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The comfort of strangers

16 February 2013

9:00 AM

16 February 2013

9:00 AM

Blink and you would have missed it, but Wednesday was World Radio Day, devoted to celebrating radio ‘as a medium’. You might think the BBC would welcome this Unesco initiative ‘to promote freedom of expression over the airwaves’ and ‘improve international co-operation between broadcasters’, but there’s nothing in Radio Times about it, and nothing on the various network websites. It’s as if radio has become such an established part of British life there’s no need to give it special treatment, to celebrate its existence as a way of ensuring its survival.

Only on the World Service, buried in the schedule, could you find on Wednesday a special edition of World Have Your Say, live from Paris, with snippets of great radio moments taken from stations around the world. Later that same day, in Sharing It All, Ros Atkins tried to find out why some of the regular contributors to World Have Your Say, which encourages its listeners from across the globe ‘to set the agenda’, are willing to speak out to a potential 43 million listeners on matters which are often so intensely personal. Their confessions were riveting.

Take Lubna, a 26-year-old doctor from Baghdad who’s been speaking out ‘live’ on the programme since 2006. Her family have told her she should shut up, but she’s determined to carry on, sharing with the outside world how she feels about what’s been happening in her home country. ‘It’s beneficial,’ she says. Fair enough. But what made my thumbs prick is her assertion that speaking out to a crowd of strangers, ‘helps to make her personal experiences richer’.

Something quite new is going on here; something unprecedented. One of the students who was on Utoeya Island when Anders Breivik opened fire and gunned down as many young people as he could find has been talking to listeners to the World Service programme almost since the day it happened in July 2011. Adrian had tried to swim away from the island but soon gave up realising it would be too far to reach safety. He swam back to find the gunman was on the shore waiting for him. Adrian now says that telling his story as often as he can to people he doesn’t know and cannot see is helping him deal with the terrifying feelings he experienced on that day. Not to his family or his friends — ‘They’re in the safe zone,’ says Adrian — but to an anonymous public.

Also in Norway, the sister of another survivor told Ros Atkins how in the traumatic couple of days when she didn’t know whether her sister was alive or one of Breivik’s victims, she didn’t really talk to her family but rather spent her time online, on Facebook and Twitter, where she found ‘just love all around’. She felt that the people she met online were more prepared to talk openly, to say things more honestly. ‘It was a very good community at the time.’

It’s not new or unusual to prefer talking to strangers about the things closest to you rather than to those who are physically and emotionally close. Hence psychotherapy, and the success of radio phone-ins. But it’s that word ‘community’ which is so telling, suggesting that those who talk online are seeking not just its promise of release but something more; another kind of community.

‘Did you become addicted to sharing your story?’ Atkins asked Fatima, a doctor in Bahrain. She was threatened with prison by the government there, accused of smearing blood on the protesters she had treated during the uprising to exaggerate their injuries. She began talking to the World Service and other journalists and broadcasters, gaining strength and courage from knowing that someone was hearing what was happening to her, and that those listeners understood that she was speaking the truth. Her family, too, wanted her to stop because she was spending time online rather than with her three-year-old son. She refused to give up because, as she told Atkins, ‘Every time I spoke to a journalist it was like coming up for breath.’

Did any of Atkins’s guests wish they had spoken less, given less of themselves? Not really, even if it means that perceptions of them among those who know them have changed because of what they have said. Sharing has become part of who they are, and by that sharing of themselves their understanding of who they are is changing. Sometimes good; sometimes not so good.

This new online life is shaping people in ways not so far known or understood. Notions of what ought to be said in public are changing dramatically. Ideas of what friendship is and who makes up ‘family’ are also altering, shifting, transforming. ‘Live’ radio has always offered contact with a voice, a lifeline. Now its role is changing as those voices can interact with what’s being written ‘live’ online on Twitter and Facebook. More than ever we need to celebrate radio’s aural connections, its blend of individual, yet also communal experience, its potential for self-expression and political exposure.

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