PhD Shenanigans: The Final Stretch

My PhD saga is slowly approaching its end. I’ll be submitting the whole thing soon (well, “soon-ish” is perhaps the better term… I still have until September!) under the slightly laborious title “Linguistic Practice on Contemporary Jordanian Radio: Publics and Participation.” Though it’s not always been a smooth ride I’m actually rather proud I’ve gotten this far.

Blogging here was an important part of the process, helping me order my thoughts on things and bringing out arguments and connections I hadn’t considered before. I’d recommend it to anyone working on a written piece of this length, actually. It’s not as much looking to get feedback than having to reformulate your arguments into a semi-palatable form. It aids with clarity and helps you prioritise, and this is quite important when you’re confronted with a glob of data that you have to make some sort of sense out of (as I was with my 200 hours of radio recordings).

I don’t want this blog to die quite yet. Peeking out from the mire of my PhD revisions, it’s not easy to find original stuff to write about! But I’ll try.

I’m often asked these days – by my supervisors, my funding body, my university’s submissions forms… along with pretty much any person I newly meet – what my thesis is actually “about.” Mentioning that it’s about language and radio seems to bemuse people more than anything else. And true, these aren’t exactly sexy topics for people working on the Middle East at the moment. But that’s partly the point: what I hope my work to show, among other things, is that such things actually are interesting and relevant, for a lot of people, though maybe not in ways we might imagine them to be.

One of my anthropology lecturers at uni (who shall remain nameless) once said that they don’t like talking about the “everyday” in their work, because the “everyday” is boring. I agree with this to an extent. But I also think it doesn’t have to be boring. It can be made interesting, with the right kind of spin, the right kind of marketing if you will, for almost anyone. And Arabic on Jordanian radio, while probably of the more “everyday” topics one can imagine, is just such a thing. Very interesting indeed, when you look at it more closely, as I did (oh, and I did) in my PhD.

So, what is this PhD actually about? Why does radio language matter? I’ll take the next three posts on this blog to convince you that it does. The “main findings” have taken some time to coalesce (having to write a conclusion to your thesis… helps with this), and there are three that I think are especially important and interesting.

1. It’s about power. When you speak on the radio in Jordan, you don’t just speak. There are a lot of choices you need to make – what kind of Arabic to use, which dialect nuances to exaggerate or suppress, how to engage with your guests and callers, what aspects of your audience to emphasise, which others to sweep under the rug. In doing so you might reinforce some stereotypes of what people are like: what sounds women should use when they speak, what kind of people follow your morning programme, who should be listening to the call-in show where you dispense advice on how a pious Muslim should behave. But you can also challenge them. You can claim identities that don’t quite match up with what’s expected, or allow people space to critique and subvert power structures in interesting ways. And you do all this through language.

2. It’s about radio. Think about what this means for a second. When you hear people speak on the radio, are there any differences from how they would speak otherwise? Or, better yet: put yourself on the other side, the producers’ side. If you’re preparing material you know will be mainly heard – whether it’s a radio broadcast, or a podcast, or a voicemail message – would you be doing anything differently than when you know people will also be able to see you? Jordanian radio peeps certainly do. And when you use your media to circulate information, or put forward opinions, that certainly matters.

3. Finally, it’s about identity: what it means to be, for example, Jordanian – as opposed to Arab, Palestinian, Muslim, and so forth. Jordanian radio stations are intensely local institutions, but in a rather peculiar way: most of them are eager to emphasise that they broadcast on a national level, that they have the Jordanian people’s concerns in mind, that they transmit their voices, in an immediate, authentic manner that other kinds of media (international radio stations, for example, or satellite TV) simply can’t. Hence the obsession with live programming, with “patriotic” music, with call-ins, with dialect, with not sounding Lebanese, with taking in complaints about trash collection in hamlets in the Jordan Valley and gas leaks in Aqaba and potholes in Zarqa and Syrian refugee pressures on schools in Irbid. All part of a very specific national project – perhaps not always consciously, but still with the end result of including certain people and excluding others. Us and them. With nuances, of course, but that is the end result. And it’s fascinating and useful to know how this is achieved – whether your goal is to reproduce (meh) or challenge (yay!) such boundaries.

Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll write a bit more about each of these points… so stay tuned. Really I want to show that what I’ve been doing research on for the past 4 years or so isn’t just some arcane, niche topic that maybe five people in the world will ever want to read about. Or at least it shouldn’t be. And we’ll see where it goes from there.

PhD Shenanigans: The Final Stretch


New year, new beginning.

The idea for a blog regarding my field experiences has been kicking around my head ever since about May last year. I first zipped down to Amman in September 2014, but really it has taken me until now to gather myself properly and start being a bit more engaged regarding what I’ve been hearing and thinking about these past few months.

My field of study is Jordanian radio; specifically, private radio stations; more specifically, the kind of language and communicative strategies that are used by broadcasters and hosts of radio programmes on these stations when they interact with listeners and callers. This is what I’ll be writing about in my PhD. (Short, and outdated, bio and presentation page at the link here.) Though, really, the amount of fascinating insights to be gathered, and the pretty paltry crop of stuff on (Arabic-language, and especially Jordanian) radio that is already out there, means that I could probably begin churning out a 200,000-word tome on the topic RIGHT NOW.

For the sake of reflection, though – and also my own mental well-being – it’s probably better to take it all more slowly. This is in part a function of this blog: a place where my half-baked thoughts can be left out to set and churn for a bit in a form that’s also palatable to a more general readership; and, just in general, a home for various tidbits or anecdotes that I might not be able to write about academically, but are still very very interesting.

Because, however tedious or outdated the phrase “Jordanian radio” might sound, it’s still very much there. And relevant. And fascinating. From the daily morning bickerings between callers and officials held “on the line” by teams fronted by charismatic host-stars, to Islamic advice programmes discussing the ethics of dealing with ants and parrots, to rain-soaked field-trips to Gaza transmitting ten-year-olds’ praise poetry in honor of the Jordanian king – all heard and transmitted in what is in fact a very lively medium that goes far beyond the classic image of a lonesome woman (yes) spending her daytime hours listening at a radio set.

I hope to transmit at least some of this richness through this blog. The way in which the Arab world tends to erupt into the center of attention in English-language media – war, protests, martyr funerals, parliament brawls, studio shouting matches – resembles some special kind of hyper-real drama that often has very little to do with what life in the region is, in fact, like. Radio, on the other hand, is there; scheduled; consistent, day-to-day, a perpetual slog of sound aimed not at masses bursting out into The Streets but rather at people driving to work and picking up kids from school and worried sick about rent payments or whether the way they’d been treating people close to them is acceptable to God. What people hear, and listen, and call in about, and they also care about deeply. Even if, as topics, these things sound a little pedestrian – a little too ordinary – I want to show that the way in which they are presented can be just as engaging, just as captivating, as those fleeting images of dark-dressed crowds that flick across the screen during news reports.

I think there is value in this. Sharing knowledge, trying to understand, making sense of strange things that we’re confronted with, and maybe trying to implode some stereotypes along the way. I don’t want to present myself as a “cultural intermediary”; I’m generally very cautious about coming across too much as someone who’s entitled to speak about issues in Jordan, or Jordanian media – as if the people I’m conversing and interacting with on a daily basis don’t have voices of their own. I am, however, here; with certain skills and certain interests; and so I hope that the reflections I can offer, on a topic that’s not discussed very often, can be at least in some way useful to someone.

Here’s to 2015, then – and to it being more productive, and confident, than the year just past.