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Global radio is now available at the swipe of a fingernail – yet it all sounds the same

Plus: how inspiring to wake up on new year’s day to Jeremy Irons reading T.S. Eliot

7 January 2017

9:00 AM

7 January 2017

9:00 AM

A new website, radio.garden, lets us browse radio stations across the globe. Nothing new about that. That’s been a key feature of wireless since the days of valves and crystals. Turning a knob and stopping off at Hilversum, Motala, Ankara or Reykjavik, if and when short-wave reception was possible, is part of radio’s magic, listening in to life elsewhere without having to leave the house. Now, though, with radio.garden (developed in Amsterdam by Jonathan Puckey for the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision, and part-funded by the EU), it’s possible to turn the globe that appears on your computer screen as soon as you log on to the site and to sweep across India, Africa or Australia, stopping off wherever you find a green dot. Click on the dot and you could find yourself listening to Gene Pitney in Namibia, to Norwegian country-and-western from Stavanger, or to a discussion on women’s rights from Abeokuta in Nigeria.

The website went viral as soon as it was launched just before Christmas, with ten million hits in ten days. Part of its fascination is the ease with which you can traverse the globe, stopping off wherever you see a dot. Not every radio station is yet identified on the site (more are being added each week). There are only two green dots in Egypt; the vastness of Russia has a mere handful. But it’s as if the sounds of the world are suddenly free and available to listen to at the swipe of a fingernail.

It’s a bit disorientating at first to discover that many of the stations sound very alike, playing the same kind of universal pop, with jingles straight out of the Radio 2 songbook (you can change settings on the site so that the green dots become yellow dots for ‘stories’, short clips of people talking about their listening experiences, red dots for ‘history’, tapping in to key moments in broadcast history around the world, or blue dots for ‘jingles’, those irritating earwigs by which stations identify themselves). Puckey says that he likes the way tuning in to a station in China can give you the ‘same kind of feeling’, the ‘same radio voice’, as if you were listening to Radio 2 or a station in deepest Africa. I was a bit disappointed to realise just how many stations are playing the same kind of music. But then I found a station in Japan where I couldn’t understand a word yet was somehow taken into the conversation as if the two men on air were talking to me. I didn’t stay for long, but was glad of the chance to get out of my own skin and imagine myself elsewhere.


My first radio experience of 2017 was to switch on and find myself listening to Jeremy Irons reading the poetry of T.S. Eliot. Not a bad way to start the year, and especially a year that is so full of foreboding, the slow pace of the reading, the measured cadence, the reflective tone, giving us the chance to pause, slow down, take in deeper meanings. To schedule in a single day readings of all of Eliot’s work in five separate slots reaffirms Radio 4 as a network that is not afraid to assert its high-minded aspirations. All we were given was a single voice, reading words that are not so easy to follow, that require our full attention, demand that we should stop and think, setting off that inward voice that we try so often to keep quiet, unwilling to pay heed to the discomfiting questions it persists in raising in our minds.

Irons, though, made the poetry so accessible, reading Eliot as if finding his words for the first time, grappling with them, relishing them, using them to express feelings that we all share as we struggle to accept, to recognise or relinquish. Eliot seems so perfect for this moment, these strangely uncertain times; his poet’s attention to detail, to the minutiae that make up our lives, wonderfully consoling, his acceptance that it’s impossible to understand yet determination to keep on trying, an inspiration.

Also on Radio 4, the Reading Europe series, begun before we knew we were leaving the union, yet so pertinent now that we know we are, continued this week with short stories from Denmark and Sweden and a three-part drama based on a story by the Danish writer Christian Jungerssen. In The Exception (dramatised by Anders Lundorph and Polly Thomas), Iben and Malene, who work together at a research centre investigating war crimes, begin receiving death threats. At first they suspect their colleague Anne-Lise, who for reasons that are not at first apparent they both dislike, but then she, too, has a terrifying experience. Who is responsible?

Unusually, this was a joint English–Danish production, with a cast of actors from Danish TV, special music composed by Halfdan E (who has worked on Borgen), and recorded on location in Copenhagen, adding European textures to the soundscape. It was tense, atmospheric and so refreshing to hear different accents and an alternative take on the dangers of our current world from a Danish perspective. Transnational radio here on Radio 4.


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