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

Share
Related Topics

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Technical Author / Multimedia Writer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This recognized leader in providing software s...

Recruitment Genius: Clinical Lead / RGN

£40000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: IT Sales Consultant

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support company has a n...

Recruitment Genius: Works Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A works engineer is required in a progressive ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

An unelectable extremist who hijacked their party has already served as prime minister – her name was Margaret Thatcher

Jacques Peretti
 

I don't blame parents who move to get their child into a good school

Chris Blackhurst
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent