Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Video killed the radio star?

I should be sleeping but, as ever, I seem to be inappropriately awake. Might as well make some reasonably constructive use of the wee small hours...

A thought, vis a vis radio consumption, occurred to me earlier this evening (well, Monday evening at any rate) as I listened to the excellent Museum of Curiosity on Radio 4. How, precisely, should one listen to the radio?

I appreciate that on first glance this seems a fatuous question, the obvious answer being with one's ears. Similarly prosaic/sarcastic responses would almost certainly include: on a radio, via the internet, carefully or perhaps even sitting down.

My question though was - and is - one of engagement. Unlike television, radio requires the use of only one sense, thereby leaving the listener free - if they so choose - to do something else at the same time: wash the dishes, read the paper, drive to the shops, paint the ceiling. The listener can, of course, choose not to do anything other than simply listen and, by extension, engage with the broadcast. This latter option was the one I chose for the Museum of Curiousity.

I say chose, it more or less just happened by default. Feeling ill for much of yesterday I was in taking-it-easy mode and found myself sitting with a mug of tea in front of the fire with the radio on and nothing else to occupy me. I couldn't help but feel slightly distracted as I listened - distracted enough certainly to be planning a blog about the listening process. It's not that I wasn't enjoying the programme; it's funny, engaging, clever and features one of my favourite stand-ups, Sean Lock. The problem, if that's what it is, is that I don't often have the opportunity to simply listen to a radio broadcast, to allow it to wash over me, without either interacting with my children, driving the car, washing the dishes or reading the paper. Never painting the ceiling.

It was nice to be able to appreciate the broadcast without these distractions - there were no exhortations to "text your thoughts to the programme" or adverts for other shows or distracting background images and graphics. Just the concept and the people. Does there have to be any more? This is how it must have been in days gone by when families would gather round the wireless to hear the day's output - often limited to just a few hours or perhaps, in the case of wartime broadcasting, to a single leader's speech.

Strangely, through the miracles of the internet radio we've just bought (there being no "normal" reception in this house) I've just heard a simliar view expressed. Radio 4's Book of the Week this week is Radiohead by John Osborne, the story of one man's exploration of the radio waves of Britain as he listens to a different station every day for a year.

As the protagonist listens to Virgin Radio's mix of adverts and rock music he contends "this isn't what radio was invented for" and he's probably right. Though with the 7000+ stations available on our internet radio ranging from mainstream pop music in downtown San Diego to rural affairs in out-of-town West Cork it could be argued that modern radio and the ability of anyone to broadcast via the internet is the ultimate democratic tool.

As I started typing this, one of the few constants in an ever-changing media landscape, The Shipping Forecast, bobbed gently away on the airwaves (if I can mix my geographical metaphors). In a world of uncertainty, it's good to know that we can switch on the radio three times a day and find out if it's safe to drop anchor off Malin Head...

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