Robert Hanks: 'Radio has a role as the Ovaltine of the soul'

The Week in Radio
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The Independent Culture

Among the chaos and terror unravelling in Mumbai, Friday's edition of Today (Radio 4) contained a lovely illustration of radio's role as a security blanket, Ovaltine for the soul. Mark Abell, a British lawyer who had been staying at the Oberoi hotel, was speaking from his room to James Naughtie. The previous day, he had given an interview while still holed up in there, not knowing what was going on, acutely aware of the possibility of gunmen breaking into his room to kill him, but amazingly calm. On Friday, when the immediate danger subsided, he was far more emotional, praising warmly the kindness of Indians and breaking down briefly as he said that the waitress who had served him at dinner on Wednesday evening had been one of the first people shot dead by the terrorists. At the end of the second interview, Naughtie congratulated him on his escape – sounding himself a little uneasy about whether that was the right thing to say – and Mr Abell thanked him in return: "It's great to hear a familiar voice, Jim." It was a striking small moment, driving home the intimacy of radio, the way the voice of a person you have never met can become entwined in your life, and can seem as close and comforting as part of your family.

The best radio broadcasters understand that familiarity is what really matters, far more than novelty: what listeners like being told most of all is what they already know. Danny Baker is particularly gifted in this direction. Baker and Zoe Ball are temporarily occupying Jonathan Ross's hastily vacated weekend slot (Radio 2, Saturday) – parking their caravan, as they put it. This week, they were asking listeners to tell them about inanimate objects that appear to have faces: all staplers, it was pointed out, have a face (the dimples in the little plate where the staple is pressed); so do many valves and switches; so, one listener pointed out, does a lot of wood, especially pine. Someone else had sent in a picture of a door-knob, which reportedly wore a particularly sweet expression, though all we had to go on was Baker and Ball's delighted cooing.

The need to know we are not alone is satisfied in other ways. Baker was soliciting experiences of machines that sound as if they are trying to play music, and listeners came up with a vacuum cleaner that made a noise just like the beginning of Pink Floyd's "See Emily Play", a woman whose TV switched on with the opening chords of Michael Jackson's "Thriller"... But what was most striking was how many people got in touch to express relief that it wasn't just them hearing these voices, seeing these faces. Baker has a flair for making these connections, spotting the phenomena in our lives that are too crazy or inexpressible to speak about, and making them seem a little bit saner, even a bit more banal.

Though it's clearly Baker who sets the tone, the pace and the agenda, it's Ball who gets top billing – a little unfair, but she is more than just a foil. At times the fossicking about in the collective unconscious (what's the greatest pause in recorded music? Who will be your sexy ghost partner while you're in heaven waiting for your real partner to die?) can get too much; Baker gets all anal, and Ball opens things up, so to speak. Though the partnership seems to have been cobbled together at the last moment they do complement one another, not least in terms of age and pop-cultural experience: I couldn't decide whether to be more shocked that Baker had never heard of 'Watercolour Challenge' (Channel 4, lunchtimes, Hannah Gordon) or that Ball didn't know Bernie Winters had a brother called Mike. On consideration, the latter is weirder. Anyway, I'm glad they've parked their caravan on Radio 2 for a while; it makes a nice change from Ross's flashy Winnebago.