Natalie Haynes: The solitary, and very personal, relationship we have with radio

Radio insinuates itself into our lives as we live them. We don’t have to make an appointment to watch it; it comes with us while we do other things
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The Independent Online

Every time the BBC wants us to realise how much we value part of its output, it should simply threaten to axe it.

When newspapers reported that 6 Music was on the way out in February this year, the internet went wild. Facebook groups were set up. Twitter feeds tweeted with fury and, unusually, virtual annoyance turned into real protest – the BBC log had soon received thousands of complaints.

A few months later, the BBC announced that 6 Music was staying. And that it had doubled its listenership, to 1.2 million people a week. BBC marketing departments could have spent years trying to come up with an advertising campaign that had a tenth of the impact of the rumoured closure.

This story just puts numbers on what any radio broadcaster already knows: radio listeners are passionate about the programmes and stations they love. And radio listeners means virtually all of us: according to Rajar figures published this week, more people than ever before listened to the radio in the second quarter of 2010: more than 90 per cent of the UK population, aged 15 or over. As the election was being fought, the Today programme was notching up almost seven million listeners a week, nearly half a million more than the same period in 2009. For every disgruntled off-switcher muttering that John Humphrys should shut up and let them finish, many more of us were tuning in to hear his gladiatorial interrogation.

And over on Radio 2 last December, people wept openly as Terry Wogan delivered his last breakfast show. But they didn't change channels; Chris Evans has higher listening figures than his predecessor. Are Terry's fans so fickle that they can jump straight into bed – or rather out of bed – with Chris? Or are they listening through gritted teeth, unable to switch off? There's a brilliant moment in Private Parts, the biopic of the American shock jock Howard Stern, when the studio execs realise why his audience is so vast. Those who hate Stern listen for longer than those who like him, both for the same reason: to see what he'll say next. And whether we love or loathe them, 16 million of us are listening to either Evans on Radio 2 or Chris Moyles on Radio 1 each week.

So why is radio enjoying a new golden age? Is it because we have grown so used to background noise in our lives that we can't function without it? Is it because more of us live and commute alone, and we want to carry our own world around with us – on the car stereo, or in our headphones? Surely both these things are part of the answer. Phones and iPods have made us solitary travellers – we plug in our earbuds, and we remove ourselves from the overcrowded train, creating the artificial sensation of travelling with people we know and like instead.

While television lends itself to a communal experience – from gossiping with a friend over an episode of Coronation Street, to inviting your entire address book round for a Eurovision party – radio is deeply personal. It insinuates itself into our lives as we live them. We listen to the radio while cooking, cleaning and driving. We don't have to make an appointment to watch it; it comes with us while we do other things. And we often feel a genuine connection with the presenters and our fellow listeners, particularly now that radio has become so interactive.

Richard Bacon, on his former late-night slot on Five Live, used to send out badges (once a Blue Peter presenter ...) to listeners who mailed in during a particular, secret part of the show, which was never mentioned outside the time slot when it was broadcast. The listeners became a national secret society – and they were contributors as well as listeners. When his final show was broadcast last December, hundreds of them piled into the BBC Radio Theatre to experience it live.

And radio has been incredibly quick to exploit new technology. Podcasts have lured a new generation of listeners to spoken-word broadcasting. And while the television, film and music industries have often treated the internet as a threat to their livelihood, radio has embraced it. Richard Herring and Andrew Collins created the Collings and Herrin podcast, which developed a large and loyal fanbase. When the podcast morphed into their 6 Music show, their listeners came with them. On UK iTunes this week, 21 of the 30 most downloaded podcasts come from radio. They cover an incredibly diverse range of subjects and styles, from Lee Mack on Absolute Radio and Mark Kermode reviewing films on Five Live, to Radio 4's Great Lives, Desert Island Discs and A History of the World in 100 Objects. How could you possibly define an average podcast downloader – even simple stuff like their age or gender – from such a list?

It's surely no wonder that radio is going through a renaissance when we can find programmes like this, listen to them when and where we like, and share our enthusiasm with fellow listeners online. Earlier this year, I judged the Sony Award for comedy. My fellow judges and I listened to about 50 programmes, and simply within this one genre, the range was breathtaking. The five shows which we eventually shortlisted were a spoof phone-in show (Down the Line), a stand-up show (Mark Steel's in Town), a quiz show (The News Quiz), a Dickensian sitcom (Bleak Expectations), and the Gold Medal-winning Adam and Joe Show, which defies categorisation. And that was just for one award – they presented more than 30.

So this is what radio offers us: everything. Whatever your interests, someone, somewhere is making a radio programme for you. Earlier this year, I made a documentary for Radio 4, about the relationship between soap opera and Greek tragedy (called, inevitably, OedipusEnders). The next documentary I'm slated to make is about urban chicken-keeping (called Attila the Hen, I think). I talk about the week in culture with Cerys Matthews on 6 Music, and I once had a fight with a teenage beekeeper about vine tomatoes on Five Live.

Fred Macaulay made me translate Latin live on BBC Scotland, and I once sat in a room the size of a broom cupboard with Una Stubbs, as she talked about her watercolours of dogs. This was a delight compared with the week before, when a profoundly hungover TV chef (I'm not protecting his reputation – I didn't have a clue who he was then, and I still don't) nearly overwhelmed me with the boozy fumes that rolled over me every time he spoke. (I was hardly a beacon of professionalism, though. I think I may have technically been in my pyjamas during that show – one of the many perks of breakfast radio over television.)

The low budgets of radio shows tend to correlate with low interference in programme- making, which never happens in television. When a lot of money is at stake, everyone is terrified they'll make a flop and get fired. If you screw up a radio show, people shrug and move on. Because radio gives us the space to get things wrong, we end up creating more interesting programmes. And if we don't, you can write, phone, text or email to tell us what we got wrong. I know you will.

Natalie Haynes is a broadcaster and author whose latest book, 'The Ancient Guide to Modern Life', will be published by Profile in November