressive mood is not uncommon.
In any case, in Clough’s depiction of the ‘affective turn’, affect relates to augmentation or reduction of a body’s capacity to act, connect and engage — it is about the self-feeling of ‘being alive’ (2007: 2). She marks this as a shift in thought in critical theory from equilibrium-seeking closed systems to complex ‘far-from-equilibrium’ systems. It acknowledges the complex, chaotic, dynamic.
I connect the ideas of affect and equilibrium in a different and I think opposing way. My proposition, that underlies the points made in this article, is that affective rhythm is a part of a larger human project (in contemporary Western, English-speaking — possibly only British — domestic life). That project, in domestic settings, is the struggle for a dynamic and affective equilibrium. We want to ‘feel OK’ within ourselves, in relation to those around us, and in relation to the world. This is an ongoing, neverending project and it is undertaken across a number of dimensions of experience.
Through the senses, we conceptualize that which it is not possible to conceptualize discursively (Bloch 1992; Howes 2005). Radio sound contributes to the fabric of domestic everyday life in a non-discursive way. Radio sound has qualities that make it especially suitable for connecting with, and working in, the affective dimension of everyday life. But still, the question remains, how do we ‘get at’ these affective dimensions, especially given their non-discursiveness and non-sentential logic?
One problem inherent in Clough’s conceptualization of affect, for me, lies in the auto-ethnographic route in which the ‘affective turn’ that she proposes seems embedded. She is self-reflexive to the point of losing sight of ‘the everyday’ outside of the ego constructing the narration; the social makes way for the psychoanalytical. In my research, when informants talked about mood, they referenced internal states that are, through radio sound (among other things) transformed or maintained, depending on how informants current conceive of themselves in the context of their domestic settings, ‘as social beings’. In this way, my own approach to emotion, or more correctly, the affective dimensions of my informants’ everyday lives and behaviour, attempts to move beyond discourse on emotion (or emotion talk) to those internal states, yet remain sociological.
Radio sound’s affect, and affect itself, can be seen to be very largely determined by circumstance, by context. However, I would content that radio sound’s appropriations into the affective rhythms of the everyday are the product of human-radio sound interaction. Just as DeNora shows how ‘musical affect is constituted reflexively’ (2002: 33), the same can be shown to hold true about radio sound’s affect in domestic spaces. It is in and through the circumstances of use that these can be understood, in the relationship and interactions between the listener and the sounds.
Mood and routine
Radio sound appears, from my fieldwork, to hold the capacity to generate emotion, but not in isolation. Radio is a medium entering the home from the outside, and it helps to create domestic environments in which domestic relationships take place; both of these are indicators of its social nature. Yet radio sound is also experienced on a very personal level. I wanted to get a feel for how radio sound contributes to personal emotional states. The ways in which informants talked to me about their radio listening, the stories they told, and events they described, enabled me to begin to understand something of the place of radio sound in the affective dimensions of their domestic lives. They often talked about ‘routine’ and mood as things that radio sound helped them with.
By exploring such things, we start to develop an understanding of the role of radio in domestic life and start to ‘get at’ the affective dimensions of everyday life.
For example, Neil is a mature 17-year-old boy. He lives with his parents and brother in a terraced house high on a hill with a great view over the city.
He told me:
Neil is a regular radio listener. During the week he mostly listens to the radio in the mornings. When he wakes up, one of the first things that he will do is switch the radio on. For Neil it is a part of his daily routine:
Neil sees radio as a part of his everyday existence which has been there for as long as he can remember. He enjoys the hustle and bustle of living in a city and sees radio, and its presence in his life, as a comfort, and a reminder of his place in city life.
When listeners are familiar with a radio station, they seem to be able to ‘feel’ their way around it; they ‘understand’ it. They come to expect that the radio sound in their home will create certain types of soundscape and fit a predicted mood.
Neil told me:
Radio is a part of everyday routines and as such it is sometimes simply tolerated, sometimes switched off. Aspects of radio that will sometimes be annoying and irritating will at other times be enjoyed. The major factor in determining this will be mood. I am not necessarily talking about strongly and easily defined emotions here. It is about affective dimensions to our lives which, in most cases, will not be particularly remarkable. Radio sound can fix or change one’s mood or it can be chosen as an appropriate accompaniment to a mood.
Gillian is a 33-year-old documentary film-maker. She lives in her own three bedroom house with a lodger. Her boyfriend lives and works away from Bristol, so they get together mainly at weekends. Switching the radio on is seen as a force of habit for Gillian. She also recognizes its value as a source of comfort:
This ‘comforting thing’ is both nurturing and unconditional; radio offers Gillian comfort without demanding anything of her, ‘[…] it’s company but it’s company that doesn’t take all your attention so you can pick it up and sort of drop it or tune in and out of it mentally when you want.’
Gillian listens while driving home from work to get her out of a ‘work mood’ and into a relaxed mood.
She listens to BBC Radio 4 but sometimes ‘feels like a change’. Her use of different radio stations, and her different use of the same stations, can often be explained by the activity in which she is engaged, but also by the way she is feeling and the way she would like to feel. So, sometimes she will listen attentively to Radio 4, while at other times it will be in the background; sometimes she will want music on the radio, rather than speech. She may adjust the volume to create a different effect.
Gillian demonstrates ways in which radio sound is chosen and adjusted to relate to and help to create certain moods in her everyday routine. It helps to maintain and create affective rhythms. Radio sound and its ability to aid in mood creation is widely recognized by my informants and talked about often, without any prompting.
Neil told me:
Gretta, who was introduced at the beginning of this article, talked to me about how she sometimes turns the radio off and puts on her own sloppy music tapes. This is directly related to how she is feeling, what mood she is in. For example, at one stage she had practically stopped listening to radio in the daytime at all, preferring her own sloppy music:
Gretta’s radio listening changed according to her romantic involvements. But it also changed on a smaller time scale. It was used, or not used, depending on how she was feeling, and how she wanted to feel, on a dayto-day, or even minute-to-minute basis. While she listened to her own music in the day to indulge her feelings of self pity, in the evenings at this time she listened to a phone-in request show, the ‘Love Hour’. This played music similar to her own sloppy music, but she experienced it differently. She could listen to other people’s romantic stories and hear about how they were feeling. She could share their music choices and therefore experienced it in a less self-indulgent way.
Radio sound was used by Gretta in this way to lift herself out of an introverted emotional state where she felt lonely. Like Neil, she was able to use radio to widen her horizons, in her case, to remind herself that she was not the only person with an aching heart.
The affective responses that radio sound produces in listeners are not created through the simple and preordained equation of certain stimulus with certain response. The same radio sound will produce different reactions, and evoke different environments, different textured soundscapes, for different people, at different times. The concept of affective rhythm forces us to consider the idea of mood in the light of the routine nature of everyday domestic life.
According to Cooper and Meyer (1960), rhythm is the temporal organization of music. Rhythmic structure is made up of the ‘intimate and intricate interaction of temporal organisation with all the other shaping forces of music’ (1960: 1). Quite simply, rhythm can be defined as ‘the way in which one or more unaccentuated beats are grouped in relation to an accentuated one’ (1960: 6). Rhythm is a series of stimuli (beats) that occur in time, ‘the temporal relation between one point in time and another which can be regular, irregular or both’ (Vella 2000: 210). Rhythms can be periodic, in that they are repeating, or non-periodic, in that there is no repeating sequence.
Within the context of this article, I use rhythm to refer to periodic cycles which may be fixed in time (such as programming) or conforming to a temporality based on mood and emotion. These emotional states may be nonperiodic, in that they do not occur at fixed times. The routine and mundane nature of domestic life, and of domestic tasks, was often commented on by my informants. Radio was seen as something which helped them through this. Radio seemed to give them some kind of energy or momentum.
We can think of this in terms of an affective rhythm. In everyday domestic living, I see such an affective rhythm as individual yet social, and as processual. The word ‘rhythm’ seems appropriate on two counts. Firstly, it says something about repetition and routine. Everyday life is often unremarkable and follows routine patterns of behaviour and thought (specific to each context). Secondly, and drawing on that routine-ness, rhythm gives the impression of movement, of momentum. Radio listening is often both routine and energizing. It can entertain, inform, educate, stimulate, annoy or get you moving, dancing, singing; it can just ‘be there’, or it can be the focus of attention. Radio sound contributes to the unremarkable aspects of domestic everyday life that form the bedrock of ourselves as social and cultural actors. Radio sound is used to contribute to the creation of certain moods, or feelings, in these domestic contexts.
Radio sound provided Gretta with a way of turning her romantic feelings into a routine part of her life. She was able, through listening to the radio at certain times, to imagine what Mark was doing, what he was listening to. For a few months, Mark, as the focus of her romantic attention, was elaborated and defined, aided by her radio listening. She used radio sound to extend her socio-emotional state in her domestic routines.
In a world where emotional security and balance are highly desired, and yet severely challenged, radio sound can be understood to provide one of the links between social life and reflexive self. It can offer a storyline that we can adapt and follow if we wish. It is narration in a sense that reaches beyond linear, sentential logic, incorporating emotions and memories; making connections in modes of knowing that are not simply linguistic but are states of mind and feelings.
In a culturally contextualized, emotional world where there is an emphasis on maintaining intimacy in fluid relationships — a task which, in itself, can provide us with severe strain — we must find ways of gaining stability. We must seek assistance in external structures. Institutions, and social pressures, provide some such structures, and another form of assistance is provided by routine. The routine of living can offer a kind of security, and routine and predictability are recognized elements in radio programming.
Anthony Giddens sees our reliance on routine as the result of the ‘sequestration of experience’ (1992: 175). He says that this, and a break with tradition, has ‘as its consequence the dissolution of the moral and ethical lineaments which related social activity to the transcendental, to nature and to reproduction’ (1992: 175). In exchange, we gain security through the kind of routine which modern life offers; however, ‘the individual is morally and psychologically vulnerable whenever established routines are broken through’ (1992: 175).
Routine helps to maintain affective balance in domestic life and relationships, and in views of the self. Routine provides a means to relate affective aspects of our lives to the structure of everyday life. Radio sound has a role (for some an important role) in this enterprise, in providing rhythm for the everyday. Radio sound is used to change or maintain mood, and through this mood generation, to create affective rhythms for everyday domestic living. Routine is important as it is such an integral part of domestic life. In the context of routine, radio sound can work in inferred and ambiguous ways to maintain affective rhythms.
In the domestic arena in Britain, isolation, loneliness and depression are potential threats to one’s social self; the self is managed, in part, by the use of sound and can, in some cases, be evoked by that same sound. Radio sound is chosen to match one’s socio-emotional state, or mood, or alter it; it is used to change, or to aid, the affective rhythm of everyday living from within its routine.
We can consider wider reasons for the need for socio-emotional or mood transformation, and for self-reflexive narratives in domestic settings. Sometimes different activities or seasons call for different sounds. These can be seen as different affective rhythms that change with time and are different for different people. Paul Filmer sees time and culture as mediated by rhythm; if rhythm is, as Plato said, ‘the artful motion of bodies’, and time is socially constructed, then connections with others in rhythm allows us to move through time in meaningful and feeling-full ways (Filmer 2003: 96).
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[Note 1] [To return to the main text, click on ‘Note 1’] I recognize that, since the research on which this article is based is a decade old, the domestic soundscapes I studied will most likely have changed with the introduction of new audio technologies and new ways of listening to radio (e.g. through the Internet). I am currently exploring this through follow-up research. However, the research reported here and its implications for domestic and affective rhythms says something, I believe, about domestic life and the role of radio in it, in the mid-to-late 1990s, that still holds some relevance today. This is especially true of the insights it allows into the role of radio in domestic ‘affective rhythms’. I set out my arguments for the role of radio and its relationship to affect here, with the intention to further explore how this might have changed in today’s ‘iHome’ in current and future work, an enterprise to which I hope others will also contribute.
Tacchi, J. (2009), ‘Radio and affective rhythm in the everyday’, The Radio Journal — International Studies in Broadcast and Audio Media 7: 2, pp. 171–183, doi: 10.1386/rajo.7.2.171/1
Image of old AEA microphone courtesy supersarah089 at http://pre12.deviantart.net/d69e/th/pre/f/2010/238/f/1/old_microphone_by_supersarah089.jpg