Friday, 28 September 2012

Goodbye Radio

It’ll soon be curtains for our friend, the radio.

So reckons a respected music industry man who spoke at the recent International Radio Festival, amidst a shower of rotten eggs and tomatoes.

I won’t bother to name him; he's since been taken to the dungeon and won't be speaking again. But the five strengths which have kept radio alive, for its listeners and sponsors, were all now to be bettered, socially and commercially, by other ‘things’ – he said:

1)      Its ubiquity...
The smartphone vastly outnumbers the radio set, and “If you ask any teenager today, what would you rather have…” – well, you needn’t bother to ask;

2)      Its ability to form tastes...
Gone are the days when we listen to the radio to decide which songs are worth listening to. Spotify and the like have developed software that, far from just pumping out songs you might like, analyses the songs you love to listen to and comes up with some guaranteed winners for your playlist;

3)      The shared experience of radio...
Well, what’s Facebook if not a way of communing – and apparently we now only care about doing that with people we know;

4)      Access to an audience...
Twitter. Lady Gaga gets better access to her fans via social media than she does from any radio interview. Why should she [or they] need it? Don’t forget, potential new fans will learn about her through Spotify;  

5)      Opportunity to promote brands...
Advertisers now expect the kind of strategic, targeted exposure that online promotion offers as standard; so cancel that arbitrary 30 second ad, would you.

Poor old radio.

You’ll be expecting me – a radio lover from birth, and someone who owes his living to Marconi’s medium – to join the lynch mob.

I won’t. The man makes some good points. 

But it does rest upon some big assumptions: chiefly, that we are all content to live without a soul. It assumes that we’re no longer prepared to accept life as a realistic range of highs and lows – in which we hear the good songs as well as our all time favourites, in which the yellow Wine Gums make the red ones taste better – but instead wish for our lives to be spent in a constant state of euphoria. And it assumes the ‘things’ that help us to achieve and maintain this euphoria should be purely functional, each of them just a means of making sure we never have to endure anything that’s any less than ideal.

And... the way things are now, if we draw a trajectory from the way our values have become in 2012... these are perfectly fair assumptions to make about the values we’ll hold in the future.

So yes, I’m afraid he’s right.

The internet has done for our lives what private motoring did for travel in the 1960s. The other night I revisited a charming old film of John Betjeman conjuring poetry on a steam train journey across Somerset to Burnham-on-Sea. It was 1963, and it was obvious that Britain’s rural railways were about to die. Everything about the journey mattered; the villages we passed, the ways of life we saw, the people we met.

We took it all in. We cared.


The private car took away the hardship of journeys like that, and in doing so it stripped them of the wonder and mystique that often made them worthwhile. It repositioned our expectations of travel so that we no longer marvelled at the journey, but came to regard it as a necessary hurdle between life and adventure. Travelling became functional, not delightful. It was no longer valued as a privilege, but assumed as a right.

The roads are now exactly as Betjeman had predicted; a soulless means to an end. I don’t see anybody writing poetry about the M5. And as a result even those ‘ends’ are not what they once were. As Betjeman ran along the front at Burnham-on-Sea, he leapt for joy and spoke of “air like wine”. It’s more like White Lightning today.

Of course, few would argue that the car wasn’t a massive boon for us socially. It was! But it did have a social cost, too. It devalued something that had been important in our lives, and quite fundamental too. Likewise the internet, the mobile phone, the social networks… for all the enrichment they’ve brought, for all they’ve enabled (the very fact you’re reading this now)… they’ve each contributed to a society which is now really struggling to balance its all-time-high expectations with any sense of value.

Back to radio. Just look at those perceived ‘strengths’ above and ask yourself, what do we actually value nowadays? We’ve been completely spoilt. Instead of counting our favourite songs we now count the duffers. Nowadays we expect the world and end up disappointed when all we get is a delicious birthday cake. We’re measuring life on a scale of discontent. It’s no wonder we riot.

Maybe radio will be the next Burnham-on-Sea; once utopian, now usurped. Maybe we’re already there.

But radio’s failure won’t be because Spotify and the social networks can ‘do’ what it ‘does’ and better. If radio dies, it’ll be because society has lost its sense of the metaphysical. It’ll be because we’ve forgotten the pleasure of surprise, of hearing somebody remote saying something that chimes with our own lives. It’ll be because we’ve given up on things we can’t measure and control. It’ll be because we’ve forgotten what it is to laugh when we’re least expecting to. It’ll be because we’ve forgotten we’re human after all…

If radio dies it’ll be because we no longer have the soul that radio was made to feed. It probably walked out during a bad song.


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