A face for radio: on-air identity in broadcasting

Helen Lorraine Wolfenden

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis


This study addresses a mundane, but central phenomenon in media practice, specifically radio broadcasting. Every day, radio broadcasters go into a studio, sit in front of a microphone, and talk to their (imagined) audience in such a way that the (actual) audience feels addressed, and responds. Speaking into a microphone is not a natural activity, and most people are not able to do it in such a way that people hear themselves addressed by it. Somehow, effective radio broadcasters are able to produce the symbolic indicators of friendship, sympathy, companionship, disclosure and intimacy that a listening public will accept as authentic – all while isolated in a studio.

Radio broadcasting encompasses many genres and modes of address. This study is interested specifically in the kind of radio that is produced within the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, especially its Local Radio network. It attempts to answer the question of how ABC Radio talk broadcasters construct an on-air identity.

Most radio research involves the study of radio output. This study works directly with the insights and perceptions of broadcasters: that is one of its original contributions. Fourteen broadcasters from metropolitan stations across Australia were interviewed, along with their producers and in some cases another person close to them to determine their consciousness of the on-air self, the relationship between the on-air self and who they are off air, and the role of other people in the presentation of self, such as producers and members of the audience. They were asked about their background and training, and specifically what advice they had been given on how to present themselves on air. In a further focus upon radio practice, the interviews were analysed in the aural medium, scanning and patterning the data, as a radio maker would.

‘For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.’1 That advice in this context is the frequently-used phrase used in training on-air radio presenters: ‘Just be yourself’. The theoretical perspectives of Symbolic Interactionism are employed to show that this cannot be an adequate answer. ‘Yourself’ is created in interaction, and there are as many selves, potentially, as there are spheres of interaction. In a radio broadcast the presenter has to imagine the interaction and communicate a correspondingly appropriate self over the microphone. To whom then are they speaking? This raises the second simple answer: you imagine ‘a single listener’. Again, this cannot be a solution. The distinctive features of this single imagined audience member would alienate all others who could not identify with a person like that.

The interviews collected for this study demonstrate that presenters’ identity work is both more sophisticated and more authentic than these simple answers imagine. Contrary to the assumptions of some earlier research, the relationship between presenter and audience is a real relationship. As with other relationships, the selfhood of the presenter is built in the flux of that relationship: uncertain and exploratory at first, more secure and able to take more risks with time. In each interaction, they are skilled in assembling fragments of information to create a fluid, dynamic and concurrent conception of the audience: or, as James Valentine describes it, ‘a collective mass, one at a time’.
1 Attributed to H. L. Mencken
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • University of South Australia
  • Snowden, Collette, Supervisor, External person
  • Cook, Jackie, Supervisor, External person
  • Crowley, Vicki, Supervisor, External person
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2014
Externally publishedYes


  • radio broadcasting
  • symbolic interaction
  • identity
  • public service broadcasting


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