And so it’s World Radio Day. It surprised me that this exists, to be honest – radio is something that we take for granted, part of the background noise of day-to-day life. And yet there’s more to it than that – heck, my favourite song (Springsteen’s ‘Thunder Road’) starts with the image of a girl on a doorstep listening to Roy Orbison on the radio, ‘Only The Lonely’ hissing and crackling because the reception in Mary’s house isn’t all that great. It’s a moment of scene-setting that perfectly evokes Bruce is singing about. It’s a beautiful piece of writing.
My favourite radio-related story is the famous tale of how Orson Welles panicked America with his adaptation of The War of the Worlds. What’s less known is that there were copycat panics following radio broadcasts in Ecuador and Chile. That was back in the day, of course, when radio ruled and TV was still in its infancy. Radio was the trusted medium, let into everyone’s home, and while that role now belongs to 24-hour news channels, radio is still king in other territories – our cars, for instance, or our offices. My morning commute is soundtracked by Kerrang Radio; there’s nothing like starting the day with a howled singalong to ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ or ‘With Or Without You’. Music is a fundamental part of our culture, and despite iTunes and Spotify, radio is still a fantastic medium for getting music out there – the shuffle function on an iPod still isn’t as good as radio at hitting us with songs we haven’t heard for ages, and radio stations with a commitment to promoting unsigned bands will still have an edge on getting that music out there, simply through weight of audience numbers. After all, radio is a medium that the UK does really well – heck, the BBC channels alone, especially Radio 4 and the World Service, support this, but that’s before we get onto the talent involved in local stations.
(And isn’t podcasting basically DIY radio?)
My other favourite radio-related story is how some of the earliest celebrities working in the medium were ventriloquists like Edgar Bergen and Peter Brough. I guess you couldn’t see their lips move… And yet, this is another example of radio’s power – its ability to engage the imagination. Because if you’re listening to a ventriloquist on the radio, you can fill in the gaps for yourself – the skill of the performer, his interaction with the dummy. The script may be the same for everyone, but the performance in your mind’s eye is unique.
(That’s probably another reason for the War of the Worlds panic.)
The intimacy of radio grows out of this, I think; bigger music fans than I talk about lying under the sheets at night listening to crackly broadcasts from pirate radio stations. I remember messing around with the Long Wave dial on my first proper stereo and picking up mysterious transmissions in French and German – sure, they were probably just a regional late-night phone-in show, but it proved there was a whole world out there, with radio stations and music and opinions, not just information culled from the Weetabix Wonderworld Atlas.
(Actually, that just fired another radio memory – staying up later than I should and listening to the Midnight Line phone-in on Beacon Radio. People who sounded like me, only talking about subjects I was only vaguely aware of, like conspiracy theories and Marxism. There’s a fantastic tribute to the show here.)
(And it all ties in to my other other favourite radio story – number stations, Cold War era transmissions just broadcasting numbers for no officially acknowledged reason.)
Sure, radio entertains the world but it also enchants it – the moments when an unexpected broadcast breaks through the static as you’re driving at night, or when your favourite song kicks in just as you drive towards the sunrise. Television lacks the ability to do this – it lacks the ubiquity – and so does the Internet, which is getting too tailored to our preferences, hurting its potential to surprise. Radio still has a place in our world, because it’s not so much what it delivers, it’s how it delivers- music spun out of air and bringing a world into a teenager’s bedroom.