Welcome to the Golden Age of Radio
My relationship with radio goes back three decades.
I grew up in the Middle East, where - extraordinarily from today’s 24/7 world - we had one channel that did not start until 5 o’clock; to get a reception for neighbouring countries’ channels we had to rotate the aerial literally in another direction; films and TV brought into the country were heavily censored; my mother worked as the librarian of the English-speaking school where her main role was to make sure the Famous Five were not seen to get up to anything unwholesome such as eating ham sandwiches. My introduction to a lot of comedy - Yes, Minister, Fawlty Towers, Whose Line Is It Anyway? - was not through television, but through the local English language radio.
Poirot for me, is not just David Suchet, it is John Moffat; Bertie Wooster and Jeeves are not just Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry, they are Richard Briers and Michael Horden; comedy became not just Absolutely Fabulous or Red Dwarf but the verbal cleverness of Just A Minute or I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue. I like to think of myself as an expert player of Mornington Crescent. (I am.) I woke up to the Today programme and fell asleep to The Shipping Forecast. The latter made little sense but there was a certain beauty to its lack of meaning, its rhythm oddly soothing. And yes, I listen to The Archers.
And here’s the rub, radio is rather good.
radio is prepared to give greater space to weighty topics in a way which television is not. It is prepared to invest in its listeners’ patent thirst for information
Even in the age of Twitter, the Today Programme still dominates the day’s news agenda in a way which few other programmes do. It is a baptism for any new leader, or senior figure, to survive an interview with John Humphreys. Intelligent radio presenters, such as Martha Kearney and Eddie Mair, are perhaps the most tenacious interviewers around right now. Woman’s Hour tackles gender issues when perhaps they have never been more prominent. There are a range of programmes whether it be Free Thinking, The Essay, Document which give in-depth analysis across a range of issues. Outside the mainstream - and for all its fusty reputation - radio has approached more 21st century issues whether it be mental health, pornography, sugar daddies or transgenderism. If you want to understand an issue, if you want expertise go to radio.
It is difficult to assess why, except for the obvious that radio is prepared to give greater space to weighty topics in a way which television is not. It is prepared to invest in its listeners’ patent thirst for information and invest in talent to meet the demand. It becomes a circle that radio attracts talent because of its investment and it is able to invest because it attracts talent. Why else would Nick Robinson have moved from his role as BBC Political Correspondent to become one of Today’s anchors?
Away from the BBC, LBC has carved a niche as a live phone-in station covering politics and current affairs. Having moved to being a national station and rebranded as Leading Britain’s Conversation, they have also made some pretty brave decisions. Offering a regular phone-in slot to Nick Clegg could have turned sour after the novelty faded but it was a gamble which paid off for them if not for the former deputy PM. Would a television executive have made a similar decision? I doubt it. In fact, given Call Clegg’s success, why haven’t they?
James O’Brien, free from BBC impartiality guidelines, is one of the most courageous interviewers there is: having taken on Nigel Farage and others, he is also known for his withering put-downs of his more irrational callers. Iain Dale, the publisher and former Tory blogger, was given a prime slot despite having little radio experience. He rapidly became one of the most deceptive interviewers, lacking Paxman’s aggression but with a quiet ability to laser in on an interviewee. He can also claim some credit for putting the idea of running for the Labour leadership into Jeremy Corbyn’s head. For all commercial radio’s successes it lacks the BBC’s financial heft. But the fact that it takes bold decisions is indicative of the inherent closeness of their relationship with their listeners.
It is not just in current affairs that radio attracts a range of talent. Drama on 3, BBC Radio 3’s Sunday evening drama slot, has attracted directors from Mark Ravenhill to Harriet Walter; plays have included Pinter dramatisations, recent works by writers such as Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, and performances of less remembered playwrights such as Dion Boucicault. West End productions, whether it be Ian Rickson’s version of Sophocles’ Electra, 2011’s flawless Chicken Soup with Barley by Arnold Wesker or Mike Bartlett’s imaginative future history play Charles III, have moved successfully to radio in a way which a straight television transfer would not have done. As part of radio’s commemoration of Arthur Miller’s centenary, David Suchet and Zoe Wanamaker brought Death of a Salesman to radio. As Miller’s text moved around time and space the dramatisation equalled - maybe even exceeded - any stage version.
THERE IS SOMETHING DISCONCERTING BUT CHALLENGING ABOUT A MEDIUM WHICH DENIES US ONE OF OUR SENSES, AND INSTEAD CHALLENGES OUR IMAGINATION
Name me a comedian and they will probably have learned their trade on radio first. They will also go back. Take an actor and they are probably willing to take to radio. What writer wouldn’t relish the challenge of adapting Galsworthy, Steinbeck or Greene for radio? There is more new drama commissioned by BBC radio than anywhere else whether it be comedian Tracy Ann Oberman, Nick Gaiman or Hugh Costello, or new writers such as Christine Entwistle or Simon Topping. As for book adaptations: Robin Brooks’ take on Graves’ I, Claudius; Lucy Catherine’s adaptation of Bulgakov’s subversive and surreal masterpiece The Master and Margarita; Neil Bartlett’s disturbing version of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. I could go on. Each achieved something spectacular which perhaps could only be done on radio.
Of course politics, documentary and drama are not unknown on television but the sheer range of radio’s ambition is awesome. It might be thought that with the advent of television, radio would become an unnecessary relic of a bygone age. But the reverse, I think, holds true. It thrives in the age of downloads and iplayer.
In a world which is so visual there is something disconcerting but challenging about a medium which denies us one of our senses, and instead provokes our imagination. It might be that this is the real factor that drives its continued success: that the weakness is actually a strength. Radio does not spoon feed because it cannot spoon feed. It does not rest on its laurels because it cannot.
That ubiquitous wit Stephen Fry once said that Radio 4 was Britain’s cultural contribution to the 20th century. It continues well into the 21st. Radio has been compelled to justify its existence and, in doing so, is going through a golden age.
About the author
Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).
A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.
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