- Global networks
- Migration and race.
- Media history
My current research is a global study of the role of international radio broadcasting in shaping the process of African decolonisation and the post-colonial world, c. 1960 - 1980. Africa developed a uniquely cosmopolitan listening culture in this period, giving mass access to global cultural and political influences. The radio revolution had a profound impact on popular culture. But it also played an undocumented but crucial role in accelerating the pace of decolonisation by galvanising liberation movements and challenging colonial state-control of the media. After independence little changed and international radio became a serious thorn in the flesh of national governments.
The ‘Wind of Change’ era coincided with an explosion in international radio listenership across Africa. Local stations were always popular, but listeners also tuned in to a wide variety of stations from nearby countries and across the globe. The French ORT, BBC World Service and the Voice of America jostled for bandwidth with Radios Cairo, Moscow, South Africa, Accra and Ethiopia’s Voice of the Gospel amongst many others. This peculiarity of the decolonisation period was a legacy of the colonial practice of using short-wave transmitters for domestic audiences from the 1940s. Short-wave transmission was originally developed for international broadcasting, but was ideal for colonial territories as it had a long range and could reach scattered populations cheaply. By contrast short-range signals such as FM or long-wave were most commonly used in the more densely-populated regions of Europe and North America. In the 1960s this colonial legacy combined with the appearance of mass-produced transistor radios by companies such as Sony to revolutionise the size of the listening audience. However, while radio ownership soared, local broadcasting remained subject to strict state control by colonial authorities and the independent states that succeeded them.
The combination of ready access to short-wave radio and frustration with national stations created a culture of international listenership that was unique to Africa. It lasted into the 1980s, when post-colonial state control of the media began to be relaxed and local commercial radio was legalised for the first time on the continent. To this day radio remains the most popular medium throughout the continent, with a high level of international listenership.
My research is concerned with two aspects of this phenomenon. Firstly, what was available to listeners and how widely did the tone of broadcasts vary? Coverage of events such as the Soweto shootings of 1976 was heavily coloured by partial reporting and political agendas, particularly Cold War, neo-colonial and liberation imperatives. Secondly, I am profiling African listenership to assess the impact of international broadcasting. Audience research and opinion poll archives demonstrate that listening habits varied greatly depending on gender, age, locality, and social and language groups. Although listeners tended to prefer their local station they regularly turned in to international stations if the local signal was weak, for reasons of musical and political taste, language preferences, or in times of political upheaval.
Before working on radio my research was concerned with British decolonisation, race relations and migration. My recent book on Duncan Sandys and the Informal Politics of Britain’s Late Decolonisation (Palgrave, 2018) was concerned with the influence of global networks on the complex process of colonial disentanglement. As a minister Sandys was responsible for orchestrating much of Britain’s withdrawal from empire in the ‘Wind of Change’ era of the early 1960s. On leaving government Sandys became synonymous with neo-colonial influence, both as a back bencher and as chairman of various African mining interests. Thanks to his ministerial contacts Sandys found himself at the centre of a network of revanchist British, Arabian and African politicians and officials seeking to preserve British influence in the former colonial world.
My earlier article on Enoch Powell traced his unusual journey from empire fanatic to anti-Commonwealth evangelist and located the origins of his notorious ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech of 1968 in his experience of communal tension in India in 1940s. By highlighting the imperial dimension of Powell’s thought on immigration my research offered an original interpretation of the origins of the anti-immigration lobby in Britain.