Radio and Child: Walter Benjamin as Broadcaster


Brían Hanrahan in The LA Review of Books:

A FEW YEARS AGO the BBC’s flagship domestic station, BBC Radio 4 (imagine a better-funded NPR, with a more central place in national life), canceled its main children’s show Go4It. Audience research had revealed — perhaps belatedly — that the average age of the listenership was well over 50. Maybe it was chastening for the program makers, maybe they knew it all along. Seen in longer historical perspective, however, the disjuncture is not so unusual. Of all mass media, radio has always had the least developed relation to children. The history of film or photography, of TV or the internet, could hardly be written without reference to the child: images of children, children as audience and market, children’s actual or hysterically invoked vulnerability. But radio has always been an overwhelmingly adult phenomenon.

Of course, there has long been broadcast radio aimed at children. There were kids’ serials in the American network golden age, cozy British stuff like Listen with Mother in the 1960s, various kinds of educational radio. There are Sirius satellite channels, and Radio TEDDY, a German children’s broadcaster, still transmits on the airwaves. But all this — and even radio hardware marketed to children — is a small and relatively unimportant part of radio as a historical phenomenon. Moreover, radio’s relation to children is indirect, even uncanny: for children, radio is above all something addressed to grown-ups, but they can overhear it, or listen in on it. Radio, in this way, becomes a channel to a world beyond the home. Voices and sounds from the radio bring traces of a different life into the cloistered spaces of childhood and family.

Any serious history of children and radio — any history going beyond a chronicle of program offerings — must include the German writer Walter Benjamin. Benjamin wrote extensively for the radio, and most of those broadcast writings — now newly translated and collected — were written for children, at least at first glance. More than that, something quintessentially Benjaminian happens in that uncanny encounter of radio and child: the hint of an unsettling remainder in the everyday, in the dislocation of sent message and received meaning, in the figure of the child who knows something his parents do not.

More here.