Dear radio broadcaster: fan mail as a form of perceived interactivity.

Author:Simmons, Charlene

What makes a medium interactive? Scholars have taken a number of approaches to defining the concept. A review of the literature on interactivity reveals a divide between scholars who believe interactivity is dependent on media technology and others who believe it is dependent on the perceptions of media users (Bucy, 2004; Phillips & Lee, 2005). In a critique of scholarship on interactivity, Bucy (2004) calls for scholars to turn away from definitions that base interactivity on the technological features of a medium. Instead, Bucy presents a conceptualization of interactivity that stresses its perceptual nature.

Yet, is interactivity a manifestation of how users perceive their communication experience? Or is it dependent on the technological features of a communication medium? In an attempt to answer these questions, this article explores perceptions of interactivity in early broadcast radio--a medium devoid of the technological features associated with today's new media. This study specifically looks at whether listeners in the 1920s and 1930s perceived radio to be an interactive medium, or at the very least, whether they believed they could participate in the radio experience. Through an examination of fan mail sent to radio broadcasters, this study finds that many radio listeners perceived that the opportunity to interact with radio existed through letter writing. The results also suggest that interactivity may be dependent on media content rather than media technology.

Focusing on Technology

Interactivity is commonly measured in terms of the technological features offered by a communication medium. Definitions focusing on technological features have identified a plentitude of interactive media components. For instance, Durlak's (1987) interactive media typology identifies 30 medium components ranging from the sensory richness of a system's hardware to the ability of system tools to facilitate idea generation. When various definitions focusing on the features of an interactive medium are compared, a list of common interactive features emerges. These features include: a medium's ability to offer users the opportunity to input information or provide feedback (Beyers, 2004; Borsook & Higginbotham-Wheat, 1991; Burgoon et al, 1999/2000; Cover, 2006; Hanssen, Jankowski, & Etienne, 1996; Haseman, Nuipolatoglu, & Ramamurthy, 2002; Heeter, 1989; Lombard & Ditton, 1997; Lombard & Snyder-Dutch, 2001; McMillan, 2002b; McMillan & Hwang, 2002; Morrison, 1998; Sohn, Ci, & Lee, 2007); a medium's ability to respond to the input or feedback of its users (Borsook & Higginbotham-Wheat, 1991; Deighton, 1996; Durlak, 1987; Heeter, 1989; Lombard & Ditton, 1997; Lombard & Snyder-Dutch, 2001; Sohn et al., 2007); a medium's ability to monitor how individuals use the medium or system (Ha & James, 1998; Heeter, 1989; Iacobucci, 1998; McMillan, 2002a; Neuman, 1991; Sohn et al., 2007; Steuer, 1992); a medium's ability to address the user on an individual level, and its ability to change to meet the needs of the individual user (Ansari & Mela, 2003; Avlonitis & Karayanni, 2000; Blattberg & Deighton, 1991; Burgoon et al., 1999/2000; Deighton, 1996; lacobucci, 1998); a medium's ability to offer users a choice in, or control over, what information they receive (Ansari & Mela, 2003; Avlonitis & Karayanni, 2000; Beyers, 2004; Blattberg & Deighton, 1991 ; Burgoon et al., 1999/2000; Cover, 2006; Deighton, 1996; lacobucci, 1998); and a medium's ability to facilitate two-way communication between humans using the system and/or between the human user and the system (Borsook & Higginbotham-Wheat, 1991; Ha & James, 1998; Heeter, 1989; lacobucci, 1998; Kiousis, 1999; McMillan, 2000, 2002a; McMillan & Hwang, 2002; Neuman, 1991). The speed at which a medium provides these features is also an important element in determining a medium's level of interactivity (Borsook & Higginbotham-Wheat, 1991; Burgoon et al., 1999/2000; Gayeski & Williams, 1985; Hanssen et al., 1996; Iacobucci, 1998; Kiousis, 1999; Lombard & Ditton, 1997; Lombard & Snyder-Dutch, 2001; McMillan, 2000; McMillan & Hwang, 2002; Neuman, 1991; Sohn et al., 2007; Steuer, 1992).

Focusing on the User

While many scholars associate interactivity with the technology of a medium, others believe interactivity resides in the perceptions of a medium's users (Bucy, 2004; Bucy & Newhagen, 1999a, 1999b; Burgoon et al., 2000; Burgoon et al., 1999/2000; Holmqvist, 1993; Johnson, Bruner, & Kumar, 2006; Kiousis, 1999; Newhagen, Cordes, & Levy, 1995; Song & Zinkhan, 2008; Wu, 2006; Yun, 2007). By focusing on the user of a medium, these scholars acknowledge that users may perceive a mediated experience to be interactive even when the medium lacks the technological features often associated with interactive media.

For instance, Bucy and Newhagen (1999a) found broadcast news segments that used a reaction shot sequence to be interactive. By using an editing technique in which the viewer witnessed an interviewer ask a question and a close up of the interviewee answering, the broadcasters drew the viewer into the interviewing process, creating a degree of perceived interaction. In another study, Bucy and Newhagen (1999b) defined interactivity as a user's perception that he or she can participate in a mediated event, such as a TV game show, even if real opportunities for participation are not provided.

Several scholars studying Web site interactivity have also examined the concept from a perceptual approach and devised schemes for measuring perceived interactivity. According to these scholars, perceived interactivity is dependent on the following dimensions: control (Lui, 2003; McMillan & Hwang, 2002; Wu, 2006), response time and synchronicity (Lui, 2003; McMillan & Hwang, 2002; Wu, 2006; Yun, 2007), two-way communication (Lui, 2003; McMillan & Hwang, 2002), personalization (Wu, 2006), and the content of messages (Song & Zinkhan, 2008).

One of the most applicable approaches to defining interactivity from this perspective is provided by Newhagen and colleagues (1995), who examined viewer perceived interaction with NBC's Nightly News broadcast. In the early 1990s, NBC News began displaying the email addresses of its news correspondents during broadcasts and received email from a number of its viewers. Newhagen et al. determined that, although NBC never responded to its viewers, the emails reflected a level of perceived interaction on the part of the viewer. While many viewers acknowledged there was little chance of gaining a response, they still hoped that their messages might influence the NBC producers. Thus, Newhagen et al. found the experience to be interactive even though the traditional news broadcast did not include highly interactive technological features.

As these definitions demonstrate, interactivity is not necessarily a technological component of a communications medium. Instead, interactivity can be viewed as a perceptual variable based on the experience of a medium's user. This article examines this contention further, exploring whether radio, a historical medium lacking interactive technological features, created a media experience that encouraged user perceived interactivity.


In a critique of scholarship on interactivity, Bucy (2004) stressed that more must be learned about user perceptions through empirical examinations of interactivity. While experimental research techniques are preferred by many, it is impossible to apply these methodological approaches to a historical examination. Instead, this study loosely follows the example of Newhagen et al. (1995) who conducted a qualitative analysis of emails sent by viewers of NBC's Nightly News. In an attempt to understand how listeners may have perceived their listening experience, this study examines listener fan mail for evidence of perceived interactivity. The research is guided by one basic research question: Do listeners' letters reflect a level of perceived interactivity?

Given the historical nature of this study, an examination of the perceptions of the audience is limited to the preserved records of listeners and their thoughts on the experience of radio listening. The thoughts of the listener, as recorded at or near the time of listening, are best accessed through letters written to radio personnel and preserved in several manuscript collections. Written during the era of this study, the letters contain the thoughts and perceptions of a variety of radio listeners without the outside influences of historical recall, as would be present in oral histories or texts written after the passage of a substantial period of time. This study draws on four historical collections reflecting an important cross section of listener letters including mail sent to an individual performer (Mark Hawley), a radio program (Vox Pop), a broadcast station (WGI), and a national network (NBC).

Mark Hawley (1935-1940)

Composed of mail sent to an individual radio personality, Hawley's fan mail represents the most extensive collection of listener letters examined in this study. As a morning news reader for WOR, a powerful 50,000-watt station based in Newark, New Jersey, and a flagship station of the Mutual Broadcasting System, Hawley was heard by hundreds of thousands of listeners along the east coast (Godfrey & Leigh, 1998; Sies, 2000). Containing 1,242 letters received between 1935 and 1940, the Hawley collection includes a wide range of audience correspondence. The collection's considerable size contains a balanced mix of letters praising, criticizing, and making requests of Hawley. Donated to the New York Public Library in 1940, it is believed that this collection represents the majority of the mail received by Hawley between the years of 1935 and 1940, although this claim can not be confirmed. The Mark Hawley collection is housed in the Manuscripts and Archives Division of the New York Public Library.

Vox Pop (1935-1941)

Composed of letters...

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