Radio Waves: the practical application of theoretical issues in media studies

Research Description

The primary aim of this research was to consider two traditional approaches to media studies – mass communication and cultural studies – in order to develop an integrated method of study. The research focused on exploring media production as a form of culture within a small music commercial radio station. The research employed an ethnographic approach in which the researcher suspends his own judgements and attempts to understand the world he is investigating in terms of the participants’ viewpoint. Research methods included observation, multiple interviews with all members of the organisation, interviews with audience, and analysis of recorded programmes and station documentation.

The radio station held a license that committed it to broadcast primarily to the black community of a large multi-cultural city. It soon became apparent to the researcher that many actual or potential listeners believed it was not meeting the terms of its license. While the primary audience as defined by the licence was the local black population, the station staff stated in interviews that they were primarily targeting an audience of young white, predominantly middle class, urban contemporary music fans, who generally had higher disposable incomes. This group was identified in the licence explicitly as a secondary audience. From the perception of those at the radio station there were clear reasons for this. Earlier versions of the station had initially been awarded the license as part of a wider strategy by the regulator to remove unlicensed stations targeting the local black population. However, these earlier incarnations had failed financially because they were unable to secure enough income from advertising; the switch in targeting aimed to attract advertising and make the station financially viable.

This failure to address the primary audience had legal implications, since the station was breaking its statutory responsibility. On a personal level the researcher felt there was also a moral dimension, since he believed that these minority audiences had been systematically neglected in the past. The researcher was therefore faced with an ethical dilemma. As a result of his research he had compiled a body of evidence that, if taken to the regulatory authority, would have resulted in the closure of the station. Similarly, his knowledge and experience in this field would have enabled him to advise the dissatisfied audience on how they could successfully complain. However, much of this information had been acquired as a result of the trusting relationship he had built with the senior managers and staff of the radio station. He had in effect entered into an ethical contract with them. The information they shared with him was intended to achieve a specific end: to understand the organisation. To have used it as a means to another end would have been to break this contract.

The researcher also found himself in a difficult position regarding the relationship between the senior managers and the staff. There were tensions between them that could have been resolved had both sides been aware of the confidential beliefs and information of the other. The researcher, who was aware of this, felt unable to break the confidence of his respondents.

In terms of his primary aim, the researcher successfully demonstrated an integrated method of media studies. Since much of the information that became known to him was of a sensitive nature, and could have impacted on the future careers of the respondents, he took the decision to delay publishing for five years.

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