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Lucy Scholes: Radio has never been more important

Friday 8 January 2021

It’s a medium that’s been around for decades – and yet it’s still proving its worth

Prior to March of last year, I’d always thought of radio as little more than background noise. This isn’t to undermine the pleasure and entertainment gleaned from particular programmes, but rather to try to explain that it was just one source of the many voices and sounds that made up the noisy fabric of my auditory environment. Yet, when my world, like all of ours, abruptly became so much smaller and quieter, I found myself turning the radio on or playing a podcast much more often than before. I also began to take more notice of what I was listening to. And, as it happens, I wasn’t the only one.

To see just how important radio still is to people, even though it’s competing with an increasing number of other digital entertainments, one only needs to look to all the attention that Emma Barnett’s Woman’s Hour debut received earlier this week (she kicked off her tenure as presenter by reading out a letter congratulating the show on its 75th anniversary – from none other than the Queen). Or the extra programming that’s celebrating The Archers 70th anniversary and its unrivalled place as the world’s longest running continuing drama.

But radio has also been particularly well suited to serving listeners during the pandemic. When it comes to commercial stations, both audience figures and the number of hours people were listening for grew markedly last spring, during the first lockdown. Then again during the second in late autumn. According to numbers compiled by the industry body Radiocentre, in November, more than a third of listeners were tuning in for an extra hour and 53 minutes a day when compared to pre-lockdown numbers. Put simply, more time at home – whether because your dining room table is now your office, you’ve been furloughed, or are in your sickbed – means more time spent listening to the radio. 

What we’re listening to has become an invaluable element of our strange new way of life. These voices have kept us company while our friends and family haven’t been able to. 

As the first lockdown hit, like so many others in her industry, Kate Molleson, presenter of Radio 3’s New Music Show & Music Matters, suddenly found herself classified as a key worker. It felt, she tells me, “completely bizarre,” especially as she initially struggled to equate her job with that of frontline health workers or people providing food or other life-and-death services. But as time went by, and she received more and more messages from listeners telling her just how much comfort Radio 3 was bringing them, she started to realise how important a service she and her colleagues were providing when it came to the state of the nation’s mental health.

Her regular listeners have always been a loyal lot, she says, but they had also kept what she describes as something of a “respectful distance”. Now, with people craving a sense of community and connection, this began to change. And it wasn’t just the audience who became more familiar.

“For my New Music Show,” she explains, “we asked musicians to record themselves at home: they sent songs from kitchens, living room sessions with kids and partners, strange late-night experiments involving whatever instruments and materials were to hand. The results have been way more vulnerable and daring than most polished studio recordings. So, in a sense, the lockdown had paradoxically brought people closer together. Listeners and musicians, right into each other’s living rooms. That’s the connection radio can offer.”

Sure, I can turn my TV on for a couple of hours of escapism via a great film or a gripping box set. And if I want the opposite – to have the headlines of the day handed to me – I can tune into the news. But if I want to feel a connection with others and engaged with the wider world around me, radio is uniquely well placed, not least because it’s a medium that encourages discursiveness and discussion. I tune into one station and find myself in the middle of a fraught conversation about the government’s latest U-turn; switch to another and I’m listening to two critics waxing lyrical about a new novel; try another still and I’m suddenly transported to a concert hall.

Radio doesn’t demand one’s attention in the way watching something on a screen does, rather it invites and encourages you to engage with what’s going on, which is somehow much more enticing. It makes us feel like we’re part of the world – especially if we’re listening while also doing something else; a boring piece of work, for example, or a dull domestic chore – and, in this, it’s the closest most of us come these days to overhearing an interesting conversation on the tube, or exchanging a few words with the people at the next table in the pub.

It makes complete sense, I realise, that I’ve enjoyed Locklisted, the regular extra episodes that the team behind the popular books podcast, Backlisted, have been recording over the past year as an extra offering for those of us who support them on Patreon. It’s like having them in my flat with me, chatting about books and films I love, or introducing me to music I’ve never heard before.

They, too, have seen their audience expand: Backlisted numbers were up a full 25 per cent in 2020. Especially interesting, though, is hearing that the show hasn’t just been a godsend for listeners, but also the presenters. Andy Miller and John Mitchinson, along with their producer Nicky Birch, are all quick to point out that making it has been a lifeline for them as well.

These days, when I turn the radio on, I often find myself thinking about Penelope Fitzgerald’s description of Broadcasting House during the Second World War as “scattering human voices into the darkness of Europe, in the certainty that more than half must be lost, some for the rook, some for the crow, for the sake of a few that made their mark”.

It’s the line from which the novel Human Voices (1980) takes its title, based on Fitzgerald’s own experience at the BBC during the war. The circumstances may be different, but the end result is the same; I listen to these voices and it helps me feel a little less alone.