Radio to Television

By Andrew C Lemon and Grant Sorensen

To give context and foundation to this paper we will start with an overview of the history of radio and television. We will briefly discuss whether television has replaced radio or merely supplemented this medium as our respective household tallies would suggest. We will then move through to the cultural context and the impact that television has had on the people of North America touching on the concept of secondary orality. Lastly we will discuss the implications for this medium on education and literacy.

Historical and Cultural Context

First, the history of the radio:

When radio was first introduced it was an astounding invention. It enabled its users to send and receive messages over vast distances, and unlike the telephone, these messages could be heard by a variety of people in a variety of locations. It wasn’t long before the commercial possibilities of radio were being exploited – advertisers saw how a radio advertisement could reach a much broader spectrum of society, and unlike print ads, did not require the target to know how to read. The radio also became a hotbed of entertainment – weekly shows were broadcast to avid listeners who followed characters like Amos and Andy and the cast of Painted Dreams. There were also programs dedicated to news and music, and more and more people began to “tune in” to get both their entertainment and their information. Surprisingly, however, very little was done to promote this new technology as a method of education.

Midway through radio’s “golden age” – roughly the 1920’s to the 1950’s – Tracy F. Tyler (1935) noted that radio was “one of the greatest educational tools which has ever been placed at the disposal of civilized man. It is an instantaneous, universal means of communication. It is not a new art, but is a means of multiplying the efficiency of oral communication just as the printing press multiplied the effectiveness of the written word” (p. 115). Tracy also found that radio “has certain decided advantages over the printed page which it in part supplants and in part supplements” (p.115). Keith and Dyer (1930) found that, although it was behind Europe in terms of using the radio as an educational device, the United States still had “over seventy radio stations devoted exclusively to educational programs and more than 500 putting on some type of education broadcast” (pp. 337-338). Despite these early inroads, radio would soon lose its chance to further integrate itself into the educational system as a result of the outbreak of World War II.

World War II led to the governments of many countries taking control of what was broadcast over the radio. Radio stations were expected to promote the war effort and keep the populace informed. As a result, many of the inroads that radio had made towards aiding and enabling education were halted; radio broadcasts centered on the war and how citizens could do their part to help out. After the war ended, censorship of the radio was still employed in North America (particularly during the McCarthy era) and so broadcasters were reluctant to pursue any type of broadcasting that may have been seen as “anti-American”. In addition to these difficulties, radio was soon to face its greatest threat: television.

The history of television:

Television is almost as old as radio, but it took much longer to become a fixture in homes. This was partly due to the cost associated with televisions – they were not financially viable for much of the population. After the end of World War II, however, the costs of manufacturing televisions dropped as the raw materials became more easily available. At the end of the war less than one percent of all American households owned a television; fifteen years later more than ninety percent of American households owned at least one television (Wikipedia, n.d.). With the increasing affordability of television sets the general public began to move away from radio and gravitate towards the television. Keith and Dyer (1930), when discussing how to use radio in education, noted that “visual aids should be used” (p. 338). Unlike radio, television needed no visual aids – it is a visual aid. This led to a decrease in radio listeners and an increase in television viewers, as society preferred to view something rather than listen to it and have to imagine the scene.

Much like radio, television had a direct impact on popular culture. Advertisers flocked to this new medium, increasing their reach even further. Shows like “The Honeymooners” reflected and influenced everyday life, and shows that were once broadcast on the radio – like “The Lone Ranger” – found an even larger following after making the move to television. Both of these mediums influenced culture in a variety of ways, some positive and some negative. Both allowed information to be quickly and easily broadcast to a large population; both provided the means to entertain and inform the audience. Television and radio have both produced or captured memorable moments, adding to the culture of North America and beyond. Some of the negative aspects include encouraging a more sedentary society; Neuman (1991) found that television tends to replace other entertainment aspects, including physical activities; radio, although similar, does not require the listener to focus on a screen and thus allows the listener to move around while still being able to pay attention. Another negative influence the two have had is that both have partially pushed reading aside as a leisure activity. Much of society now prefers to spend their free time watching television as opposed to reading; although the long term effects of this are yet to be determined, it does not bode well for maintaining the traditional concept of literacy, or of making education, which relies heavily on the written word, more appealing to the next generation.

Secondary Orality

Prior to the advent of radio and television, print was the primary source for information dissemination and entertainment in literate cultures. However, this changed drastically with the rise in popularity of radio and television, reducing the predominance of print and increasing focus on oral communication. As part of his analysis of oral and literate cultures, Walter Ong refers to the rise of electronic communication as secondary orality. To illustrate this shift, we will briefly summarize Ong’s key characteristics of primary and secondary orality, followed by examples that exemplify points.

Ong defines primary orality as that “of a culture totally untouched by any knowledge of writing or print” (Ong, 1982, p. 6). He explains that due to lack of exposure to print, oral cultures often use formulaic, repetitive words and phrases to ensure mutual understanding among participants and to aid the speaker’s recall of details. These redundancies were crucial for cultures with no written form for recording such information. For this same reason, Ong (1982) explains, oral cultures express knowledge in terms close to listeners’ “lifeworld”, or lived experience, fostering communal understanding and sharing of knowledge.

Ong (1982) uses the term secondary orality to describe literate cultures’ use of print to support the development and use of radio, television, and other communicative technology. Despite its name, Ong stresses that literacy is a defining characteristic of secondary orality because electronic media rely on print in order to function and fulfill their purpose. However, Ong (1978) states the literacy level may vary within cultures, resulting in a mix of residual primary orality, literacy, and secondary orality.

Despite this inclusion of literacy, Ong (1982) explains that primary and secondary orality are similar in several ways. For example, both use formulas to aid retention, stress communal interaction among members of the culture, and focus on the present, immediate situation. He suggests that secondary orality develops a collective sensibility as listening is conducive to group interaction, as opposed to reading, which is most often solitary. Due to the adoption of elements of print, he describes secondary orality as more deliberate. A good example of his meaning can be seen in radio and television journalists who present the news orally, but most often the content is written before it is spoken (Wikipedia, n.d.). Finally, Ong (1982) argues that the development of secondary orality has strengthened and broadened the space of the printed word by its inclusion in electronic media.

We can see elements of secondary orality in media artefacts from the 1930s to 1950s, when television was emerging as new communicative technology. Interestingly, many advertisements were extremely text heavy, indicating print was the dominant form of communication at that time. The print often overpowers the image as though the advertisers didn’t trust they could communicate the desired meaning with the picture alone. When looking at these artefacts, it is clear that manufacturers were not focusing on educational affordances of radio or television. Instead, this new technology was marketed for its aesthetics, designed to be entertaining, decorative, and prestigious. It is clear that manufacturers were targeting the literate, affluent, Caucasian public who exemplified the” ideal family” of the 1940s and 50s, and there is little sense that television is meant to educate, or even inform. It was, however, used as propaganda and to appeal to citizens’ sense of patriotism as evidenced by numerous references to electronics companies developing and manufacturing products for the war effort.

The artefacts further illustrate aspects of secondary orality present at the time. For example, slogans and catchphrases can be seen as the modern equivalent of formulaic expressions of primary orality, designed as mnemonic devices to help viewers to remember products and programs. In addition, television viewing is shown as communal entertainment in which language and images can be viewed and discussed among families, friends, and anyone who has watched the same program. Furthermore, communal viewing focuses viewers’ attention on the present in the collective experience of the program they are watching, which is available to a much more widespread community than was possible before the introduction of electronic media. Prior to radio and television, entertainment and learning resources were dependent on print, which Ong states “turns individuals in on themselves” (1982, p. 20), whereas electronic media turn viewers outward to shared experience and discussion. With the inclusion of images and removal of the obstacle of print, illiterate or low-literate members of society could then understand the current news and entertainment, further widening the circle of those included in the shared experience of the culture. Whereas primary orality was limited to immediate experience and surroundings of the community, the booming sale of televisions from the mid-1940s to early 1960s greatly expanded the “lifeworld” of viewers, fulfilling Tyler’s expectation that electronic media could increase effectiveness and scope of oral communication to the same magnitude as the printing press did for print text.

Television: Remediation of Prior Technology

Bolter (2008) uses the term “remediation” to explain the phenomenon of a new medium adopting characteristics of previous media to use them in a new or improved way. It is not surprising that television remediated communication and entertainment technologies that came before it, including print, radio, phonograph, and movies. However, it seems manufacturers did not thoroughly trust the public’s interest in television as prior technologies were used to sell the new media. For example, early televisions were sold with accompanying radio, phonograph, or both despite the fact televisions also provided news, entertainment, and music programs. In an attempt to show that television was a superior remediation of prior media, advertisers stressed that television sound quality was better than both radio and phonograph, with the added advantage of picture. In addition, television sought to remediate movies, the other medium of visual entertainment popular at the time. Early television models tried to duplicate movies through use of projector and screen, with the added benefit of viewing them privately in your own home. Initially, television screens became increasingly larger in an attempt to compete with movie screens. However this trend reversed when radio illustrated the advantages of portability. At the same time, visual affordances of television began to take on increased importance. As television became more popular, visual imagery took on increased importance evidenced by advertisers’ promises of “sharper contrast for better visibility”, “clear pictures from edge to edge”, “stronger images”, and “big pictures that are clear and steady”.

Television Literacy and the Changing Definition of Literacy

Television literacy is unlike traditional literacy for a number of reasons. First and foremost is that it is a visual medium, with very little text compared to a book. It includes audio and allows viewers to cycle through a variety of different “texts” at the press of a button. The narrative of television is also quite different. Unlike a book, there is no set beginning or end – viewers will often move from storyline to storyline without seeing the beginning or end. The narrative of television is disrupted by commercials, something that does not appear in most books (although it could be argued that magazines with advertisements mirror this break in narrative). Finally, television is seen as more of an “open” text – the meanings are negotiable and it appears that it is more linked to the present, as the viewer is often left with the feeling that the ending of a particular show is yet to be determined.

One of the reasons that television displaced radio and reading is that it provides images instead of relying on the viewer’s imagination. As Pierce (1977) found, television “can present things, mundane or exotic, which can be nearly unbelievable, nearly unthinkable” (p. 8). By being able to visually present these “unbelievable or unthinkable” things, television captures the viewer’s interest immediately. If a person began viewing a program midway through, typically they would immediately be engaged in the images; radio, however, relies on the listener to imagine a scene/character/landscape, which would not have the same sort of immediate engagement. Books are even less likely to engage a possible reader when started midway through, as the narrative relies on having read from start to finish. The human eye is drawn to movement – for much of the population, vision is their primary method of surveying the world around them. Television, with its constant movement of and transitions between images is ideally suited to engaging the viewer. Radio, on the other hand, relies on engaging the listener through their hearing. This puts it at a disadvantage when compared to television then, because the listener’s attention may still be drawn away by something they see. Television combines both sound and images, making it similar to yet more engaging than radio, and at least twice as engaging as a book.

Another way in which television has changed the notion of literacy is that television viewers often begin watching with little to no idea as to what they want to watch. As Fiske (1987) found, many people “simply snap on the set rather than select a show. The first five minutes are spent prospecting channels, looking for gripping images” (p. 99). This is in direct contrast to a book, which is often carefully selected beforehand, with a general idea as to what it will be about. A reader is more likely to know what it is they are going to read about before they begin; a television viewer may have no idea as to what they will see once they begin. This can prevent a variety of pre-reading techniques including brainstorming, accessing prior knowledge, and prequestions from being effective. These pre-reading techniques are a key component of understanding and enjoying literature; to be a literate viewer of television then, one would need a variety of pre-viewing techniques. These techniques need to be quite different from those employed for reading – as television viewing often does not follow a linear narrative (and the viewer may not watch a show in its entirety or even know what show they plan on watching beforehand) it may not be possible to brainstorm ideas as to what the show will be about, how it will end, or what the main idea/theme is.

Unlike most books, television features short intermissions dedicated to selling the viewer on a particular product or service. These commercials are often selected to appeal to a specific audience and to fit in with the narrative of the show being watched. Fiske (1987) was able to “trace clear links between the first ad of each commercial break and the preceding narrative sequence” (p. 101). This led him to conclude that “commercials respond fairly directly to the problems, desires and fantasies articulated in the program’s narrative by promising gratification through products” (p. 101). This use of commercials to answer the problems posed in the show the viewer is watching reinforces the need for “television literacy”. An unaware or naive viewer may be led to believe that the products being pushed in between segments of their favourite show can solve any problems they may have; often these “solutions” can cause more problems than they solve. The use and volume of commercials on television and the increasing use of product placement within the shows themselves require that the viewer have a new sort of literacy, a literacy that allows them to separate commercial offerings from entertainment.

Perhaps one of the most appealing aspects of television to the viewer is that television viewing is open to interpretation. As Fiske (1987) states, television programs “do not attempt to close off alternative meanings and narrow their focus to one, easily attainable meaning”; instead they “are open to a richness and complexity of readings that can never be singular” (p. 94). Although a book can be interpreted in a number of ways, it often has one meaning/theme that the author wishes to convey. Conversely, a television program may only be partially viewed before being replaced by another. The viewers build the narrative themselves, and decide on their own meaning. Fiske also notes how television appeals to its viewers through its “sense of happening in the present in the same time scale as that of its viewers. The future of a television serial appears to be “unwritten,” like the real future, but unlike that in a book or film, whose readers know that the end has already been written and will eventually be revealed to them” (p. 97). This leads the viewer to believe that there is some variability in the outcome, despite most television shows having been pre-recorded many months before they air.

Television and Education

Not unlike radio, television was thought to have enormous educational potential. Seels, Fullerton, Berry, and Horn (2001) posit that television can “provide another source of vocabulary and language development” and “can assist with reading and school readiness” (p. 315). Hilliard (1958) agreed with this assessment, writing that “the task of education can be accomplished more effectively than it is now through the complete development and application of educational television” (p. 431). Interestingly, Hilliard’s statement comes 43 years prior to Seels et al., and yet television has still not established a permanent foothold in education. Others have not been so supportive of the use of television in education. Foster (1981) warns that television can “distort one’s view of reality; it can lead to simplistic views of problem-solving; [and] it can affect value systems” (p. 70). Foster emphasizes the need for television viewers to be “television literate” as without it, “the destructiveness of television will continue” (p. 72). He believes that with a certain amount of television literacy it “may be possible for television to become an increasingly positive force in society. Perhaps someday educators can point to a visually literate public as proof that teaching can make a difference” (p. 72). Harding and Waimon (1972) believe that viewers must become “television literate” before using it as an educational tool, arguing that “learners must be furnished with a set of intellectual tools that will direct their observations and guide their reflections about the programs they have seen” (p. 108). These intellectual tools are not unlike the pre-reading activities teachers emphasize a reader should engage in prior to reading in order to get the most out of the book.

Foster (1981) states that the “same elements that make up a good literary discussion will make for a good discussion of a TV program. These elements include analysis of theme, character, plot, and style” (p. 70). Before a reader can engage in these types of discussions, however, the reader must become literate. It is not unreasonable then, to insist that television viewers need to achieve a similar sort of literacy level before they are able to effectively learn from the television. Many of the aforementioned authors saw the potential for the use of television in education – and the popularity of shows like Sesame Street and Dora the Explorer support this potential – but nearly all of them argued for the need for some sort of television literacy.


Media literacy is the ability to access, evaluate, and produce information. The need for this literacy is more important now than it has ever been as new media remediate the visual, oral, and aural affordances of television. Although new media have not replaced television, they run parallel to it as alternative forms of information and entertainment. Therefore, the same literacy concerns apply to them. Postman powerfully expressed the need for media literacy when he stated that “Like the alphabet or the printing press, television has by its power to control the time, attention, and cognitive habits of our youth gained the power to control their education” (1985, p. 145). He argues that there has been too much focus on entertainment and not enough on learning. Therefore, when using television or new media educators need to think carefully why they are doing so. They must ask themselves if these tools are the best way to achieve the desired learning, or merely the most entertaining.

If electronic media are shown to be better, or at least comparable, to traditional print methods, then curriculum and lessons need to be adjusted to suit the medium. Postman illustrated this importance when he stated that “definitions of truth are derived, at least in part, from the character of the medium of communication through which information is conveyed” (1985, p. 17).

If, for example, television is to be used for educational purposes, then learners must be shown how the narrative differs from print and the skills to learn from it effectively. Since advertisements are a prominent part of television and online viewing, students must be taught to analyze the content of the ads to determine their true message, given skills to reflect on how this message affects them, and provided the decision making skills to decide if they want or need the product advertised.

Because television and websites have revitalized the place of images in literacy, classroom lessons and learning activities need to reflect this change. Students must be taught to examine and reflect on the meaning of still and moving images to the same degree as with text, but with expanded skills. In addition to previewing content as in print text, students need to analyze what is currently happening in the image and predict how that will affect what happens next. Although learners are engaged by the rapidly changing images on television and an increasing selection of electronic media, they need the skills to view them critically, both individually and in composite. Furthermore, they must cultivate the skill of reflecting on what visual content means to them personally and not view apathetically with the narrow view of one “correct” interpretation.

Throughout history, literacy has ranged from primary orality in which there is no contact with printed text, to combined text and images recorded on papyrus scroll, to the predominantly print-based manuscript and codex, to the proliferation of images available in today’s media and through sharing site such as Flickr and Pinterest. At the same time, print is seeing resurgence through the popularity of email, texting, and social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and blogs. Therefore, today’s learners need to be concurrently proficient in print and visual literacy.


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