The Week In Radio: Ships in the night and sharp sounds are sleeper hits


If, like me, you have trouble sleeping; if at night your brain starts fidgeting in your skull like a recalcitrant toddler, pin-balling from one deranged thought to the next without a care for the exhausted body that houses it, then the radio is probably your best friend.

For insomniacs, night-shift workers, new parents, vampires and anyone else who, voluntarily or otherwise, finds themselves awake in the dead of night, radio can provide a unique sort of companionship. One's requirements at such an hour are different to those of the daytime listener. Unless you've been out clubbing and are flicking through the dials for a DJ to see you through to daylight, then the chances are you're looking for something to calm your twitching mind and help you drift off. You want soft yet authoritative voices discussing serious subjects. No insomniac wants to hear whale noises. And neither do they want a wisecracking David Mitchell to kick off their dark night of the soul.

India's TV Gurus on the World Service, broadcast in the early hours of Monday morning, was both serious and authoritative, though I doubt presenter Sunita Thackur's aim was to render her listeners unconscious. Her subject was Baba Ramdev, a television guru in India whose espousal of yoga and meditation has earned him millions of devotees. One of his apparent gifts is to teach people a breathing technique that brings increased oxygen to their bodies and thus cures a range of ills. With this revolutionary technique of breathing in, then out, then in and so on, he has alleged he can cure Aids and cancer, which he didn't seem to think was a dangerous claim at all since this breathing system can be used in tandem with mainstream medical treatment. Of course, a cynic might say that he's made a fortune selling gullible people thin air, though I'd still chuck him a tenner if he could come up with a breathing exercise that would help me fall asleep.

The Shipping Forecast has long acted as a late-night lullaby for millions of listeners, most of them not risking their lives at sea but tucked up in their beds on dry land and dreaming of distant horizons and gently buffeting winds. The roll call of sea areas ("Dogger, Fisher, German Bight") has a soothing poetry, while its scientific descriptions of winds, sea conditions and visibility are urgent and to the point. In Archive on 4, Peter Jefferson, the man who read it for 40 years, helmed a mesmerising elegy to what the poet Gillian Clarke called "the radio's prayer", talking both to its devoted listeners, Libby Purves among them and some of the sailors, who use it as a warning for inclement weather. "There is something about the rhythm of it,' said Purves. "Something about the habitual calm and decency of it which touches people at a level above the mere practical."

If the Shipping Forecast caters for problem sleepers and sailors, then The Punk Show with Mike Davis on Radio 1, broadcast between two and four in the morning, serves teenagers with shifting body clocks who have discovered black hoodies, hobnail boots and hard rock. Davis had a guest appearance from Fat Mike, lead singer of NOFX. They talked about touring, drinking beer and said "dude" a lot. It reminded me of a time 20 years ago when I dressed head to toe in black and also favoured heavy-duty guitars. It also reminded me that, since I was no longer a teenager but a grown-up with stuff to do, I needed to switch off the radio and go to bloody sleep.

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