By Arianna Rizzi
« Are you ready? We are going to live an unprecedented moment of union. For the first time in Italy’s history, all the radios unite in an extraordinary moment of sharing and participation to celebrate our great country – Italy – with music … »
On 31 December 2019, the first Chinese cases of a novel virus were notified to the World Health Organisation (WHO). At that time, what we now call “coronavirus” had a different name – “2019-nCoV” – and seemed to concern only an area remote in space and time from the Western world. But it was not long before COVID-19 had its outbreak in Europe, and Italy was among the first countries to be hit by the epidemic – now declared a pandemic – in the European region.
We all know by now how things have escalated in China – which, as of 20 March, has registered none new locally transmitted cases for a second day – as well as the dramatic pace at which they still are escalating in Italy, France, Germany – and globally. As the states implement more and more stringent measures to slow down the contagion and avoid the collapse of the different national healthcare systems, we find ourselves mostly confined in our homes: in fact, while a vaccine for COVID-19 is being developed, we have to act like a social vaccine and practice physical social distancing in order to not get infected ourselves and not infect other people.
In Italy, the government led by PM Giuseppe Conte decided for a first, selective lockdown on 22 February, when eleven municipalities in the north of the country were declared “red zones”. The measures were soon extended to entire regions (Lombardy, Veneto and Piedmont) and finally, on 9 March, to the whole country. This concretely means that in Italy, several citizens have been in quarantine for almost a month.
In these trying times, many are the initiatives through which Italians have tried and reinvented togetherness, in order to cope with the disruption of our daily routines and social life – from “balcony flash mobs” to live Instagram “concerts from home” and free access to a variety of digital services and products (streaming platforms, ebooks, etc.). It is in this spontaneous framework of grassroots and top-down solidarities that La radio per l’Italia places itself, also as an unprecedented event in the (Italian) history of communication.
Through the brainchild of Radio Italia’s vice-president Marco Pontini, La radio per l’Italia brought simultaneous radio broadcasting to life for the first time in Italian history. On 20 March, at 11 a.m., all the Italian radio stations – both public and private broadcasters, both national and local stations, all at the same time – joined forces and played the same four songs: Inno di Mameli – the Italian national anthem – Azzurro by Celentano, La Canzone del Sole by Battisti and Nel blu dipinto di blu (Volare) by Modugno.
But let’s take a step back to better grasp the sociological relevance of such an event. As humans, we are currently seeing our primary form of sociality – face-to-face interaction – cut down to the bone, because it itself represents a danger to the survival of our societies. Media, as (alternative) means of communication, become then even more prominent: provided that, already in normal circumstances, they allow us to stay informed, keep in touch with our loved ones and stay connected to our local and national community wherever we are, we see how their role becomes vital in a time when even a simple encounter with a friend represents too much of a social risk.
In this historical and historic moment in which media are almost all we have left to maintain our sociality, what does it mean to broadcast the same message, at the same time, on all the available (radio) channels? Most likely, it means trying and uniting a nation by means of what John B. Thompson called “despatialised simultaneity”: mass media – and especially radio, TV and Internet broadcasting – allow people to experience an event as simultaneous, regardless of where they are and where the event is taking place. For instance, when we switch on the television and tune in to a certain channel to follow the news, we understand that many other people might be doing the same. Some of us will in fact be seeing the same images, listening to the same updates, at the same time – but each in their own home. This mechanism becomes yet more evident in the occasion of big happenings: a presidential discourse, the Olympics, a royal wedding.
In the case of La radio per l’Italia, despatialised simultaneity was pushed to its extreme: not one, not many, but all the Italian radio stations jointly decided to offer the same 10 minutes of music, and by doing so they merged their particular audiences into one – that of the Italian people. Anyone – from Milan to Campobasso, from Udine to Messina – turning on the radio around 11 would in fact be listening to the same four songs. A powerful initiative, considering the cultural and patriotic value of the songs chosen. A brief, yet nationwide “event” – of which the effective audience still has to be determined – that proves that mass communication can also serve as a privileged bearer of solidarity messages.