"When our society hears the term “communication”, it typically thinks of one of two areas: 1) Interpersonal communication, or 2) The medium of broadcasting. The medium of broadcasting is still in its infancy, and a number of studies have been done to better understand the effectiveness this new medium has on audiences. However with the increase of these new studies, one area of communication has fallen from the forefront of study and discussion. Yet this activity is so fundamental, that we often take it for granted. The forgotten activity is listening. Let’s face it, if we are not good listeners, we run the risk of misunderstanding the message.
This is the topic of a new book written by Kate Lacey entitled: Listening Publics: The Politics and Experiences of Listening in the Media Age. Lacey’s book is an engaging and thought provoking study that asks the question: “Why has listening been so over looked in recent communicational studies?” Lacey hypothesizes that listening is currently viewed as a passive activity. In actuality, listening is more of an active and engaging activity. “Despite the growth in ‘sound studies’, academic treatments of listening rarely attend to the sensory experience of listening and a political philosophy of listening.” (p. 8) Lacey continues by challenging “… such a restricted understanding of the listening public by identifying listening as a category that bridges both the realm of sensory, embodied experience, and the political realm of debate and deliberation.” (p. 8)
Lacey begins her case by defining listening as: “the active direction of the sense of hearing to discern meaning from sound…” (p. 22) She then focuses on how communication is interconnected with political practices through cultural practices. For centuries, groups of individuals would gather together to discuss new ideas and policies. This became an integral part in the development of democracy. However with the rise of new technologies beginning in the Industrial Revolution, listening habits began to change. Phonographs, telegraphs, telephones, print, and radio began to give audiences more control over what and how they listened. For the first time, individuals could return to their homes and listen in private to news, information, or entertainment. People no longer needed to participate in public discussions in order to stay interconnected to the outside world. They were now able to get their information privately.
Lacey turns her focus to how these new technologies were integrated into the societies of three countries, America, Great Britain, and Germany, at the beginning of the 20th century. In Great Britain and America, these new technologies were viewed as the “great equalizer” amongst the classes, and would bring about a more educated public. This would be accomplished through “Group Listening”. “A Central Council for Broadcast Adult Education was set up in 1928 to supervise programs to be listened to by ‘discussion groups’, be that a small group of friends listening ‘by the fireside’ in one of their homes, to groups of 40 or so meeting in a public library, or groups organized by existing associations like the YMCA, the Co-operative Society, the British Legion, trade unions or groups of unemployed miners.” (p. 140) While in Germany, these new technologies were many used as tools of propaganda.
However these educational theme programs did not become as popular as their creators intended them to become. As society was given more control over what they listened to, listeners began to choose entertainment over civil discourse. “Radio needed to respond to the moment and whose ears had been ‘tortured for eight long hours by the noise of machines’, ears which were tired and worn for the delicacies of cantatas and classical odes.” (Schirokaure 1929) With educational programs not being listened to, broadcasters knew they had to make a decision. They began to focus more on entertainment programming than educational/civic programming. And this is where the paradigm shift in how listening is viewed occurred.
According to Lacey, it was here with the rise of privatized listening that passive listening became the dominant view of what type of activity listening is. “During the formative years of broadcasting, this passivity was understood by some as being imposed on the listener by the mass address that spoke to no-one as someone, and everyone as anyone, denying the possibility of active engagement, personal development or equality of response.” (p. 114) Lacey continues “…the privatization of the listening public had obvious affinities with the privatized reading public which was understood not as passive, but as actively engaged in critical reason and the development of public opinion.” (p. 115)
As audience passivity was further reinforced, individuals began to accept being talked at more, and question less. This passive view of listening has caused three problems: “The problem of property, the problem of dialogue, and the problem of consensus-building.” (p. 169) Individuals are no longer willingly to try and understand another person’s perspective. For Lacey, our society has become more concerned with making sure we can speak, than worrying about whether or not people understand the message we are trying to communicate. “What is actually at stake here is the freedom of shared speech or, to put it another way, the freedom to be heard.” (p. 165) “To start simply – without a listener, speech is nothing but noise in the ether.” (p. 166)
Lacey concludes that by shifty our paradigm view of listening back to viewing it as an active activity, can we begin to better understand the spectrum of communication and of politics. “Here, although it is not stated explicitly, is a recognition of the political action of listening in and on the mediated public, and an indication of just how profound a change to politics, and to political subjectivity, would be enabled by the re-sounding of the public sphere.” (p. 161)
In the age of the Internet, where any person can publish their opinions and find an audience, this book is a great reminder of the importance of listening. It is by listening, that we become engaged in ideas, and moved to action. But if it is more important for us to just to be able to speak and not be understand, that our message joins the countless background noise that attacks people everyday."