Monday, 24 November 2014

Why we're still gaga for radio

Last week's successful comet landing is a pretty good indication of just how far we humans have come, technologically speaking. And even on a smaller, Earth-based scale, it's fairly mind boggling to think that in the space of just a decade we've gone from considering 'Snake' a decent form of entertainment, to the Candy Crush-playing smartphone slaves most of us find ourselves today.

But in the world of selfies, iPads and the pervasive image of Kim Kardashian's arse, there's one old school form of entertainment that's still going strong. In fact, more than just weathering the Internet storm, radio's popularity  is at an unprecedented high, with as many as 90 per cent of Britons still said to tune in on a weekly basis.

It's odd really, because with our increasingly short attention spans, and eyes that flicker intermittently from Twitter to Facebook to whatever's on the TV, radio  really shouldn't still work. So why does it? And so well?

Much of its success no doubt lies in our propensity for loneliness. Whether or not (like me) you actually quite enjoy your own company, switching on the radio is a surefire way to gain some comfort. While listening to music is a mainly solitary act, listening to the radio offers up real human connections - through everything from fictional stories to listener call-ins and radio documentaries. Friendly voices can be pumped 24/7 live into your living room, should you wish, and no matter your musical or cultural tastes, you're sure to find something that appeals.

There's a lot to be said, too, for the way in which radio can slip so seamlessly into your day to day life. There's a reason why radio personalities like 'Grimmers' and Chris Evans have become popular household names; breakfast shows can cheer up the monotony of the morning routine, drivetime shows help to while away the hours while you're stuck in traffic, and the likes of The Archers and Desert Island Discs are the ideal accompaniment to a lazy Sunday morning.

That's not to say that radio has escaped modernisation completely, though. Its newer, edgier sibling, the podcast, can claim a lot of the credit for radio's enduring popularity. Podcast subscriptions on iTunes have already hit the one billion mark, and its popularity is aptly demonstrated by the recent success of the American murder mystery, 'Serial', a weekly program which sees journalist Sarah Koenig investigate a murder case that closed 15 years ago, and has now been downloaded more than 5 million times.

When you think about it, Serial, with a new episode released each week, is actually pretty Dickensian in its format. And in this modern culture of instant gratification, this makes its popularity all the more astounding.

But I'd say that it's this mixture of old and new that truly explains radio's enduring appeal. Traditional phone-ins might have moved onto tweet-ins, and the wireless may have morphed into a handy Podcast app, but the magic of radio remains the same.

Podcasts I'm currently listening to: 

Serial - the addictive 'This American Life' spin-off is now on episode nine, with Sarah Koenig still trying to get to the bottom of the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee.

Kermode and Mayo -  this week on the film review show they're joined by Mick Jagger, who produced the new Jame Brown biopic, Get on Up.

Soul Music -  the stories behind songs with a powerful emotion impact, this episode looks at how 'Can't Help Falling in Love' came to be.