Radio is going through its own redemption

By George Esmond

It seemed the shower went ice-cold; the kettle wouldn’t boil; and the car failed to start as the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 lost signal for twenty long minutes on Monday morning.

Our love for the radio – an invention which has provided us with audible pleasure for nigh on a century – was immediate from the day the BBC began its daily transmission in 1922 and today it seems more popular than ever.

During the pandemic, Radio 4 recorded its highest ever audience figures since 2014, reaching over seven million people as listeners across the UK tuned in to stay informed, be entertained, and be enlightened during the country’s darkest days at the start of the pandemic.

It also offered an opportunity for new players to enter an historic market. Times Radio last month released its viewing figures for the first time, achieving over 700,000 daily listeners already (after only being on air since June 2020). The announcement highlighted that despite technological innovations over the last 20 years – the advent of Spotify, podcasts, and streaming channels such as Netflix and YouTube – traditional mediums such as radio have a strong part to play in our learning, leisure, and daily lifestyle.

Over the last 100 years however, our obsession with music, and the way we absorb it individually and collectively, has evolved: first with Peter Goldmark’s Martians vinyl player for Columbia records, responsible for the invention of the epochal long-playing record (LP); then came the cassette in the 1960s, swiftly followed by a brief CD-player spell, before today’s instantly accessible music apps such as Apple and Spotify.

And yet, our go-to sources of instant information have broadly remained rooted in newspapers, television, and the radio. Our innate thirst for knowledge has been contentedly quenched by a familiar friend, who informs us of the day’s events, interviews experts as we drive home from work and imparts information in bite-size chunks before announcing the weather forecast, playing a song, or asking listeners to call in.

Like many others, I enjoy the comfort and structure of a radio programme. Specifically, Radio 4, which, as I eat my Alpen before work and listen to Nick Robinson tirelessly try to get a clear answer from whichever government minister braves the BBC studios, completes my routine to take on the day. Or when Elaine Paige plays theatre tunes, movie music and reveals onstage mishap that soothes the Sunday evening anxiety. I’m sure you have your own favourite.

You feel like you know the presenter, trusting their wisdom explicitly, as though they are speaking only to you. They help you rise in the morning and send you softly to sleep at night. They can slow a hectic day down or fill a free gap in your morning. They offer instant information they have worked endlessly to research and deliver it in an engaging way.

So, settle down, turn on your radio and let its familiar format get you through the winter months ahead.