Digital archives of women's radio programming document histories of feminist activism across different eras in multiple global contexts. Mitchell surveys the ongoing development of these archives, examining their role in “re-sounding” women into history. Women's radio can be a place for individual empowerment, expression and creativity, as well as a space for collective and transnational feminist campaigning and activism. A case study of Fem FM women's community radio archive in the UK demonstrates how archives of feminist radio activism become both a repository and a maker of cultural memory.
When I am no longer even a memory, just a name, I hope my voice may perpetuate the great work of my life.florence nightingale, recorded in 18901
My desktop is a transnational audio time machine: through it, I can listen to women's voices across different eras and continents. I can feel my heart beating faster as I listen to one of the earliest known recordings in existence: Florence Nightingale's voice, crackly, barely decipherable, seems buried in a wax cylinder recording made in 1890: “God bless my dear old comrades of Balaclava and bring them safe to shore” (audio 1).2 I forward my listening to 1971. I can hear New York feminists conducting a live on-air “housework consciousness raising” on the Pacifica Radio station WBAI NYC. Mid-1990s: I feel like I am actually sitting among a group of Irish women around a kitchen table in the terraced house that is Radio Pirate Women/Women's Scéal Radio (Scéal is Irish for gossip or stories) in Galway. They discuss music, international politics, activist theater, Greenham Common, wages for housework, and how to get an abortion. 1992: I am inspired by the feisty jingles made by the Girls Express team from the Fem FM Archive in Bristol, United Kingdom. 1995: I try to listen to a report from the Beijing UN World Conference on Women from Feminist International Radio Endeavour (FIRE), but the link is dead—has the funding run out in the past few years? 2015: I listen to weekly feminist and women's audio news features delivered via Facebook from the North American service Women's International News Gathering Service (WINGS, in the United States and Canada) and Women on the Line (in Australia), which draw on a global network of women's programs and reporters. My digital audio desktop is a time machine and a mirror—re-sounding, representing, and with the potential to recirculate women's activism, creativity, and voices.
This essay surveys how digital archives of women's radio document and provide access to accounts of women's activities through the generations to communicate about and between women across the world. Digital archives of women's soundwork can help recirculate programs, thereby re-sounding women back into history and providing audiences with a wider understanding of an international feminist past, demonstrating the nature of creative activism afforded by women's radio stations. Feminist radio archives and the participatory media history projects related to them can function as empowering media spaces for different generations of women. Archives of women's soundwork function in multiple ways: mapping women's pasts through recordings, stories, and voices; recording different stages of the women's movement; and also documenting the practices and cultures of women's radio as a sector.
This essay discusses some of these developing archives (“developing” because they are often established by voluntary and unpaid labor and are often fragile in terms of their technical infrastructure and longevity) and raises questions about how they can be studied, used, and provide further agency for the project of, as Kristin Skoog says, “writing back” women into media histories.3 In particular, it uses a case study—the setting up of the Fem FM archive, which digitized the broadcasts and documentation of the first women's radio station in the United Kingdom—and shows how it is an example of re-sounding women back into history.
First, some contextualization of the study of community radio archives within scholarship about radio, community, and feminist radio is needed. Radio studies is a relatively new area of scholarship, as radio has been identified as an invisible, secondary, or “Cinderella” medium, playing second fiddle to TV and film studies.4 Radio has, in Anne Karpf's words, a “special relationship with women's lives, in that it is an explicit accompaniment to them, a commentary, or a counterpoint.”5 Studies of the developing academic area of women and radio6 have uncovered many historical and contemporaneous examples of radio producers, services, and stations where women, both individually and collectively, have actively challenged mainstream media representations through radio. Most of the themes that have emerged from research on women and radio mirror the development and rise of feminist media and cultural studies. These include the study of histories, texts, representations, production cultures, institutions, and audiences (active and passive), all contextualized with an inherent critique of a male-dominated radio industry.
Women and radio have been studied through three main approaches. The first is the study of production cultures within different parts of the radio industry and the ways that women have worked in radio as presenters, producers, and managers, employing varying types of agency in resisting particular cultural and industry constraints on their voices, work, and identities.7 The second area is gendered radio texts and programs and the exploration of personal and historical narratives of radio for and by women.8 Studies of gendered radio texts, practices, and discourses have included analysis of the female listener/male producer and DJs and “housewife radio” binaries.9 The third is audience studies: studies of how female audiences use the medium as part of their everyday lives and how they negotiate identities through the medium.10
Women who have been excluded or alienated from mainstream radio have increasingly turned to community radio. This is radio transmitted over the air or via the Internet that is nonprofit in aim and is controlled by, representative of, and accessible to the community that owns the project or station.11 Community radio is now legally established on most continents, although, depending on the country, the length of its history varies. For example, it has existed in the United States since the 1950s, in Australia and France since the 1970s, in Africa since the early 1990s, and in Ireland, the United Kingdom, and India in the past couple of decades. Increasingly, the role of community radio has become to reflect new identities and new forms of citizenship that transcend the boundaries of national identity, and it has provided an alternative space for listeners to remember and share experiences of national and transnational communities.12 Women have always been involved at a structural and a meaning level in these spaces, managing, making, and consuming radio. In community radio, listeners can become producers to tell their own stories and use radio for diverse groups of women to connect with one another and across communities.
Women's radio can be a place for individual empowerment, expression, and creativity as well as a space for collective and transnational feminist campaigning and activism.13 In her study of European women's radio, Birgitte Jallov identifies that it takes place “in an all-women's station, in an autonomous collective in a mixed station, in a women's group who are not totally autonomous in a mixed station … an individual making a woman's show, an individual woman working in a mainstream setting with a gender conscious perspective.”14
A key question in defining feminist radio is the manner in which women negotiate how their lives are defined on the radio. Marian Bredin argues that feminist production should demystify the role of producer so that the boundaries between producers and consumers of culture are broken down: “A work is never inherently feminist but depends on a feminist consciousness shared by both producer and consumer.”15 It is also defined through providing practical, collaborative, and women-friendly approaches to production and training, combined with cheap and portable technologies. This has made community radio soundwork easier for women and has broken down some barriers that previously made accessing the medium difficult.16
Community radio is well known as a tool for social cohesion17 and as a tool for women's development.18 Women's stations and programs within community radio have created spaces for feminist/women's organizations and have acted as “connectors”19 between social and political movements, including women's movements and listeners. Since the early days of radio broadcasting, transnational women's radio has connected women across national borders.20
Organizations such as WINGS, Feminist International Radio Endeavor (FIRE), and Women on the Line have for many years been part of broadcasting and networking feminist news, campaigns, features, and events. The first WINGS program was distributed via cassette in 1986. Since then, weekly reports have been posted to participating community stations around the world, reporting about and linking up with many different feminist civil society campaigns and events. As well as distributing regular news, features have provided employment to female reporters. They have contributed to documenting the global women's movement since the 1980s, although due to the instability of funding and infrastructure for such projects, this is not a complete record—even a casual trawl through what is available online reveals that some links are dead. As of 2015, both Women on the Line and WINGS have harnessed the Internet and social media to widen their dissemination and make more links with feminist campaigns and other connected social movements.21
COMMUNITY RADIO ARCHIVING: DEFINITIONS AND PRACTICES
Community archiving has meant that future generations can participate in cultural production through projects linked to stations and the archives of these stations and services. As Andrew Flinn notes, “new” archival practice has two interrelated areas that influence the writing of history: independent or community archives and the utilization of community-generated or user-generated content.22
Minority communities of whichever kind—cultural, religious, linguistic, ethnic, or gender-based—have found in community radio an important platform for expression of their cultural identity. But the informal, often ephemeral context of programming means that the actual record of a community's broadcasting is frequently incomplete. As community radio has developed (and, as mentioned above, this development has varied according to country), archives of women's programming and station materials have been set up so that documents and programs can be stored for the future. As I discuss below, these archives become both a repository and a maker of cultural memory.23 For researchers, this opens up new areas of inquiry that draw on scholarship in established women's radio and cultural studies and uses participatory research methods and praxis.24
In many cases, producers have become archivists and, as is characteristic of the sector, these archives aim from the outset to be participatory. Dagmar Brunow suggests that there can be a self-reflexive approach to archiving—bringing it out from behind the closed doors of a museum, for instance, using new methods to present the archive “before the public.” She says that in this way, archiving “strategies, concepts and ideas are foregrounded.”25 One example of this idea is the concept of “on-air ethnography,” which has been pioneered at the radical station Radio Student in Ljubljana, Slovenia, where archival recordings are assigned a regular program slot and are discussed by station members and program makers past and present, live on air.26 This chimes with Kathy Eales's definition of community archives as “archival initiatives that place in the foreground the perspectives of communities—as defined by and for communities themselves.”27
Who is doing the soundwork in the archives? How can archives shape (transnational) gender identities and oral histories? If cultural and community-based memory is sounded as well as written about, can the public media space be opened up to more and varied voices—for instance, to those for whom using the written word or a non-mother-tongue language is a difficulty?
If archives in general have neglected women's experiences, women's media archives have been doubly marginalized. Joan M. Schwartz and Terry Cook tell us that “archives, since their very origins in the ancient world, have systemically excluded records about or by women from their holdings and, as institutions, have been willing agents in the creation of patriarchy by supporting those in power against the marginalized.”28 However, Oliver Carter and Jez Collins recognize that the turn in archives has begun to favor archive activists who are “fans [who] are responding to the ‘institutional biases’ of archival practices by taking it upon themselves to collectively preserve texts that have particular significance for individuals and communities that form online.”29 In contemporary media archives, Rachel Mosely and Helen Wheatley have found that women's programming has not been prioritized by mainstream broadcasting organizations.30 Community archives, which use a range of sources including oral histories, ephemera, and objects chosen by and for the communities they serve, tend to be defined by those communities.31 Community archives, according to Flinn, encourage “deeper” levels of participation and sharing.32
An excellent example of how digitization has contributed to open-access, online, and collaborative archives is the “American Women Making History and Culture, 1963–1982” archive of holdings from the Pacifica network of community stations, which have been on the air since the 1950s. This archive has gained major funding to “document the emergence and evolution of the women's movement in cities across the United States between 1963 and 1982 … as well as the unique role Pacifica Radio played by providing a place for women to create and air programming that communicated the movement.”33 The archive includes arts programs, debates, women's health discussions, on-air consciousness-raising sessions, plays, and readings. Included, too, is a recording of an act of consciousness-raising as cited in the introduction to this essay (audio 2).
THE FEM FM ARCHIVE
What an incredible day! I had no idea what a huge event it was going to be. I feel so enormously proud to part of history in the making. I am so, so sorry I couldn't stay to the end… . I am sure many of you appreciate the difficulties of single motherhood and childcare issues. I found it particularly interesting listening to _____ speaking of her dilemma with being a working mum 15 yrs ago, sadly I've found not much changed all these years later.Former Fem FM presenter contributing to a Facebook conversation after attending the Fem FM Archive launch
This case study explores how the Fem FM women's community radio archive was established and how digitization and participatory and community archiving practices ultimately enabled the archive to be used to increase awareness of the station's background history, and how it has brought into focus the continuities and changes that have taken place for women and radio since 1992.
Studies of the media industries and gender at international, national, and local level provide us with qualitative and quantitative evidence of discrimination and underrepresentation in radio.34 In 1992, in Bristol, in southwest England, Fem FM, the first women's radio station in the United Kingdom, went on air. The motivation for setting up the station originally came from women who felt underused, undervalued, and underheard in the radio industry. The original station involved over two hundred women as volunteers, and in the course of a yearlong project they produced a seven-day showcase of women's radio (this kind of short-term license was the only one available to community broadcasters in the United Kingdom in the early 1990s) and managed the whole process of setting up technical and administrative and management structures, funding, training, marketing, and programming a radio station from scratch. Most had no previous experience in radio, and those who did wanted to pass on their expertise to others who faced barriers in getting into broadcasting. Women created all the programs, including dramas, documentaries, specialist music of different kinds, program trails, and jingles. As I have written elsewhere, Fem FM, although itself short-lived, was a model for stations all over the United Kingdom, including Brazen Radio in London, Elle FM in Liverpool, Radio Venus in Bradford, and Bridge Radio in Washington, Tyne, and Wear.35
Fortunately, documentation and a full set of recordings of Fem FM have been preserved. The archive was established by the author of this essay, by Trish Caverly, the cofounder of Fem FM, and by the archivists at the Bristol Record Office (part of Bristol's Museums, Galleries and Archives) who collect archives that provide evidence of Bristol and its people, events, places, and organizations. Originally around 160 hours of the station's broadcasts had been logged, as required by the then-regulator, the Radio Authority, in case of audience complaints about the output. Three large boxes of VHS long-play videotapes, spools, minidiscs, and cassettes and several box files of cuttings, messages, letters and cards of support, meeting minutes, post-broadcast evaluation questionnaires completed by over a hundred volunteers, original designs of the Fem FM logos for leaflets and program guides (figs. 1, 2), and a couple of Fem FM T-shirts were stored by the station's cofounder over a period of twenty years. As she moved jobs, she stored the boxes in convenient domestic and office spaces, and as the twentieth anniversary of the broadcasts loomed, yet another office move meant that she had to reconsider the space she had available for the bulky tapes.
At the time of the twentieth anniversary of the station's launch, a crisis was growing in the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) over complaints about its “toxic” working culture for women and program participants.36 The BBC has a history of underrepresentation of female radio journalists.37 Over many decades there has been management intransigence to appointing and promoting women to key production and management roles, as well as evidence that BBC newsrooms and studios are dominated by men; recall that Louisa North has found that “power is experienced, wielded and often homosocially shared.”38
The longstanding British program Women's Hour (broadcast daily for over sixty years by the publicly funded BBC) has its own archive of programs and a timeline documenting the women's movement and female radio pioneers.39 Danica Minic's research, based on contemporary interviews with program producers, explains that Women's Hour successfully addresses its audience by combining “identity, diversity, equality, and transformative politics,” but she questions whether the program can be truly diverse, as it is “to a certain extent limited by the demographics of its audience, its time slot, and mainstream character, which create the program's own majorities and minorities among women.”40 Women working in radio in 2014 were still asking themselves if anything had changed for the better for women working in various parts of their industry.41 Had the new community sector of over two hundred radio stations made a difference in how women accessed radio? How had changes in methods of production (digital editing, for instance) changed women's ability to access program making and airtime? Establishing an archive of Fem FM and planning research, educational, and promotional activities linked to the archive meant that there could be new research focus on working culture in the contemporary radio industry for women.42
The total output of the weeklong Fem FM broadcast was digitized by a volunteer at the Bristol Record Office who carefully transferred each VHS logging tape into digital format and described the output, which could be directly linked to a program guide that had been produced for publicity at the time. The output from several large boxes of tapes fitted onto one USB stick.
The cofounders of the Fem FM Archive were one corner of what Dorothy Sheridan describes as the “triangle” of agents involved in the archive:43 setting it up, fundraising, and caring about its survival and accessibility. The people who composed the second point of the triangle were the two hundred volunteers who had staffed Fem FM: it was their programs, stories, fundraising, training; it was their work that would be contained in the archive. To connect to these originators of the program material, they were contacted via email, social media, and articles in the local and regional press so that as many of these women as possible (and some men, who formed the “Men's Hour” program team) could be informed about the archive and its launch. Third, and important, there was consideration of who would use the archive: these included historians, broadcasters, media studies scholars, students, schools, and other members of the public. Due to music copyright restrictions, much of the programming could be heard only in the museum. Some programs—for instance, a documentary that was made at the time about the development and launch of the station—could be put on the Internet for much wider circulation. After almost two years from the first idea for an archive, the Fem FM Archive was launched in Bristol in March 2014.44
According to Schwartz and Cook, archives have always been “at the intersection of past, present, and future—Margaret Hedstrom's ‘interfaces.’ These spaces are the loci of power of the present to control what the future will know of the past.”45 As well as making programs available, the archive team wanted the archive to be as relevant and actively used as possible, and so a major effort went into fundraising for a public launch, with associated activities including a reunion of as many of the two hundred Fem FM volunteers as possible, local and regional media coverage on Bristol radio stations, and a competition for student broadcasters at stations across the United Kingdom to report on the archives and collect interviews and archive excerpts to be played at stations outside Bristol.
The reunion included speakers who had had their first radio experiences at Fem FM and had gone on to work at a high level at the BBC, commercial, or community stations or who had formed their own successful independent production companies. There were also younger women present at the archive launch who were on a “Fem FM Futures” radio production course, funded as a result of the archive's establishment, and who represented a new generation of broadcasters. On this course, the trainees were assigned Fem FM mentors to offer guidance about their futures in broadcasting. The community of older and younger participants was able to listen to excerpts from the archive and so review and reflect on the past and compare it with radio opportunities for women now and in the future (figs. 3, 4, 5, 6).
Women who had worked in different parts of media industries were able to use their first-hand experience of employment and production practices as presenters and producers to testify and contribute to the debate about diversity and women's access to the airwaves. In the lead-up to the archive launch, fifteen women and one man also took part in semistructured interviews to respond to the archive and to explore their memories of the broadcasts in more depth (audio 3).46
For women on Fem FM, hearing themselves “authentically” on the air47 was extremely important. A signifier of this authenticity could be heard, for instance, in the Bristolian accent in a daily serial, Our Joyce, the life story of a woman from South Bristol. Another participant commented on the acceptance of non-English-speaking voices: “In some groups, you need to practice what you want to say for ten minutes before speaking up, but there it was nothing like [that at Fem FM]. People spoke in their own language, broken English; everything was accepted.”48
One volunteer reflected on how one channel, BBC 6 Music, had appointed more women to the presentation team and that this had changed her attitude toward the station—they had what was, to her, an acceptable way of presenting themselves on the radio:
On 6 Music, the women are great, they hit a note that's just right. They're women with kids. They are real, they talk about real things, they have kids, they are professional, but … you know they are earthy and grounded as well, and that's part of their success. You know that they work with men on an equal footing, they command respect. You can hear all that.49
The Fem FM broadcasts took place before the Internet was widely used for networking and global exchange of audio files. The archive contains evidence of some of the transnational exchanges that took place leading up to and during the broadcasts in order to represent the wider international women's radio movement on air. For example, on Fem FM's launch day, International Women's Day (IWD), the station broadcast station jingles and messages of support by women's stations and female broadcasters from around the United Kingdom and Europe. These had all been requested in advance and had been edited together and played as promotions for IWD (audio 4). These sequences located Fem FM in and as part of an international women's radio movement, and several women at the archive launch commented that they had felt part of a wider movement when they had participated in the broadcasts.
One former volunteer producer for Rangtarang, a South Asian magazine program, had gone on to work for the BBC partly as a result of her Fem FM experience. In her interview, she talked about the difference between the two working cultures:
When we made mistakes [at Fem FM], the other women said don't worry, this radio station is not meant to be perfect. With [BBC] Radio 4,50 you are terrified even before you walk in. [At Fem FM,] it was all at the same level, and even the professionals behaved the same and were dressed casually. Nobody came there to show “I know better than you,” and that made each other comfortable… . There was empathy there … there was no ridiculing each other.
The nature of radio archives has been transformed by digitalization, and participation has been made cheaper and easier, creating open access, online, and collaborative archives. This shift has meant that there is access to women's sonic pasts that can function to enable participation and creative engagement with these pasts through encouragement of active and “public” listening.51 Digital archives of women's radio such as Fem FM are further indications of the value placed on women's radio history and the ability of women to document or “re-sound” themselves via their cultural memories. Thus vivid accounts of feminist activity and the women's movement within and beyond national borders can be communicated, and at the same time a history of the women's community/alternative media sector is produced. However, these archives and the women's community stations that produce them are often poorly resourced and often unsustainable, despite their potent and empowering practices. This dichotomy of the power/fragility of feminist community media praxis is summed up by Alexandra Juhasz:
In my experience, the making and living of alternative, counter or radical culture, through media praxis, does not feel fully revolutionary in its own time because each act of making is too small, unstable, marginal, and precarious; the dominant culture, and its media praxis, looms large, solid, and powerful. And yet, each of these risky acts makes not just media that lasts for future study (and sometimes consolidation as a movement) but small, beautiful, fleeting instants of potential—“revolutionary-instants”—that we recognize and celebrate mostly in their doing and living, and of course, mourn in their immediate passing (only then, sometimes, to also reify in their later study and consolidation).52
New methodologies to research archive use and application can be explored with archive participants and users, including carrying out on-air ethnography and training and activism connected to archives. The experience of fully listening to the actuality and voices that are part of sound archive materials of women's liberation and women's activism may sonically represent a more “authentic” experience of cultural memory for both listeners and participants.53