In defence of radio

After my blog posting yesterday reviewing Oliver Stone’s Talk Radio, a few of my students told me that radio was fast becoming an obsolete medium and would be swept away in the next few years by TV and the internet. Personally I couldn’t disagree more. I don’t think that any media platform is innately superior to any other, as they all have their strengths and weaknesses. That said there are some things that radio does better than anything else and here are five reasons to love it:


1) The pictures are better on radio

Radio in many ways is much more intimate than TV. However immersive TV can be, nothing beats radio for really drawing you into a drama and creating worlds and images in your own head. For example, the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in its time has been a  TV series, a book, a movie and even a stage play. For me though the best version has always been the original BBC Radio 4 production. When I first heard it I was blown away by how the sound effects department created whole alien planets in my mind. I was later heartbroken to find about that the actors didn’t look like I’d imagined them.

2) You can listen to radio anywhere, while doing pretty much anything

Radio is the ultimate portable medium. Equally it’s one of the few forms of media that you can enjoy while doing other activities e.g. driving/running. On a Friday evening I often put on the panel discussion show “Any Questions” while doing some cooking.

3) Ease of access

Radio is cheap and almost universally available. Thanks to the invention of wind-up and solar powered radios in the 1990s, radio is available in many areas of the third world that TV and the internet could never hope to reach. For this reason radio is still the most popular media platform on the planet. I also think that it brings people together in a way that few other things do. For instance, years ago I spoke to an American who recalled hearing FDR’s fireside chats when he was a child, and how everybody in the neighbourhood would listen in as well and talk about it afterwards. In our increasing fragmented multi-media environment you just don’t get that anymore.

4) Radio 4

As Stephen Fry recently commented, Radio 4 is still one of the best reason for living in Britain. For those of you who are unfamiliar with it, it’s run by the BBC and broadcasts a huge variety of programmes, ranging from dramas and comedies to political interviews and consumer shows. Radio 4 gave us the 13 hour audio version of Lord of the Rings, The Today programme, Women’s Hour, the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the Goon Show, Hancock’s Half Hour, the Round Britain Quiz, The Archers, The News Quiz, Round the Horne, Any Questions, Bleak Expectation etc. The list really is endless, not to mention the huge array of shows that started out on Radio 4 before transferring to television. Last but not least is the Shipping Forecast. A British institution and the last thing Radio 4 does every night before shutting down. In equal parts poetic, hypnotic and pure gibberish, it’s as comforting and familiar as a pair of old slippers or a cup of hot soup.

5) Podcasting and internet radio

Now radio has become even more accessible. Thanks to the internet I can download and listen to my favourite shows whenever I want, but also listen to a radio from across the world. Thanks to the internet I’ve heard farmers discussing crop growth in Kansas, comedies from Alaska, political programmes from NPR and when working late in my office I can put on breakfast shows from San Francisco. 

For those of you who remain unconvinced by any of these arguments there are a couple of books I’d highly recommend reading:

WLT: a Radio Romance by Garrison Keillor

A really lovely book about the early days of radio from someone who clearly grew up the medium. As well as inventing Lake Wobegon, Garrison Keillor also came up with the Prairie Home Companion which I’ve listened to for years and is one of my favourite US shows. The movie is also worth seeing as its the last thing Robert Altman directed and has an amazing cast.

Travels with my radio by Fi Glover

Journalist Fi Glover travels around the world exploring how radio differs from place to place and how people relate to it. The section on US radio are really interesting and it could ahve done with more stuff from Africa and South America but still a really interesting book and well worth reading.


And Now on Radio 4: A Celebration of the World’s Best Radio Station by Simon Elmes

Does exactly what it says on the cover. Everything thats great about Radio 4 in one book.

About matthewashton

I'm a Politics Lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. I specialise in the fields of American, British and media politics.
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11 Responses to In defence of radio

  1. One big advantage Radio has over TV and Internet is that its Free and requires minimum effort setup.

    Admittedly – I was never a big fan of Radio until due to my career I spent many years travelling up and down the country visiting different healthcare organisations – during driving one particular day I got fed up of listen to Music – same stuff again and again – so I switched over to Radio 4 in my car – and it was like a breath of fresh air. I managed to listen to almost every radio documentary relating to Large Hadron Collider during 2008 and throughout 2009. I just felt part of the invention and the programmes broadcastings were outstanding.

    Since then, Radio 4 is regular for me – even while studying and gardening.

    Thanks to the Internet almost all programs are available for download – to listen to in your own preferred time.

    It will have to take some spectacular to beat the radio and I can’t see anything yet that can match it.

    • The Hadron Collider documentaries were great (did you hear the Torchwood radio play they had which was set there?). I remember listening to Andrew Marr on the Today show when they switched it on. Obviously nothing happened in terms of the world ending but it really felt like a great moment to be listening in on. Their enthusiasm was infectous.

      • Yes – I caught all of it and your right it felt being part of making some history. One disturbing news that came along with it was when a village in India thought because of this Hadron Collider the world would end and a young girl committed suicide on the even of the collider being switched on. I guess this is the clash of culture where in some cases culture holds back material and technological advancement.

  2. Radio is great for all the reasons you’ve cited. I rely on it (and the internet) for News coverage as I can no longer stomach the often downright moronic news presentations available on regular television. There’s just something appalling about all sorts of good looking teleprompter readers with so little comprehension of the information they mindlessly read that I can’t stand watching their daily dog and pony performances. Luckily I have access to a totally independent community radio station with a capacity of 100,000 watts AND streaming online access. Yes, you read that right–totally independent as in funded by US the community for the last 23 years. No corporate or government funding or influence over programming. It’s not perfect, but KKFI offers music not heard on corporate owned stations, local artists who in return support the station, news programs that the local NPR station won’t touch–as in Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now!, Bioneers, Grit Radio etc. And the wonderful LA Theatre Works’ presentation of plays. It’s not easy finding the likes of Oscar Wilde’s plays on radio in America. Also, there’s an hour of Native Spirit Radio on Sundays–yes, Native American music and news hosted by Rhonda, an Acoma Pueblo journalist who teaches at Haskell Indian University in Lawrence, KS. I can tell you with confidence that there’s no regular presentation of Native American music or issue on televison or other radio stations in the KCMO metro area even though there is a significant population of urban Native Americans.
    Visit to view the full program schedule for the programs offered by “our” community radio station.

    • Am currently listening to Salman Rushdie being interviewed on Bookwaves. I’ve had a look on the weeks schedule and have picked out a few programmes that I’m going to try to listen to this week while I’m in my office. Due to the time difference between Kansas and the UK its a bit trickier but it looks like there is some really interesting material on there. I always like things like this which feel like they’re part of a more authentic America.

      I know very little about Native American history/culture apart from the more general books I’ve read about Native American political history (which they’re often either written out of or presented purely as victims). I read one a while ago about George Washington’s secret war against the Six tribes which was interesting as I wasn’t previously aware of it.

      • Your reference to “general books” about Native American history/culture could cover a lot -or very little ground.
        Shall I assume this includes Dee Brown’s ground breaking Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee ?

        A few suggestions:

        Elizabeth Cook-Lynn– Why I Can’t Read Wallace Stegner and Other Essays
        —Anti-Indianism In Modern America
        –with Mario Gonzalez—The Politics of Hallowed Ground

        Ella Cara Deloria–Waterlily—based on first hand field research with people who lived the traditional ways, this is pre-white contact traditional Lakota culture presented in a fictional package. ECD wanted to make her work accessible to more than an academic audience and so used fiction. Susan Gardner at UN of C is working on a biography of ECD.

        Vine Deloria Jr –Custer Died for Your Sins
        —God is Red

        Hyemeyohsts Storm —Seven Arrows

        MariJo Moore, ed. —Genocide of the Mind

        Catherine Price–The Oglala People: A Political History 1841-1879

        And there are always the anthropologists ……

        Videos—newest on American Experience—We Shall Remain–
        -it’s a sort of 101 Native American history which is a decent enough introduction but lacks depth and breadth in some areas.

        Films–The Business of Fancy Dancing based on Sherman Alexie’s book.
        The Only Good Indian —great film about a boy who decides the forced boarding school experience is not for him–and WHAT a ‘boy’ he is–as Wes Studi’s character discovers.


        Smoke Signals

        Pow Wow Highway

        Edge of America–Indian Girls Shoot Mean Hoops–and more.

        Okay, I’ve run off at the fingertips–perhaps you’ll discover something interesting.

  3. Lisa says:

    I tend to agree with you that radio will never go out of style. I mainly just have to comment because I like Garrison Keillor as well. I’m maybe a bit younger than his typical demographic, but I am a Minnesotan. I find it pretty cool that he makes the list as one of your favorite U.S. shows.

    • I can never hear the words “It’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon…”, without being taken back taken back to my childhood when I first heard it on Radio 4. Garrison Keillor has an amazing way of being able to make you nostalgic for somewhere you’ve never been, and never really existed in the first place. A lot of people in the UK love the Prairie Home Companion though as its a great show. I do guest lecturing sometimes for a Luthuran College in Nottingham who send their exchange students from Minnesota over here and they’re always a really nice bunch of people.

      Have you seen the spoof article the Onion ran a few months ago about Lake Wobegon:,2695/

  4. MrG says:

    Radio “becoming an obsolete medium”? Not in my lifetime is my hope! A far more relaxing and balanced medium than TV in general. For years now I have said to friends; a burglar can take any TV in the house but he/she better leave the radio!

  5. If you get a chance, check out the Phil Hendrie Show. It’s the best I’ve seen the medium used. The guy is flat-out brilliant.

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