Forget social media and the gogglebox: we may love our screens but we love our radios even more. The latest Rajar figures show over 48 million - 90 per cent - of us tuning in every week, for an average of over twenty hours. My own drug of choice - Radio 4 - is up by ten per cent on last year, to a remarkable 11.5 million: a bit of a Brexit bounce, given that it’s been impossible to put the washing out without the prime minister changing or some bizarre new development in Corbynland. But nearly all the stations are up. The oldest of broadcast technologies, boosted by the ability to stream and time-shift, is roaring ahead.
In a busy world, the medium itself triumphs - an antidote to that nagging sense of time wasted, freeing eyes from the slavery of pixels and the disorganised ramblings of the blogosphere. Good radio doubles your life. At its lightest, it introduces new musical directions and engaging personalities; at its best, serious speech radio gives your brain something to chew over while you’re stuck in a traffic jam or doing menial tasks. It shares ideas, information and jokes, and collaborates with your imagination.
It was ever thus. On dashboards and draining-boards, through headphones and stereos, balanced beside the factory production line or a summer barbecue, the radio is a dependable friend. We may dash to the 24-hour news screen when something immense happens, but more often than not it was the speaker humble box, the window in the laptop’s corner or the pocket-sized sliver of plastic which brought the first tidings of disasters and triumphs.
It gives space to intelligent discussion (Radio 4’s “The Long View” on parallels between Brexit and the Reformation would never have made it past a TV commissioner, or not without some vapid celebs). Radio voices are judged more fairly than faces on TV: you weigh their sincerity without being distracted by bald pate, hipster beard, flirty flicking hair or frumpy blouse.
Britain fell in love rapidly with the radio, a revolution as exciting as Caxton’s printing-press. In 1922 people made crystal sets, winding a pound of No. 16 DCC wire round a hexagonal pickle bottle to get 2LO. The big fretwork box was a family focus as the TV is now. Lord Reith, cussed and prim, understood early that “two kinds of loneliness, insulation in space and isolation of spirit... are both dispelled by wireless.” Later, the “tranny” liberated my generation, thrilled to carry comedy and pop around in our jeans pockets just as today’s kids treasure their smartphones.
In the digital age, every phone can be a radio, given a reasonable signal: on my late-night train weary commuters catch up on the play or the Archers, only sighing briefly at “buffering” in the dead spot near Colchester. In our hyper-connected world where nobody need be more than a click away from a “friend”, it is sometimes a voice of a stranger speaking to everybody which carries more weight. A lovely curiosity is the sorely off-target response of investors to US radio pioneer David Sarnoff in 1920: “No imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?”
It is radio’s inclusivity, its free-to-air offering which thrills. A country pensioner can listen to hip-hop DJs if she wishes, or an inner-city kid catch a taste for John Humphrys or Science Now. It’s all there in the cheap little box or free App. Deep, familiar magic.