Was that it? Was that the sum total of 90 years of radio? Radio Reunited, the three-minute ‘celebration’ of the first BBC wireless broadcast in November 1922, was a very odd affair. Billed as a revolutionary simulcast to a ‘potential’ 120 million listeners round the world, playing out on all the BBC’s radio stations at the same time, it was so short, so compressed, you couldn’t take in the many layers of sound at once, or decipher what the different soundbites could possibly be, now, then, or from the future.
After about four or five listens, the babble of voices, Big Ben, Morse Code, birdsong and beeping did begin to clear so that keywords from the recorded messages from Listeners Anonymous cut through the background interference. But on the day, in the moment, it came across as a sound engineer desperately trying to make some kind of connection between two shorting wires.
Damon Albarn was set an impossible task, to thread together a series of recorded comments about radio’s future with soundbites from wireless history. I just wish he’d been given 30, not three, minutes. We needed more airtime to settle into the groove, to begin listening, not just hearing, to take in what had been so carefully stitched together. When the child says, ‘I hope music still matters…in 90 years’ time…Without it there’s nothing. Just silence’ there was a momentary pause, as if to illustrate the point, but it needed to be longer for that moment to become true silence, to have its full impact.
On the Asian Network this week, Catrin Nye also was given too short a time to take us into the strange world of Possession, Jinn and Britain’s Back Street Exorcists (Monday night). She talked to social workers and psychiatrists about the increase in the number of patients suffering from mental illness who have been subjected to exorcism rather than hospital treatment, mainly in Britain’s Asian community. But there was not enough time for her to examine fully the stories of the young men and women who have shown signs of schizophrenia and not been treated because their families have been convinced that the problem is possession, which they believe can be cured by getting rid of the evil spirit, jinn or jadoo. Only when this fails, sometimes after many years, are the sufferers taken to hospital, by which time the mental-health condition will have become very difficult to treat.
One young man described how it all began with heaviness, stiffness, ‘buzzing round his body’. He now goes regularly to see an exorcist who reads with him passages from the Koran. He says it helps, but we needed to hear more from him. How does it help? How bad were the voices he was hearing in the first place? Nye also had no time to explore the question of whether there’s a link with evangelical Christian communities, who also hold on to beliefs about possession by evil spirits. After all, it’s in the Gospels.
Last week on the World Service we heard from prisoners who were making their own radio programmes in Trinidad and Tobago as part of a rehabilitation programme and a government initiative to cut crime. This week on 1Xtra, Tim Westwood brought together prisoners in HMP Brixton with a group of young men in danger of landing themselves in jail. Crossroads (Sunday night) did what radio does best — creating a conversation, between the young men and the prisoners but also including us as the listeners. We really got to know Ashley, Sean and Leon as they tried to warn GJ, Peter and Marcus that there’s nothing cool about doing time.
This was partly down to clever editing (by the producer Marianne Garvey), intersplicing what the teenagers were saying about prison with what the prisoners were trying to tell them. But mainly because we had a whole hour to follow their individual histories. ‘I was what these kids are,’ says Leon (now 22, and who last had a birthday ‘in the outside world’ when he was 16) ‘and I am what they will become.’ What he said was so straightforward, so blunt, it’s possible it will have been heard by the teenagers. But it must have taken time to catch that thought, and even more time to slot it into the conversation at just the right moment for it to have the most impact.
You had to be up early on Sunday to catch a half-hour insight into the strange and mysterious world of the myriapod family. On The Living World (produced by Andrew Dawes), we joined myriapod specialist, Steve Gregory, and presenter Chris Sperring as they turned over logs and unpeeled tree bark in a wood in south Oxfordshire, hunting for centipedes and millipedes. These are pretty ancient creatures, and far more complex than you might think. No, centipedes don’t have 100 legs. But they are blind, carnivorous and essential to the planet, helping to break down all those leaves and banana skins in your compost bin into a rich and satisfying mulch.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 24 November 2012