Lacey, K. (2013). Listening publics: The politics and experience of listening in the media age. Malden, MA: Polity Press. 238 pages.
According to Kate Lacey’s new book, Listening Publics: The Politics and Experience of Listening in the Media Age, listening has become a forgotten area of study in the field of communications. And for Lacey, this lapse in the understanding of listening has had far reaching consequences.
Lacey’s central argument is that listening is currently viewed as a passive activity within the communications field. According to Lacey, characteristics of passive listening include: little concentration, lack of involvement, and a sense of indifference towards political action. The evidence she gathers to support her conclusions come primarily through historical research. In fact the majority of the text focuses on the development of privatized listening habits of societies over the first half of the twentieth century. It is these privatized listening habits that influenced the early broadcasters of radio, who then began the paradigm shift in how listening is viewed.
What Lacey’s analysis shows is that as radio developed, society began viewing it as a primary way to communicate. Because of this, new communication techniques needed to be created. Soon the public’s demand for radio increased, and radio became more commonplace. As radio became more commonplace, the listening habits of the public began to change.
As radio became more affordable, it began to be marketed more for private use in the home. Thus, listening began to be viewed as more of a “private” activity, where an individual would be in control over what she or he listened to. This ability to make personal choices became very important. Lacey (2013) states “…The dominant trend through this history was towards the privatization and individualization of the listening public via the technological and textual inscription of an idealized and domesticated listener…” (p. 132) Previously, listening was viewed as more of a public activity, occurring in public spaces such as parks, auditoriums, and clubs, where individuals were openly engaged in the politics and activities of the community.
As radio grew, its champions began to see it as the great class equalizer, which would be able to assist poorer classes reach new heights of success and education. According to Lacey, as broadcasters began to conduct early market research and ratings polling, they noticed that the more “intellectual/educational” programming was not receiving the listenership broadcasters had hoped for. Since individuals where now able to make their own personal choices of what they listened to, they chose to listen to entertainment programs, rather than educational ones. Hence broadcasters began to replace these programs with shows that would have more of a mass entertainment appeal. This shift in programming focus had a fundamental effect. “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.” (Lacey, 2013, p. 114)
But why is whether or not we view listening as a passive or active activity so important to Lacey? If you are active, then you are engaged in the world, according to Lacey (2013): “Listening is at the heart of what it means to be in the world, to be active, to be political.” (p. 163) This individualization that had occurred via radio began to take the individual out of the world. Listeners were no longer publicly engaged. And the culture of listening as a passive activity took prominence. To put it another way, by choosing privatized listening habits, people were no longer engaging in public debates. Society chose listening to be entertainment focused instead of education focused. Broadcasters, watching this trend, replaced educational programming with more entertainment programming. And since an individual was not being moved to action or participation in politics, listening began to be seen as a passive activity, not an active one. Choice and privatization led to passivity. Listeners chose to listen to what “pleased” us.
To reverse this trend, Lacey concludes that the communications field needs to review its standpoint on listening.
Lacey (2013) states: The politics of listening is an important corrective to conceptualizations of public participating that are restricted to notions of speech, dialogue, and text… theories and practices of media communication and public life miss too much if they don’t give the politics and experience of listening a fair hearing. (p. 199)
Listening Publics: The Politics and Experience of Listening in the Media Age, raises many thought provoking questions, and presents ideas/ theories that the communications field might do well to study more. Portions of her argument on the interconnectedness between listening and politics are especially intriguing. Lacey’s research gives credence and support to the statement: “To state simply – without a listener, speech is nothing but noise in the ether.” (Lacey, 2013, p. 166)
However this book leaves many questions unanswered. Lacey’s identification of the communications field and society’s lack of understanding of listening is provided. But then what? What can the communications field do to improve this lack of understanding, other than more research? What can broadcasters do to help improve listening’s image? Is passivity the only explanation for why listening has fallen from grace? How does an individual’s attention span play into how she or he listens? Additionally the historical research does weigh the text down at times. Majority of the historical research primarily focuses on radio’s impact on listening, but what about television or the Internet’s impact? Is society currently repeating the same mistakes that Lacey describes early broadcasters making with these new technologies? It would have been especially intriguing to see how Lacey would apply her research conclusions to television and the Internet.
Peter Kreten (M.Ed., Saint Xavier University) is the Director of Student Media at Saint Xavier University. He is currently the President of College Radio Day.