Who would have thought in this visually obsessed age of YouTube, selfies and Instagram that radio, pure audio, no images attached, nothing to hold on to but a voice, a tune, a blast of birdsong, could not only survive the arrival of the new image-making and digital technologies but experience an extraordinary flowering of talent and expression. Thousands of radio stations are popping up right across the globe, ready for you to tap into via your smartphone or tablet, taking you straight from SW9 or NE69 to Chicago, Cape Town, Lviv or Marrakech. The quality of the sound produced by these stations is less important than an ability to draw in the listener, to tell a story, create a narrative, to use audio and nothing else to paint images in the mind. Radio might rely on technology for its transmission but its enduring power is not about clever computer-generated tricks (although there’s always room for digital diversion in the sound-effects department). No, radio’s real power is that it takes us right back into a pre-technological world, to a world of storytelling, of discovery through narrative, not in pictures but as an aural experience. We rediscover in radio the kind of world our ancestors knew, where stories were told and information gathered through human connection. It’s this that makes radio so much more potent than TV.
Orwell might have worried about the thought of having a screen in your room, its spying potential, the loss of privacy. But actually radio is far more scary as a mass-media phenomenon (as Goebbels recognised, calling it ‘the eighth great power’) because of the way it enters the mind, words spoken on air worming their way deep into the conscious and subconscious mind and sticking there, refusing to be dislodged. Because you can’t see anything, you have to listen harder and doing that makes you take in much more significantly what’s being said.
Radio, though, has an enormous potential to enhance communication, encourage engagement and create vitally important connections in our globally linked yet fractured world precisely because it can take us right inside an individual life, an experience, a point of view. We can only hear what’s being said, with no distracting visuals, which forces us to imagine, to create in our own minds the back story, the deeper perspective. We begin to empathise and not just passively receive.
When Owen Bennett-Jones, for example, visited Syrian refugees for his programme From Syria to Yorkshire (produced by Nina Robinson for Radio 4) we were given real insight into what it feels like to lose not just your home, but also your education, your livelihood, the graves of your beloved. Hearing what they had to say was so much more powerful than seeing their faces as Ayham, for instance, talked about his job at a local café making falafels. Back home in Syria he wanted to study to become a doctor. But his father was killed, he knows not how, and as the eldest son (aged 20) he was left responsible for his mother and younger brothers, one of whom is suffering from leukaemia. After fleeing to Egypt, his family arrived in Bradford on a United Nations scheme to relocate vulnerable people, one of 100 or so families to be sent there. Now Ayham has to study for his GCSEs and A-levels while also working to support his family before he can apply for medical school.
Bennett-Jones went with him to the Remembrance Day parade in the city, taking his recorder with him to record some reactions to the arrival of these Syrian refugees. One man was unhappy that so many Muslims were at the ceremony. ‘It’s a British day,’ he said. What could the Syrians know about the war dead? Fortunately, he also found a woman who had far more encouraging words for Ayham, spoken in broad Yorkshire. ‘Let’s hope you have a good life now, love.’
As Tina Beattie ponders in her Christmas Meditation (produced by Carmel Lonergan for Radio 4), we need stories, and especially in these threatening times. ‘Our world feels very cold this year,’ she said on a programme scheduled to go out as Christmas Day ends at midnight. ‘It feels overwhelming’ as we listen to the litany of sorrow emanating from the war-torn countries of the Middle East and now getting closer and closer to our own lives. But, she reminded us, at the heart of Christmas is a story of refugees and outcasts, war and exile. In the silence at dead of night, after a day of feasting and too much company, she suggested that it’s possible to hear ‘a whispering of hope and new beginnings, yet also shadowed with the fear of more violence and misery to come’.
One brilliant antidote to the pessimism, the darkness of our times, is to lose yourself in a radio drama, now so readily available via iPlayer at whatever time of day suits you. Switch off the lights, embrace the darkness, curl up in an armchair and catch up with the story of the Rougon-Macquart families. Their antics, in Radio 4’s brilliant adaptation of Emile Zola’s novels starring Glenda Jackson, Blood, Sex and Money, will make your family seem like angels.