Radio: It's just the same old ball game

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The Independent Culture
It's holiday time, which, what with the weird remoteness of Norfolk, and the car radio being on the fritz again, meant no FM reception last week. Those of you with good memories and empty, unfulfilled lives will remember that I went through a similar ordeal two or three months ago and made a kind of coded plea for broadcasters to pay a little more attention to medium- and long-wave broadcasting, as that is all that large swathes of the population can receive.

It was obviously a little too well encoded, for things have got worse even since then. Part of the reason is the start of the football season. Like most people, I don't give two hoots about football except for one or two matches a year, so find AM radio's grovelling capitulation to the sport a little hard to bear.

Both Radio 5 Live and Talk Radio now seem to offer nothing but hysterical football coverage, and on the rare occasions when games aren't happening, there is either some in-depth analysis of Ruud Gullit's departure from Newcastle or a trailer for a forthcoming match which consists of clips of previous hysterical football coverage.

Of course, radio football commentary has to be hysterical if it is to convey any of the actual excitement of a 1-1 draw at Coventry; and to be passionate enough about the game to want to listen to it on the radio implies that you are already in the grip of some kind of dementia anyway.

So, if I rule out the football channels and Radio 4 long wave, which I have gone on enough about previously, this leaves only two nationwide stations on the dial that can be picked up north of Royston: Virgin Radio and Atlantic 252.

Even for the trained professional such as myself, it is hard to tell these two stations apart. A few weeks ago I heard a presenter on Atlantic make an amusing joke about the pollen count ("every lunchtime they make us go out and count the pollen, and I hate it"), but that's about it as far as differentiation between the DJs goes. They either sound completely forgettable or like Chris Moyles, the fat, big-headed bully on Radio 1, which is worse.

And the playlists are identical. Sometimes you might think Atlantic is more hidebound and unimaginative than Virgin, sometimes vice-versa, but this is not so much evidence of a different mind behind the programming as just part of the statistical ebb and flow.

Someone visiting the UK (Atlantic also broadcasts in Ireland) and listening to either of these stations (and Radio 1 if they like), would come to the conclusion that there are only five records available for purchase in the country. Which are: that stomach-churningly mawkish one about the girl who has the secret smile - not exactly a secret any longer; that new one from the New Radicals; some drivel from Alanis Morissette; "Drinking in LA" by that actually quite good band with the strangely forgettable name; and - will this song ever be consigned to the rubbish dump of the airwaves? - "The Sweetest Thing" by U2. This last technically fulfils Atlantic's promise to play us the "best" music from both Britain and Ireland).

As for the ads - don't get me started on the ads. They may be very marginally less irritating than they were, say, 10 years ago but they still make you want to hurl yourself out of the car, especially when you've heard them for the fifty-sixth time. Our hypothetical visitor, restricted to listening to commercial radio, would also conclude that, along with our five songs, we have only five commercial products to fiddle with while listening to them.

This is shopping-precinct culture: just as there is nowadays no way to tell the difference between the pedestrian zones of King's Lynn, Cambridge, Winchester, Norwich, Gloucester (continue list until all market town names are used up), so there is no way to tell the difference between the daytime output of any pop music station.

The Mark and Lard show on Radio 1 - 2pm to 4pm - has, it would appear, been nobbled by such forces but at least they try and resist, usually with dumb insolence. "Fancy a bit of George Michael?" Mark Radcliffe asked Lard, his co-presenter, recently. "No," said Lard grumpily. "Too bad", said Radcliffe. Even to raise the question of whether this is what people want or just what they get, is considered indecent.

I did manage to listen to one FM programme, Radio 2's The Day War Broke Out, broadcast on the 60th anniversary of the day before the day before the day before the Second World War I broke out. Narrated by Tony "Baldrick" Robinson, this was hardly a milestone of creative original radio, and could have been broadcast at any anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War. But Radio 2 is hardly the home of creative original broadcasting so you can't really moan.

There were quite a few good stories. One evacuee, seeing a parish magazine in the hall of their new home, said to his friend: "You know what this means Eddie? They go to church. We've got to think quick otherwise we'll be going." They pretended to be Congregationalists but this backfired horribly when it turned out that Cook was too, and the man who told that story is now a vicar in the Anglican Church. So, who knows? I might yet become a DJ on Virgin Radio.