Simon Potter is Professor of Modern History and Head of History. His research focuses on the global history of the mass media, and the impact of the press, radio and television on politics, society, and culture. His work on radio and internationalism, and on the BBC and empire, grows out of his wider interest in the history of imperialism and decolonization.
Hi Simon, thanks for joining us. So what’s the title of your new book and what’s it about?
Wireless Internationalism and Distant Listening looks at radio when it was a ‘new medium’ – the equivalent in some ways of today’s social media. In the 1920s and 1930s radio broadcasting (most people called it ‘wireless’ at the time) looked like it was going to transform the way people, and nations, interacted with each other.
I was really struck when I was researching and writing the book by how people thought radio broadcasting was going to change the world, ushering in a new era of international peace and understanding. That seems very utopian, but for people who had just lived through the First World War, it was a pretty attractive prospect. It was part of the wider internationalism of the period, part of the same climate as the League of Nations.
However, in the 1930s, people quickly became aware that they were in fact dealing with a very powerful weapon of mass deception. First the Communist USSR, then the Fascist states, turned radio into a means of international propaganda, and democratic countries soon followed. In writing the book I’ve also become really interested in cultural histories of listening and ‘soundscapes’ – trying to think about the history of sound as part of the lived experience of the past. So the book also looks at how international broadcasting was heard and experienced in the noisy context of the ‘Roaring Twenties’, and beyond.
How did you become interested in these ideas about radio, internationalism and sound?
My last book was about the history of the BBC and empire and ranged from the 1920s to the 1970s. I was very aware as I finished writing it that empire was a really important part of the BBC’s wider international engagement, but had to be put in a wider context – and that the existing historiography didn’t really do that.
I also got really interested in the early years of international radio, which is again a topic that has been a bit neglected – the Second World War and the Cold War have attracted a lot more attention. The whole topic of interwar internationalism has really taken off, so reading about that formed a lot of the backdrop for my research – I wanted to connect with all the great new work on the Wilsonian moment, the League of Nations, and so on. I managed to get a big grant from the Leverhulme Trust to put together a network of historians working on international radio, and while writing this book, I met regularly with them. We are co-writing another book at the moment on the global history of international broadcasting across the whole twentieth century. Together we spent a lot of time talking about the history of sound and soundscapes, so working with other historians (something that historians are doing more and more, particularly because it is one of the only ways to do global history well, bringing out its diversity and complexity) has really enriched my understanding of this area.
What is the importance of the history of international radio today?
People have been saying that radio was dead for a long time – since at least the 1940s, with the advent of television. But radio has in fact remained one of the most pervasive and adaptable media throughout its hundred-year history – 15 June is the centenary of the first organized entertainment programme broadcast in Britain (Dame Nellie Melba singing Home Sweet Home from the Marconi station at Chelmsford) and 2022 is going to see the centenary of the BBC.
Radio now reaches people via the internet, and also gets to people who don’t have reliable internet access, all around the world. It allows all sorts of people to have a voice, and also continues to be a very powerful tool of soft power and cultural diplomacy – or if we don’t want to use euphemisms, propaganda. The British government stopped funding the BBC World Service in 2014, but quickly reversed that decision, because it realized what a powerful tool of persuasion international broadcasting is. In an age of fake news, a lot of the themes of my book really resonate. The League of Nations itself tried to run a campaign against what it called ‘false news’, and established its own radio station to try and present a source of ‘pure’ news that would counter the lies of other broadcasters.
I’ve explored some of the themes relating to the book in my third-year Lecture Response Unit ‘The Development of the Modern Mass Media’, which looked at the role the mass media is meant to play in a democratic society. I taught that course for the last time this year, but I’m hoping to teach some more media history as part of our new curriculum.
What advice would you give to a student interested in media history?
This is a great field to get involved in – it is still relatively unexplored, and there is a huge amount of original research to be done.
It is a fantastic subject for original student research projects, with lots of great digital primary source material that you can easily access and use. The Library has lots of subscriptions to various digital newspaper archives, for example, and you can find links to these on the subject resource page.
You also need to think a lot about what you are actually trying to achieve when you are doing a media history project. It is easy to get overwhelmed by the content, just report on what you read, listen to, or see, and not be critical. You need to think for yourself about how far the media are shaping as well as reflecting the societies and cultures of which they are a part.
There is also lots of scope to integrate media history with ‘mainstream’ history, showing how media history can shed new light on some well-established topics in social, cultural and political history. Work by critical media scholars like James Curran and Laurel Brake provide some great background reading.
What’s the best advice you ever got about history?
It was advice about life as much as history – from my personal tutor, Brian Harrison. He told me to cultivate a healthy disregard for what others around me were doing – don’t feel the need to conform, or to accept that you should be doing what everyone else is doing. That advice has always stayed with me.
What’s the most interesting thing you’ve read in the last twelve months?
It is not History – I’m a huge Sci Fi fan, and I just finished Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice. A very thought-provoking exploration of imperialism, oppression, resistance and (the Sci Fi bit) a world in which an individual can be a part of a wider consciousness (and not in a good way).
If you had a time machine, where and when would you most want to go?
During the lockdown I watched a lot of Dr Who with my kids, so this is quite topical for me. I think it would either be to see prehistoric England before massive deforestation – what our countryside covered with trees looked like (that would have to be from an airborne TARDIS). Experiencing Mayan civilization would be nice, too.
What’s your must-do Bristol experience?
I live in North Somerset and am a big fan of walking in the beautiful countryside that surrounds Bristol. In the city I love going to venues like St George’s and the Fleece – there is a huge amount of great live music going on, which I’m really missing at the moment. The Orchard Inn is pretty good for cider.
You can also hear Simon talking about his new book on the New Books in History podcast here.