Introduction: media and revolutions
Media have always played an important role in social movements and protest manifestations. As Gerbaudo observed, ‘Modern media have always constituted a channel through which social movements not only communicate but also organise their actions and mobilise their constituencies’ (2012, p. 4). The waves of political manifestations and social movements that occurred between 2009 and 2012 were often labelled by the global media as social media revolutions, Facebook revolutions or Twitter revolutions, definitions that reveal a techno-determinist vision and that underestimate the different political and social contexts in which each of these protests took place.
In recent years, media studies have therefore played an important role in reviewing simple news declarations and performing an in-depth analysis of the complex relationship between the media and social movements, for which a vast amount of literature has been produced in the field of political and media studies (Gerbaudo, 2017; Gerbaudo and Treré, 2015; Castells, 2015; Bennett and Segerberg, 2013; Gerbaudo, 2012; Della Porta and Diani, 2009; Della Porta and Tarrow, 2005; Van de Donk et al., 2004; Castells, 2001; Castells, 1996, just to name a few recent publications). The majority of these scholars agree on debunking the mainstream narrative that places social media among the causes of these revolutions, and instead see in these media, with different levels of potential, tools that can support social movements.
I will propose a similar thesis in this paper, one far from the techno-deterministic positions and enthusiastic news tales of the intrinsically democratising power of social media. The only concession I will make to technological determinism is that every medium has its own technical specificity (Innis, 1950) that does have an impact on the speed of spreading information within a social movement. There is a big difference between a samizdat (self-published materials like pamphlets, newspapers, underground publications) that, circulating from one hand to another, took months to reach the most outlying towns of the Soviet Union (Briggs and Burke, 2009) and a tweet sent in the streets of New York during the 2011 Occupy Wall Street protests.
Revolutions, social movements and street protests did take place before the advent of social media, but this does not mean that the media available were not important for mobilisation, as demonstrated by Lenin in his Theory of the Press (Ehrenberg, 1980). Social media platforms simply represent the most recent phase of a long historical process, in which media have played a fundamental role in circulating the ideas of oppositional social movements and their mobilisation. Since the times of Luther, there has been no political revolution that has not taken advantage of the media of its age. Luther’s Protestant theses spread thanks to Gutenberg and his printing press revolution (Eisenstein, 2005); the ideas of the 1789 French Revolution were promulgated in the first few years through the enormous amount of printed publications, libels, pamphlets and newspapers (Briggs and Burke 2009). Benedict Anderson (1991) discussed the influence of print technology on the rise of modern social movements. In 1979, it was the audiocassette that quickly spread the word of Khomeini, and in general, audiocassettes played an important role in all the fundamental religious movements in the 1970s, from Hindu to Christian mobilisations (Sreberny and Mohammadi, 1994). This role was also recognised by Foucault in an article for the Italian newspaper Il Corriere della Sera: ‘If the Shah is about to fall it will be due largely to the cassette tape. It is the tool par excellence of counter-information’ (1978). Bruce Sterling (1995) tells of the role of the modem in Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution in 1989; in Seattle, the first big protest that was also fought online (Castells, 2001), protesters used mailing lists, Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) and the first web radio. In Genoa in 2001, a mix of the internet, mailing lists, mobile phones, web radio (Radio Gap) and radio (Radio Popolare) contributed to the counter-narrative of the events related to the G8 protests and to the organisation of street mobilisation. Between 1999 and 2005, before the explosion of social media, anti-globalisation movements in many parts of the world created their own information network and their own publishing channel, the global online network IMC (Independent Media Center), known as Indymedia, taking advantage of the digital and web technologies available (Coyer, 2005).
The difference between the protests of the first years of the twenty-first century and those that followed, which began in the age of the Web 2.0, lies in the different means utilised, as Gerbaudo noted: ‘Where self-managed activist internet services like Indymedia and activist mailing lists were the media of choice of the anti-globalisation movement, contemporary activists are instead shamelessly appropriating corporate social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter’ (2012, p. 2). The infosphere that hovers over recent street protests has been quickly enriched by new technologies, depending on the level of media literacy in the countries where protests have occurred.
Gerbaudo (2012) clearly recognised the mobilising role of social media that are able to get people on the streets. He claimed that the social media used in the last wave of global political protests are means of mobilisation of collective action, employed to ‘choreograph collective action’ (Gerbaudo, 2012, p. 4). They are to be understood, he suggested, as tools for the symbolic construction of public space. This practice, as Gerbaudo claimed, ‘is made visible in the use of social media in directing people towards specific protest events, in providing participants with suggestions and instructions about how to act, and in the construction of an emotional narration to sustain their coming together in public space’ (2012, p. 13).
As mentioned above, vast amounts of literature have explored this subject, and media scholars have analysed the role played by all forms of media, from the press to social media, in social movements. However, what stands out is the scant amount of studies dedicated to the role of radio in these movements. If we exclude some classic essays that flourished in the age of free radio between the 1970s and the 1980s (Guattari, 1978; Barbrook, 1995) and the research around community and citizen radio (Girard, 1992; Gumucio Dagron, 1998; Rodriguez, 2001; Fraser and Restrepo-Estrada, 2002; O’Connor, 2004; Gordon, 2012), radio as a tool for social change seems to have received only occasional and intermittent attention from media scholars and political scientists. Especially, the research on social movements that took place after the advent of social media has mostly underestimated the role of radio.
What I will attempt to show in this paper, through the case of the Turkish broadcaster Açık Radyo during the Gezi Park protests, is that radio continues to play the same role it did in the past in the symbolic construction of public space, which Gerbaudo attributes to social media. Contemporary protests no longer take advantage of the support of one type of media, but connect to a complex mediascape where every medium, from analogue to digital, from mass to niche, is ‘contested’, or simultaneously appropriated by both the protesters and the institutions those protesters are fighting against. Media, alone, do not make revolutions, as Sreberny and Mohammadi (1994) already understood when they described the role of ‘small media’ (audio tapes and leaflets) in the Iranian revolution of 1979; instead, protest movements today tactically appropriate many technological tools at the same time.
Radio and the mediascape of protests (1968–2011)
Before analysing the case this paper focuses on, I will propose a brief historical overview of the protests in which radio played a more central role than other means of communication, starting with the événements of May 1968 in Paris. In 1968, the communication technologies that most supported movements were radio, graffiti and mimeographs. In Paris, in the first days of May 1968, information about the protest was not provided by the public radio-television broadcaster of France, but by two private radio stations Europe 1 and RTL, who sent their correspondents, who were used to reporting live sports events like the Tour de France, onto the streets of Paris.
Their live reporting was amplified by transistor radios, devices that were easy to carry in the streets and on the barricades, as Evelyne Sullerot, a sociologist who interviewed many students involved in the protests, recalled: ‘Things went too fast for newspapers alone to quell the desire for knowledge, all the more so because May ’68 mostly happened in the evening and at night. The television was discredited, the newspapers were surpassed by the speed of events, good just to be tasted in the morning, at breakfast, as a verification: all that was left was the radio’ (1968, p. 126). Sullerot held many field interviews with students involved in the protests, such as the following: ‘It was fantastic. After years of lies and stupidity, there you heard the story of the truth come out of the transistors … Facts! Facts! The radio people were counterattacked by their own trade. […] And we were no longer in a ghetto, but in a house of glass. It seemed like all public life would change, if we started to talk about it’ (1968, p. 135); ‘As soon as I heard a transistor, I really cheered up. They talked about thirty barricades. I jumped for joy and we all yelled: “We’re not alone!”. It was because of the radio that I realised the number, the extent. Before that, I felt alone. We started to hear shots fire. […] Then a woman with a transistor came over and we heard “thirty barricades” and I realised – but maybe it was stupid – that at least, if we had died, we would have died with witnesses, connected to the world’ (1968, p. 136).
Students used transistors ‘tactically’, as De Certeau (1994) affirms in his recognition of their importance for those nights of May: ‘The transistor, for the protesters, was the information they could take with them, that gave them the power to control the game, instead of losing it, […] and that, in the end, transformed the actors into protagonists, offering everyone the means to control the information in real time and to choose their move’ (1994, p. 80). In October of the same year, the students of UNAM in Mexico City, the public university of the capital, seized the university broadcaster to feed the protest against the regime of Ordaz, before he ordered the closure of the radio by the army (Bonini, 2009). This use of radio, inaugurated along the boulevards of Paris and continued throughout the world, is a good example of the ‘tactical’ appropriation of a means of communication advocated by Garcia and Lovink (1997) in their manifesto of tactical media.
Listening to the radio during street protests and urban guerrilla warfare, which was first experienced during the nights of Paris, would become common in the 1970s in Italy with the explosion of the phenomenon of free radio. Specifically, Radio Alice, the free broadcaster in Bologna, would play a decisive role in communicating with its listeners through transistor radios during the manifestations and street clashes of March 1977 (Eco, 1977). During the age of the massive popularisation of television, between the 1960s and the 1980s, the radio, light, mobile and portable, was still the favourite tool of social movements all over the world (Girard, 2003). In addition to the spreading of free radio in Europe and pirate radio in the UK, the network of community broadcasters strengthened on the global level: AMARC, the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters, was founded in 1983. Experiences of web radio founded by social movements multiplied (Bonini, 2006). The anti-WTO protests of Seattle were remembered by Castells (2001) as being the first protests to make massive use of digital tools to create a network, but this reconstruction underestimates the role played by local FM radio and by web radio, as Coyer explained: ‘Within the global and local Indymedia networks, a tremendous output of radio is being produced as a form of alternative news and entertainment in neighbourhoods on the FM band and online for a global audience’ (2005, p. 30).
In July 2001, during the anti-G8 protests in Genoa, this story would repeat itself: again, the transistor radio (hybridised with cellular phones) was chosen as the preferred means for the search for real-time information, the circulation of news among the activists and the building of a common narrative that protesters could collectively recognise themselves in (Boni and Mazzoleni, 2002; Ferrentino et al., 2006). In Genoa, Radio Popolare, a broadcaster from Milan, would play a ‘service’ role for the protesters: ‘Many protesters on the days of Friday the 20th and Saturday the 21st of July had radios tuned in to Radio Popolare with them, and thanks to the information and the live news from reporters on various fronts, they could identify in real time potential escape routes to run away from the charges of the black bloc and the police’ (Boni and Mazzoleni, 2002, p. 336).
In the United States, the Prometheus Radio Project was founded in 1998. This community of political activists contributed to the legalisation of the low power FM broadcasters in the United States, and helped many social movements to equip themselves with their own shortwave radio broadcaster (Dunbar-Hester, 2014). More recently, even during the protests of the so-called Arab Spring, the Occupy movements and the Indignados, radio played a central role that has escaped political analysts, journalists and media scholars, so impressed by the thaumaturgical power of social media.
During the Occupy Wall Street movement, radio programmes dedicated to reporting and analysing the movement were founded and hosted by local radio, but programmes separate from the traditional broadcasters were also produced and distributed through podcasting networks. Community radio stations were key to spreading the message of the Occupy movement (Carpenter, 2012). In Tunisia in 2011, the young protesters founded web and secret local radio stations, which allowed their ideas to circulate even in rural areas and in those without internet access. The role of community radio was analysed during a conference by AMARC entitled ‘Community media and the Arab Spring’ (AMARC, 2012). And in Spain, the Indignados movement was fed, in addition to new digital technologies and the activists that Postill has called ‘freedom technologists’ (2014), by several podcasts and web radios, such as Agorà Sol Radio (Coyer, 2015).
Due to space constraints, this brief historical overview has named only some of the more well-documented cases in which radio has played a central role as a tool for communication adopted by a social movement. It has aimed to show how radio has been used by social movements in different times, latitudes, political and technological contexts, and has never lost its potential. This paper will now focus on the very specific case of the Turkish broadcaster Açık Radyo. I have decided to analyse this case because it is relatively under-investigated and, above all, it played an important, yet unacknowledged, role during the Gezi Park protests. Studies that have focused on this radio station do exist, but they are few and do not address Gezi Park (Köker and Döanay, 2007; Birsen, 2011; Haydari, 2015). I intend to demonstrate that Açık Radyo represents an exemplary case of the centrality of radio in the age of digitally supported protests.
The Gezi Park Protests
The Gezi Protests, an environmental sit-in that turned into a social movement in Turkey, are often compared to the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement with regard to the importance attributed to social media. They began when a small group of protesters held a demonstration at Gezi Park in Istanbul to call for a halt to the demolition of its trees to make way for a shopping mall. The ruling governmental party, Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (AKP; the Justice and Development Party), responded aggressively to the protest, igniting countrywide unrest. Haciyakupoglu and Zhang, who performed field research in Turkey, claimed that ‘the consequent protests involved the lengthy occupation of numerous urban spaces, the most significant of which was the historical and symbolic Gezi Park, as well as many other types of participatory activities, such as demonstrations and petitions’ (2015, p. 450). Triggered by a violent police crackdown and precipitated by Prime Minister Recep Tayip Erdoğan’s defiant and polarising rhetoric, the demonstrations quickly spread to other cities (Özkırımlı, 2014). According to Castells (2015), the Gezi Protests quickly turned into a clash between ‘old and new Turkey’. According to Mason (2013), the Turkish urban middle class made up the majority of the protesters, calling to his mind the Commune of Paris.
Vatikiotis and Yörük (2016) claimed that the Gezi protest movement shared many features with the 2011 uprisings in the Middle East, Europe, and the United States. They also claim that ‘the employment of social networking sites (in addition to older web applications and Internet tools) along with the use of mobile media has been a common characteristic of the recent protest movements, facilitating their mobilisation and/or organisation’ (2016, p. 2). Due to the lack of free mass media in Turkey – the pro-government mainstream media chose to ignore the incidents initially and, when this became impossible, launched an ‘orchestrated disinformation and defamation campaign against the protesters’ (Vatikiotis and Yörük 2016, p. 7) – ‘social media emerged as an option for freedom of expression’ (2016, p. 5).
The environmental movement against the dismantling of Gezi Park gave rise to a protest that involved thousands of Turks only after the violent removal of the activists by the police (Tastan, 2013), or rather, only from the moment when the photos and videos of the removal started to circulate on Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, Instagram, YouTube, and Tumblr (and on all these social media platforms, rather than just one). Then began the wider mobilisation of the population, outraged by media censorship: ‘I saw the photo of the ‘woman in red’ on Facebook. ‘Police violence has both impressed and shocked me even more than the uprooting of trees planned by the government. I was also impressed by the growing participation in the demonstrations’ (Ferda, a protester, in Farro and Demirhisar, 2014, p. 183). Another protester told the Huffington Post that ‘social media are the key to this movement. Because Turkish television didn’t show anything’ (Dorsey, 2013).
According to Tufekci (2013; 2014), #OccupyGezi was not like the many (and even more numerous) protests and the multiple repressions that have taken place in Turkey in the past. Tufekci (2013) defines it as ‘a social media fueled protest’. Between May 29, 2013 and June 10, 2013, the daily use of Twitter in Turkey increased from 1.8 to 10 million tweets. There were more than 20 hashtags related to the protests that became the most popular worldwide trending topics, and among them, six hashtags went over the one million messages per day barrier (Vatikiotis and Yörük, 2016). Unlike some other recent uprisings, around 90 percent of all geo-located tweets came from within Turkey, and 50 percent from within Istanbul. In comparison, it was estimated that only 30 percent of those tweeting during the Egyptian revolution were actually in the country (Barbera et al., 2013).
Social media, like the transistor in the streets of Paris in 1968, were useful to show that the squares were full of other like-minded people, and made it possible for individual enraged citizens to join the protesters. The physical space of Gezi Park, which according to Vatikiotis and Yörük (2016) was transformed into a new public sphere by this new networked social movement, was crossed by growing and continuous flows of audiovisual and text communication, channelled through the protesters’ ICT. The Turkish government responded by attempting to interrupt or block this flow, and often cut off internet access or limited its use. There were also other challenges for the protesters, such as battery preservation and connectivity. ‘Occasionally, the concentration of a dense population in an area caused delays in phone and Internet connections’, Haciyakupoglu and Zhang noted: ‘Although large telecommunications companies installed equipment to improve the connection in the area, and cafes and apartments gave free access to their wifis, numerous people experienced connection problems. In addition to Internet connection, the usage of other functions, such as recording videos, consumed a lot of battery’ (2015, p. 460).
When there was no connection or batteries were dead, it was still the radio that the protesters turned to in order to stay informed, as we shall see. The old transistor radio brought on the barricades of Paris in 1968 reappeared in the streets of Istanbul in 2013, proving itself to be a highly resilient means (Oliveira et al., 2014). All the authors mentioned thus far have rightly attributed an important role to digital social media; however, they have forgotten that among the set of communicative ‘weapons’ in the protesters’ hands, there were, as always, analogue media too, like television and radio. During the first few days, alternative TV channels such as Halk TV and Ulusal Kanal covered the uprisings, helping them to become a bigger anti-authoritarianism movement. The Gezi movement also created its own online video channels such as Capul TV (Mortada, 2013) and Naber Medya. It also gave birth to two different online radio initiatives: Gezi Radyo, an FM station transmitting live on FM 101.9 from June 11 until the end of July 20131 and OccupyGeziRadio,2 a podcasting channel active between June 3–11, 2013. All these new channels were able to attract a few thousand listeners and viewers, but there was a radio station, broadcasting live from 1995, that played a much more important role during those days: its name is Açık Radyo, and it will be the focus of this paper.
Açık Radyo and the Gezi Protests
Açık Radyo means ‘open radio’ in Turkish. It was founded by the former political science professor Ömer Madra and first began broadcasting on November 13, 1995. It is a regional radio station, established as an incorporated company, but similar in its functioning to a community radio station. (Community radio is not legally recognised in Turkey, according to Kuyucu (2014)). It has adopted the American format of a listener-supported station: it receives donations from its community of listeners. All of Açık Radyo’s presenters and producers – around 200 – are volunteers, except the four main editors. Açık Radyo broadcasts 134 different programs each week. The radio station has hosted more than 15,000 guests in its 22 years of broadcasting. Its main issues are environmental movements, civil rights, globalisation and inequality, freedom of the press and world music. Most of its presenters are former listeners who decided to volunteer as radio producers and belong to the local art, cultural and political scenes. According to the last audience report available from Nielsen in 2000, Açık Radyo’s core listeners (everyday listeners) are around 45,000, and its weekly listeners are 120,000.
This study is based on an ethnographic investigation undertaken between December 2014 and January 2015 that used a mix of participant observation (Spradley, 1980) and in-depth interviews (Patton, 2001) with 15 Açık Radyo workers and volunteers and ten Açık Radyo listeners to investigate the role of the station during the days of the Gezi Protests. I spent the week between December 7 and December 15 in the station’s two studios, in order to meet the people who were volunteering for the station. The participant observation was performed during this week. I took part in the formal weekly newsroom meetings, and I had informal conversations and interactions with all the members of the newsroom. Over the following weeks, I made appointments to interview them. These interviews were held in the radio’s studios or garden and were recorded. Interviews with listeners were held in their private homes or in their workplaces and were recorded, too. In order to find listeners willing to be interviewed, I was assisted by the radio’s editor-in-chief who acted as our intermediary, choosing for us the most accessible listeners and putting us into contact with them. We only interviewed one listener without the editor-in-chief’s mediation: a taxi driver met by chance during a ride in his taxi.
The producers we interviewed all come from an upper-class cultural background, have been to university and belong to the country’s secular intellectual class. They are between 20 and 40 years old, except for the editor-in-chief, who is over 65. However, the listeners interviewed belong to different social classes, including a taxi driver, two vegetable sellers, a professional musician, two dancers, a professional interpreter, a restaurant owner, a translator and a university professor. These are some of the station’s core listeners, and have taken part in fundraising campaigns to support it, except for the taxi driver, who is familiar with the station but has never supported it economically. All the interviews were conducted and recorded in English, except for the interview with the taxi driver, which was recorded in Turkish and then translated into English with the help of an interpreter.
In order to analyse the data, we coded the transcripts we had collected and employed a Grounded Theory approach (Glaser and Strauss, 1967) to identify and group the main concepts emerging from the interviews. Additionally, in order to understand the role of Açık Radyo in the flows of communication that pass through Twitter, we downloaded the total amount of tweets containing the keyword ‘acik radyo’ during the interval from May 1 to June 30, 2013.3
During the first interview with the editor-in-chief, which lasted two and a half hours, a very important detail emerged regarding Açık Radyo’s role in the Gezi Park protests. The radio had already been following Gezi Park’s environmental movement for a few months before the protests broke out. But then, on May 28, the police brought in the bulldozers they intended to remove the protesters with. In that moment, as the editor-in-chief recalls, ‘At the radio we received a phone call from one of our listeners, who had a chemist’s near Taksim. The listener wanted to warn us that from his shop he could see bulldozers approaching the square. So, on the radio we said that the police were coming for the removal, and we asked our listeners to go to the square to support the environmentalists. Then the news started to circulate on social media’.
According to this account of the event, the news of the arrival of the police was first heard on the radio, and immediately afterwards on social media. The chain comprising on-site witnesses, telephone, radio and social media triggered an initial mobilisation of the protest beyond the environmental movement. From that moment on, the radio changed its regular schedule to follow the protests live, and itself used the internet and social media to amplify its message. The editor-in-chief affirmed that the radio’s Twitter account ‘passed from 16,000 followers before May 30, 2013 to more than 100,000 in the following two weeks [at the time of writing this article, there are 142,000 followers], while our website went mad. It was unbelievable’.
The editor-in-chief’s recollection was supported by the data we downloaded from Twitter related to the period of the protests: there were 2,660 tweets mentioning the Twitter account @Açıkradyo during May–June 2013. During the month of May 2013, @Açıkradyo received 469 mentions. The following month, when mass protests broke out, it was mentioned 2,191 times by a network of 2,060 Twitter users, received 8,889 Retweets and 1,768 Favourites, and was often mentioned by Twitter profiles connected to the protests, for example by @DirenGeziParki, one of the most active Twitter accounts during the days of the protests, which started in May 2013 and is currently followed by 207,000 users. Thanks to its Twitter account and to the collective sharing of its tweets, Acik Radyo reached a brand new audience, far bigger than its traditional FM audience. Its ability to connect with both the protestors and its traditional listeners through its Twitter network contributed to positioning the station as one of the most relevant communication channels during the protests, and to grow its importance inside the movement.
As shown in Figure 1, the account’s Mentions are concentrated in the first days of the protests, with a peak between May 31 and June 1, and further peaks of lesser intensity during the whole period of the protests until the middle of June, when the police took back control of the square. Figure 1 shows how Açık Radyo played an active role in circulating information and mobilising protesters, even if the number of Retweets and users directly involved in mentioning it form only a small proportion of the millions of tweets produced in those days.
The tweet by Açık Radyo that received the highest number of Retweets (291 Retweets, 7 Favourites) is a piece of information: ‘The latest on Besiktas: Barbaros Boulevard is closed up to the Maritime Museum. The police and the people are moving towards a frontal clash’ (7:49 am, June 1, 2013). The second most Retweeted message was the following: ‘The team coming from Kadikoy is on the bridge. They are walking calmly with a convoy of cars towards Barbarossa. No police’ (5:36 am, June 1, 2013). We can see that the most Retweeted messages contain service information that was useful for the crowds as they oriented themselves on the streets. Many of the protesters did not come into the streets with transistor radios as they did in May 1968, but Açık Radyo still reached them, through Twitter. Even if they were not radio listeners, they were still networked listeners (Bonini, 2015; Bonini et al., 2016). Açık Radyo’s impact on the protesters was therefore not limited only to the few thousand who listened to it, but extended to the networked listeners who followed it on Twitter, and to their followers who read Açık Radyo’s warnings through their friends’ Retweets. One of these networked listeners is the Twitter user @eliflif, a Turkish student and human rights activist who, at 3:57 am on June 1, tweeted the following message to her 1,200 followers: ‘Açık Radyo is telling us that the new gas is ‘orange gas’. Pick up the capsules if you can so we can denounce it! Because it’s prohibited in the EU!’. This tweet obtained 202 Retweets and 9 Favourites, and contributed to amplifying Açık Radyo’s voice among the protesters, even if they included many people who didn’t know the station and had never heard it before.
One year after the protests, the editor-in-chief also stated that the number of donors and supporters of the station had increased, a further indirect confirmation of Açık Radyo’s popularity during the movement. While we were conducting the interview, a couple of young listeners came into the station’s building and interrupted us in order to speak to the editor-in-chief. They wanted to compliment him for his daily work: ‘We were walking near here and we thought we should pass by to say hello and encourage you’. The editor-in-chief said that these kinds of scenes happen often: listeners have an emotional connection with the radio and often pass by to visit, to meet the people they only know by voice and to show their appreciation for them.
During the days of the protests, the radio sent some reporters to the square, who also participated directly. One of them, Cem (not his real name), camped out with other protesters in the park for a week. From there, he reported to the radio what was happening through live phone coverage, and conducted interviews that would be edited a year later to produce a 30-minute audio documentary to celebrate the movement’s first anniversary. Cem says that ‘the memory of Gezi is always with me’, and confirms that those days changed him: now he is much more politicised, and collaborates with the editor-in-chief in presenting the morning political talk show.
One listener we interviewed, a dancer who participated in the movement and also organised performances in the square during the protests, remembers finding herself listening by chance to that documentary one year after the events of June 2013, and starting to cry, because the radio had made her ‘go back to all the emotions of those days’. As she recalls, ‘The days of Gezi were very intense. We were always in the square, we never slept. The few times we stopped at home to rest, we kept the radio on Açık, not only to know what was happening while we weren’t there, but to feel close to the corps of the protest’. For this girl, listening to Açık meant being able to continue participating in the collective body that had brought the protest to life, even if only virtually, vicariously.
One of the two presenters of the daily evening show is a young visual artist who came to the station after having joined the protest movement: ‘I went to the square and participated in the protests, because I thought it was right. I followed Açık when I was at home and couldn’t participate in the protests, to keep myself up to date. It gave me strength. The voices I heard on the radio moved me, gave me hope. Then, when the movement disappeared from the squares, I decided to volunteer for the station, to somehow continue to be politically active’.
One listener who works as an interpreter remembers keeping Açık Radyo on 24 hours a day in order to know what was happening while she was working at home. The two vegetable sellers interviewed in a local market listen to the radio at work on a transistor radio, and during the days of the protest couldn’t join the others in the square, but followed all the events on Açık, because ‘it was the only free voice available. The other media told us lies; Açık was the only one to tell us the truth’. This is an important point. I understand that people turned to social media partly because of the refusal or inability of the mainstream media to cover the protests. The taxi driver, who every morning listens to Açık Gazzette, the broadcaster’s political talk show, had the same opinion: ‘Erdoğan is a dictator. In Turkey, there is no freedom of expression. The journalists of Açık Radyo are courageous and tell the truth. Their voices convinced me to participate in the protests, even if I am not politicised, and when I was working in the car and couldn’t go to the square, I tuned in to Açık to understand what was happening’.
Radio and revolutions in the digital age: a polymedia scape
From the interviews held and data gathered, Açık Radyo appears to have played a central role during the Gezi Park protests for thousands of people, and mainly performed three different functions related to: 1) information, 2) connection and 3) identity formation (Menduni, 2001):
Açık Radyo quickly spread the news, as when it announced the arrival of the bulldozers, taking advantage of both its radio broadcast and its Twitter account. This circulation of news and information (like the aforementioned tweets on the presence of police in certain streets and the type of gas used by the police) was useful to those who were already in the square protesting, in order to avoid the police and reach different areas of the protests, and at the same time convinced others to mobilise and come to the square. Açık Radyo was both an instrument for information that was alternative to official channels and a tool for mobilisation, as were Radio Alice in Bologna in 1977 and Europe 1 and RTL in Paris in 1968. Radio has not lost its role as a mobilising tool, but has been supported by other media such as Twitter.
One of Açık Radyo’s presenters told us that, during the protests, the following words appeared on the walls of Istanbul: ‘Twitter is the radio of the twenty-first century’. Many media scholars have highlighted the similarities between Twitter and the radio. A Microsoft editor told American journalism scholar, Jay Rosen, that he saw Twitter ‘like a ham radio for tuning into the world’ (Rosen, 2009) and Crawford compared the use of Twitter to the background listening of radio (2009). But there are also major differences between the two media: Twitter is mute, while radio produces sound. A voice heard on the radio is more emotionally moving than a text read on Twitter.
Açık Radyo kept the audience of protesters together when they couldn’t be in the square. As the dancer stated above, Açık Radyo allowed her to join the collective body of protesters virtually, even if it was from home. In this context, radio worked as a connective tissue between the people involved in the protests. Radio provided not only information, but sounds and voices from the venues of the protest, and emotionally moved listeners. It was the emotional narration of events that united the people, as it was for the listener who cried when she heard the audio feature on Gezi a year later.
The 24-hour live broadcasting of events played a part in keeping the emotional temperature high thanks to sound. Tweets are mute, silent, texts that do not speak. Instead, radio is made up of voices. The radio coverage of the people injured in Taksim Square during the protests lured people to mobilise and brought listeners closer to the people involved. Açık Radyo is an emotional broadcaster that affectively moved and connected its listeners. The public reached by Açık Radyo could indeed be called an ‘affective public’, in the sense meant by Papacharissi: ‘networked public formations that are mobilised and connected or disconnected through expressions of sentiment’ (2015, p. 125). Papacharissi attributes to social media platforms such as Twitter the ability to mobilise affective publics; in fact, she claims that ‘Twitter serves as a conduit of interconnected structures of feeling’ (2015, p. 133). However, the same may be said for the radio: at least in this case, Açık Radyo also served as a conduit of interconnected structures of feeling.
Açık Radyo, along with social media, contributed to the identity building of a collective subject. Through the broadcasting of a continuous flow of juxtaposed voices of protesters, it gave the movement a ‘collective voice’ (Couldry, 2010). It broadcast to those who were listening and couldn’t be in the square the ‘materiality’, the existence of a collective body united by a common identity. The radio served as a ‘pollinator’ of information: like a pollinating insect, Açık Radyo cast the seed (information) of the protest, bringing it from ear to ear. It also served as a pollinator of social interactions: giving a voice to dozens of protesters, it connected people who otherwise didn’t know each other, and created the conditions for the birth of new social relationships. We would commit a great error if we did not include radio in the narration that finds social media to be among the main resources of the last wave of protests.
This paper aims to demonstrate that it is misleading to talk of revolutions simply driven by single media (what Mattoni and Treré (2014, p. 254) called the ‘one medium bias’) or multiple media. Instead, we can talk of protest movements supported by (and at the same time opposed by) the media available in that moment (Cottle, 2011). Every protest movement takes place both physically and within a specific mediascape. This mediascape is a field that is increasingly saturated with different media and different political institutions, where opposing powers fight against each other. Just as the French students tactically appropriated transistor radios during May 1968, the Turkish protesters tactically appropriated corporate social media to exchange communication and feed the protest, and also, to a lesser degree, adopted independent radio listening for information, connection and identity formation. The difference between the use of social media and that of radio, at least in this case in Turkey, is that a massive use was made of social media, while radio was adopted by a more limited number of protesters (the well-educated, secular, intelligentsia of Istanbul) and therefore played a smaller role.
As Vatikiotis and Yörük noted, ‘the intersection of offline (occupation of public spaces) and online (social media) forms of political participation and mobilisation is a regular feature of contemporary protest movements’ (2016, p. 6). But to this intersection between offline and online forms of political participation, we must also add a form of participation linked to community media, to alternative media (Atton, 2001) and to radical media (Downing, 1984), be they analogue or digital. This paper has attempted to show how the still-active role of radio in the communication and organisation of protests is too often forgotten.
The set of media available to protest movements has greatly expanded over the last half century: in 1968, students on the street only had the transistor radio, graffiti and mimeographs to spread their voices. Since 1968, the mediascapes of protest movements have been enriched with new communicative ‘weapons’, each utilised for different aims and in different moments of the protest, as Mason noted: ‘Facebook is used to form groups, covert and overt—in order to establish those strong but flexible connections. Twitter is used for real-time organisation and news dissemination, bypassing the cumbersome ‘newsgathering’ operations of the mainstream media. YouTube and the Twitter-linked photographic sites — Yfrog, Flickr and Twitpic — are used to provide instant evidence of the claims being made. Link-shorteners like bit.ly are used to disseminate key articles via Twitter’ (2012, p. 75). But, as we have seen in this case, Mason’s list is incomplete. Many analysts, including Mason, have overestimated the role of social media and transformed them into fetishes able to produce social change.
The historical role, which has not declined, of the radio in supporting and feeding social and protest movements should be reconsidered. Contemporary protests feed on a multitude of communicative tools, according to the contexts and needs of protesters. I would suggest that the way the Gezi Park protesters utilised media resembled the idea of ‘polymedia’ introduced by Madianou and Miller (2013) when describing the use of media in the distance relationships between family members of migrants. Madianou and Miller (2013) found mediated communication does not take place over a single technology, but by choosing among and commingling a variety of media technologies. Just as migrants are constantly immersed in an environment inhabited by different media in order to stay in contact with family members who have remained at home (Bonini, 2011), we could claim that Istanbul’s street protesters inhabited the public and private space (the square and their own homes) bringing different communication technologies with them, passing seamlessly from one to the next: they listened to the radio, they went in the street, they posted a tweet, they opened a link to YouTube, they called a friend, they filmed a video of the clashes and published it on Facebook.
The last wave of protests occurred in a ‘polymedia scape’, where radio played its part along with other media. But we must be wary of creating a new ‘myth of radio’ to replace the myth of ‘social media’. A social movement occurring inside a polymedia environment appropriates all the media available in the field and uses them in an interconnected mode. As we have seen, a phone call from an Açik Radyo listener triggered the radio call to mobilisation, that consequently triggered an explosion of tweets. At the same time, people in the streets were using smartphones to take photos and shoot videos, who were being immediately published on YouTube and Facebook, and then started their journey around the world. Açik Radio’s editors and speakers used those videos and images to talk about the events, shared them on Twitter, encountering new audiences who finally amplified their message. All these media – analogue and digital, ‘old’ and ‘new’ – once interconnected, represent what we could call a ‘communicative capital’, a network of communicative weapons in the hands of the global social movements of the twenty-first century. We hope to have succeeded in reminding media scholars that radio is still part of this polymedia ‘communicative’ capital in the hands of social movements and we believe it still deserves to be considered one of their most effective tools.
- Gezi Radyo interrupted broadcasting on June 11, 2013. A website of Gezi Radyo is still available: http://www.tacticalmediafiles.net/events/4842/Gezi-Radyo;jsessionid=AB29EDD395BF769F6DEE13BD7A9DDD6B and it also has a Soundcloud account: https://soundcloud.com/gezi-radyo/tracks, followed by 71 Soundcloud users, but the last uploaded episode goes back to the end of July 2013. [^]
- Cfr. OccupyGeziRadio is available on the digital audio platform Spreaker: https://www.spreaker.com/user/occupygeziradio. [^]
- The total amount of the tweets containing the keyword ‘açik radyo’ have been downloaded thanks to the support of the Center for Digital Ethnography at the State University of Milan. [^]
The author has no competing interests to declare.
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