I’ve always listened to the radio. It seemed closer, more intimate than television, and you could read or cook while it was on. It seemed freer, too, because soundscapes have no dimensions except the ones you imagine.
One of the finest pieces of drama I ever heard, Spoonface Steinberg by Lee Hall, was just one young voice, a monologue with background noises.
By the time it ended I knew all the houses on the estate, and could sometimes hear the clucking tongues along the street whenever Spoonface’s parents argued before their breakup.
There was Charles Chilton’s monumental history of the British working class that used regional voices to tell the stories and created a single voice, the voice of a class, out of all these different experiences.
Radio could do that. It was much harder for television which delivers a world ready made – seen, heard, smelled. It is more difficult to read Charles Dickens now because you have to shake off Andrew Davies’ costume dramas and his version of the past – all heritage and recreation.
That’s why I prefer radio – it leaves the landscape bare.
The truth is, though, that there is less and less of that documentary and theatre stream, that adventurous experimental work that now only occasionally slips through.
And yet radio is still a mass medium. There are around 9,000 stations in Europe, still more in the US, and thousands more in Africa and Latin America.
A few years ago I was in Bolivia making a documentary for the BBC about the miners. I went to speak to the director of a famous radio station called Siglo XX.
It was originally set up by the Catholic church to counter revolutionary propaganda, but was taken over by religious people influenced by liberation theology and renamed “The Voice Of The Miner”.
While I was there I watched three people speaking the local Indian languages calling people from the mountain villages to a meeting about water supplies.
This was radio with teeth – small wonder it was regularly closed down by successive governments. In the recent military coup in Honduras, the new government’s first act was to attack and shut down two radio stations, Radio Globo and Radio Progreso, that were helping to mobilise resistance.
Control of the frequencies makes it more difficult to set up radical stations in Britain.
Local stations are essentially commercial or branches of the BBC. And more and more of them basically broadcast music.
The impression they give is of diversity – the very opposite of the monolithic media that the cultural critic Theodor Adorno denounced early in the 1940s.
There, he said, everything was ruthlessly controlled and culture had lost its ability to engage critically.
Nothing expressed that so well, in his view, as commercial music. Adorno was a musical snob. He was a contemporary of Schoenberg and Webern and saw their demanding, difficult music as equivalent to critical thought.
Music that comforted or moved us emotionally was in some sense a betrayal of that.
But the real power is mornings – radio still controls mornings. Apparently the early slot is the pinnacle of radio achievement and currently Terry Wogan and Chris Moyles are slugging it out for domination of Britain´s waking consciousness.
The bland confronts the bland! In any case, they are both fighting for the same musical territory – nothing too challenging, distressing or unpredictable.
It’s sort of Readers’ Digest of the airwaves, routine and reassuring, always there, day after day, a guarantee of the essential continuity of things.
My recommendation is to hang around till the other end of the day, find Radio 3 and have a listen to Late Junction.
It’s everything that Wogan is not – it is unpredictable, messy, eclectic, surprising. It travels across time and space with what looks like an anarchic distaste for order.
It’s like the attic where people shove whatever they don’t use every day, a kind of remnant box of music.
You might hear Delta Blues or hi-life, progressive jazz, strange minimalist compositions from somewhere near Helsinki, an Icelandic choir or Eskimo throat singing or a wedding band from the Bolivian highlands.
As I write I’m listening to what sound like train noises interwoven with very minimal piano music.
Four days a week, for a couple of hours up till midnight, radio offers surprises, the unexpected, the unannounced.
You could see it, as some academic analysts have, as an expression of post-modernism, a pick and mix art where nothing is better than anything else and it’s all ephemeral anyway.
Or you could see it as a kind of exhibition of how broad and unexpected the range of music that is out there, somewhere, in the imaginary landscape.