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