In response to: Brian Larkin, “Unstable Objects: The Making of Radio in Nigeria”
Ashlyn E. Tom
Larkin’s chapter “Unstable Objects: The Making of Radio in Nigeria” covers the development and spread of the radio in the 20th century in Britain-colonized Nigeria. Through examinations of technological shortcomings, exploration of radio advertisements in Africa, and an analysis of the British choice between wired and wireless radio, Larkin explains how this technology and other infrastructures are symbolic of modern people in a modern world and how its developments are strongly intertwined with politics and control.
When examining the history of radio in Nigeria, we come across what seems to be a paradox: the contradiction between the emphasis on the free flow of new ideas, connecting the colonized and exposing them to new concepts—and the importance of broadcasting select propaganda to maintain British control. On one hand, the British wanted to modernize Nigeria with radio technology by introducing new ideas and creating a faster way to circulate this information:
“The British hoped that radio would end the parochialism of conservative Islam and expose people to new ideas, new ways of thinking coming from different nodes in the circuit. They hoped it would abolish insularity and replace the slow connections made via the camel caravans and itinerant preachers of past information orders with the electronically organized, European-focused networks of colonial modernity” (Larkin 2008, pg. 59).
On the other, they wanted to avoid this technology being used in such a way that would threaten their control over their colonies. Wired radio allowed them to select what was broadcasted and where. Though music and broadcasts in local languages were made, Western ideas were heavily circulated. Some of these ideas were simultaneously educational and attempted to accentuate the grandeur of colonial infrastructure, such as the talk on “Water Supply and Electricity Provision”. Many, however, focused on carving out identities for the regions of Nigeria, while connecting them all to Britain. In doing so, the British hoped to keep previous tensions at bay.
It worked with relative success. As the radio became more commonplace, people’s religiously and spiritually-related fears dissipated. Men no longer became concerned about their wives hearing an unrelated man’s voice. People no longer suspected the radio of magic and therefore un-Islamic. British ideas could now be spread to Nigeria much faster than before. Radio connected the country to the rest of the world. “…It was also part of the larger project of opening up Nigeria to ideas and concerns from outside its borders, making it more cosmopolitan and more tightly integrated into the wider world” (Larkin 2008, pg. 56). And perhaps most importantly for the British, they could control what Nigerians listened to.
But it had its downfall. Failures of infrastructure, like water shortages, made Nigerians question the link between greatness and its supposed association with modern technology. Technical difficulties with clear signal and consistent power, a high rate of radio disrepair, and a shortage of radio units for homes made an alternative to RDS seem more appealing: wireless radio. Wireless radio most certainly had its pros. It had the potential to reach rural areas of the country. Additionally, “As wireless was to be build by a private company with public financing, it seemed likely to provide a better service at a lower cost to the government” (Larkin 2008, pg. 66). But it was more costly than renting a loudspeaker, and most crucially, it meant that the British would no longer have relatively complete control over who listened to what. It could threaten their ideas and work to create distinct regional identities, possibly causing tensions to rise and colonial power to be lost.
In the end, this concept of open, quick, free-flowing ideas was in actuality a desire for exposure only to British-regulated propaganda. The implementation of radio technology was indeed an attempt to make conservative Nigerians more open-minded, but only to what the British wanted them to believe. The apparent contradiction was never a paradox in the first place, as it was never intended to be truly “open”. However, this openness did eventually become realized when wireless radio prevailed over RDS, giving rise to Nigerian regional broadcasts and allowing the colonized to tune in to other political identities.
Larkin, Brian. 2008. “Unstable Objects: The Making of Radio in Nigeria,” in Signal and Noise: Media, Infrastructure, and Urban Culture in Nigeria. Durham: Duke University Press, pp. 48-72.
Featured Image: Miss Udo Affica broadcasting from Lagos, WRTH Radio Heritage Foundation Collection