Turn on, tune in, and let the radio bring the world to your home

No wonder listening figures are up, says our radio critic Chris Maume. No other medium covers so much ground, so memorably and so conveniently

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The Independent Online

Given the noises that had been emanating from Conservative campaign headquarters, last year's general election results didn't sound like good news for the BBC.

There was a sense that the Murdoch empire's incessant whining about the supposed state-fed behemoth blocking out the light of healthy competition had been falling on receptive ears in Toryland, and the corporation's proposal to shut some stations, most controversially 6 Music, seemed like a sop to keep the Cameron mob sweet.

How things change. I think the BBC is probably safe from any Murdoch-related lobbying nonsense for a while, and as a bonus, the hacking scandal has almost certainly contributed to the splendid listening figures for March to June. A BBC spokesperson, observing the robust stats for Today, The World at One and PM, recognised that the period in question was what you might call a busy news period, though things didn't reach meltdown until July. With its highest ever ratings, Radio 4 rules.

Why now, with so much competition? Perhaps, amid the babble of Twitter and blogs and threads that descend into vile abuse – perhaps because of these things – some of us seek a still centre in which matters of import are worked through in an atmosphere of reflection and analysis, lively but somehow grounding. There's been much talk in recent years about whether Today has the agenda-setting power of old, but there's still the sense, I think, of Humphrys, Naughtie et al equipping one for the day. I speak as a journalist, of course, but I suspect the same applies whatever one's calling. And later on in the day, I can attest from anecdotal evidence gleaned extremely close to home, the almost sensual lugubriousness of PM's Eddie Mair can have beneficial effects quite apart from anything news-related.

What the figures seem to be saying is that it was a mistake for anyone to imagine that the profusion of new media, the new breed of news-delivery platforms (sorry), would leave no room for radio. Why would they? Radio gets inside your head in a way that reading stuff on your mobile can never do. Radio can be infuriating, sometimes just plain bad, but there's usually the impression of a guiding intelligence behind it all. Twitter seems to be 90 per cent hot air, and yes, so is some radio, but that's the chart stations, mostly. Land on the right bits of the dial and the waffle quotient drops gratifyingly.

It's not only the news that's good news: even The Archers has put on 70,000 listeners this year, which as a post-Nigel refusenik I really can't fathom, though I must admit that catching snatches of the Bridge Farm E. coli saga has been threatening to break my resolve. Nigel Pargetter's death plunge broke a habit that had endured across four decades (I still miss the Sunday monologue): I imagine I'm not alone in having an inner radio landscape, an internal, radiophonic history. All my earliest memories involve the radio, though having a pop-loving mother young enough to fall giddily in love with four Scouse moptops means they're all musical: until the pirate ships took to the high seas, it was the Light Programme all the way.

First there was "Love Me Do" in the autumn of 1962; glued to the transistor, I was a four-year-old witness to the start of it all, the beginnings of modern life as we know it. Then, a few months, later Beatlemania really exploded when "She Loves You" blasted out of the radio. But as I recall, the Light Programme struggled to register adequately the seismic shocks caused by The Beatles and those who rushed through the door they'd kicked in. And while popular culture and the world it served was changing for ever, some things stayed the same. The Who might have been hoping to die before they got old, but there was still Music While You Work and Workers' Playtime roaming the nation's factories and perpetuating the Gracie Fields spirit, and The Billy Cotton Band Show exhorting us to "Wakey-Wakey!". And Two-Way Family Favourites connected the far-flung remnants of empire in a Sunday-lunchtime confection of togetherness.

But just as in the Fifties American radio was the beating heart of the teen revolution, in my Sixties childhood, as the pirates consigned the Light Programme to the old people's home and the BBC caught up with the spirit of the age by shaking things up and saddling us with the Tony Blackburn brigade, radio once again both fuelled and soundtracked the radical changes that were convulsing society. Radio seemed to paint the world in brighter colours.

Television, inevitably, had muscled in on the national collective consciousness. Before then, the big occasions, the prize fights, the royal shindigs, the Cup Finals, were all on the radio. During the general strike, with no newspapers, the BBC increased its news bulletins to five a day. When George VI spoke to the nation on the outbreak of war, the people of Britain gathered round their radio sets to be reassured that "with God's help, we shall prevail".

One of the big advantages radio has over telly is that you can do stuff while you're listening. TV's a black hole filled with trash, sucking us in and not letting us go – pouf, it's midnight and you've been on the settee for three hours watching QVC when you could have been busy doing things while listening to Late Junction, a programme which itself alone justifies the licence fee.

Looking back over a life lived with the radio on I began to compile a list of programmes and personalities close to my heart. There was the arts magazine Kaleidoscope, the forerunner of Front Row; the fantastic early-music programme for children, Pied Piper, which ran for five or six years in the 1970s until its inspiring presenter David Munrow hanged himself; Critics Forum at Saturday teatime; Sounds Interesting on Radio 3 on Saturday nights with the genial but authoritative Derek Jewell; John Peel, of course, who four nights a week from 10 to midnight pinned back one's lugholes with all the best and most challenging that popular music had to offer; Letter from America, which made you feel like Alistair Cooke's best mate; and Theme Time Radio Hour with Bob Dylan, which ran for three criminally short years and was one of the best things on radio, ever.

They've all gone now, but some treasures survive: Desert Island Discs, From Our Own Correspondent, Just a Minute, I'm Sorry, I Haven't a Clue, CD Review, The Early Music Show, Andy Kershaw, Danny Baker, Jazz Record Requests, Composer of the Week, Lunchtime Concert, Woman's Hour, In Our Time (surely an even greater achievement by Melvyn Bragg than The South Bank Show), The Long View, Sounds of the Sixties, Night Waves, the obits programme Last Word, World Routes, Radcliffe and Maconie, the fabulously quirky Adam and Joe, Stuart Maconie's Freak Zone and Freakier Zone; all the pop stars who, like Dylan, have taken to broadcasting as if they'd been doing it for ever: Huey Morgan, Guy Garvey, Jarvis Cocker, Ronnie Wood...

They're all of them, in their own way, enriching, life-enhancing and civilising, suggesting that we're fellow travellers pulling together to make the best we can of life.

Pascal talked about the benefits that would accrue to mankind if we could learn to sit in silence for 30 minutes, and I'm sure he's right. But can't I sit in silence with the radio on? I promise I won't say a word.