Setting Radio Free
Fisher. German Bight. Humber. Fisher. German Bight. Humber. Southerly or southeasterly, veering westerly or southwesterly four or five, occasionally six in north Fisher at first. Slight or moderate. Rain for a time, fog patches later. Moderate or good, occasionally poor, occasionally very poor later…
We are sailing off the coast of the Netherlands, and I am below deck. I cling to the navigation desk while a pencil and a set square slide towards the desk’s lipped edge. My neck is craned to the instrument panel. Holding me up are the roughened hands of my uncle – sailor’s hands, hands that have known the world, and the hands that built this ship. Seasick and inexperienced, I haven’t been much use on this trip. But I am the only English speaker here, and so too serve some purpose. Stretching my ear to the little speaker in the wall, I catch what I can between the static and the violent sea. To this nine-year-old it is a matter of survival. Triumph or certain death.
A decade and a bit later, that same boat is sailing across the South Pacific, now in the hands of my uncle’s eldest son. With his wife and two young children, he is undertaking to circumnavigate the globe, as his parents had done with him in the early 1980s. But this is a different kind of journey, around a much-shrunken planet. New instruments are installed above that navigation desk, and a laptop now delivers the weather report. Where once there was an occasional letter home with its exotic stamp, there is now a blog to which I subscribe with an RSS reader; and a few times a week a satellite phone plucks these sailors from the ocean and plants them in a sleepy Hamburg suburb. The radio lies stumm.
And on earth peace, goodwill toward men. It’s just over a century since that Christmas Eve when ships off the coast of Massachusetts tuned into Reginald Fessenden playing ‘O Holy Night’ on his violin and reading from the Gospel of Luke – the first audio radio broadcast. Radio has since lived through two world wars, through television and rock ‘n’ roll, through moon landings and iron curtains, but its basic premise is still much the same: radio is about piping words and music through the air. Through the air and into little boxes in our air-raid shelters, kitchens and the dashboards of our cars. But though the basis of radio hasn’t changed, its relevance has. Once so central to modern life, radio is now just one among so many contending media, many of which can do the job of communicating and disseminating faster and better. For radio, it is no longer a matter of life and death.
With radio’s wholesale transfer to digital technology, its limitations are dissolving. In the future of radio, listening is on-demand rather than by schedule, production is democratised, content is more specialised, and there is a whole new geographic relationship to listeners. For radio, it is a rebirth and a second childhood, as it is removed from the piece of technology that defined it.
It is the middle of the night in a lay-by near Castletownbere, County Cork, about three thousand miles east by northeast of where Fessenden made his first broadcast. My plan to sleep in the car is not working, with each passing truck giving the car a strong shake on its axles. I go back into the driver’s seat, thinking that if I’m to spend the night awake, I might as well be going somewhere. It will be dawn soon, and I start the car and set off out along the peninsula, seeing can I find Dursey’s Island at its point. The fog is thick, but the rising sun is creeping through ahead. It feels like being on some kind of frontier. Above the mutter of diesel, the radio plays a country singer from Austin, Texas. I never hear his name, but hear the story of his life, a life that has been lived on the edge of things. Listening, part of me is in Texas, part of me watching for the dry-stone walls and the narrowing road ahead. And when I finally reach it, Dursey’s Island looks like it might just be on the edge of the world, but for a road-sign pointing to Moscow, 3310km. An old cable-car connects the island to the mainland and there is a plaque commemorating four Luftwaffe pilots whose Junkers crashed here in 1942. And standing out here on what might just be the edge of the world, it feels as if all of these things – the fog and the dry-stone walls and Texas and the Luftwaffe piloten and Moscow far away and the old cable-car and the rising sun – might be connected to one another.
Radio is a bit like that rusty cable car, connecting islands to the mainland, and the idea of joining up isolated dots must be somewhere at the centre of what radio is about. And as much as radio is about connecting people, it is also an educator, a storyteller, a listener, a companion, an entertainer, a forum of personalities, sometimes it’s a sparring partner, and sometimes radio is just something to break the silence. The best radio is made by alchemists of expertise and intuition who can find common value in the esoteric, and who can turn the plainest thing into something rare and beautiful. These are people with a constant and unspoken love for humanity, and for the power of bringing people together.
Above all, radio is made by people, not algorithms. Spotify, the music streaming service, has a feature called ‘radio’ by which you can form your own radio station by limiting the possibilities by decade and a choice of eighteen genres. The idea is that when you don’t like something, you skip it and gradually the software learns your taste. (The aptly named Last.fm does something similar, and Pandora is entirely based on this idea, but is currently unavailable outside the United States.) Any time I’ve tried this it ends up alternating between Prince and Whitney Houston, which may not seem too bad, but the novelty wears off quickly. Where is the nuance of traditional radio? Where is that track that a DJ throws in when you least expect it, the one that doesn’t make sense, but the one that will make all the difference. It’s impressive that an algorithm can come up with an approximation of my musical preferences, but it soon feels too logical, too obvious, and too much like a conversation with an avatar of myself. It’s a deadening experience, and lonely.
One step further is the idea of using this kind of algorithm to see people as the computer-generated approximations of themselves. Demand Media, a Californian startup, has developed software that analyses the interests of internet users, calculates the potential advertising revenue of a particular subject matter, and then auto-commissions text and video content from a team of freelance writers and editors. It’s content for content’s sake, with no genuine attempt to inform, or to communicate, or to produce anything of real value, but to fill space in order to sell advertising.
Radio, too, is burdened by filler and the pressures of the advertising commercial model. All music suffers, but classical music radio more than most, perhaps because it’s most haunted by the fear of being inherently unpopular. The Irish station, RTÉ lyric fm, is a vivid example. As the national arts station, it is funded by a combination of a licence fee and advertising. Founded just over ten years ago, its remit is to cover, among other art forms, jazz, opera and traditional, world and classical music. The station is lucky to have a handful of presenters and producers who are forcefully dedicated to the idea of radio with substance, for whom creating something of quality is all that matters. But, with a few very notable exceptions, these programmes are brushed toward the fringes of the schedule. The remainder of programming is made of excepts of so-called popular classics. Worse still, the station has become the graveyard of the state broadcaster’s presenters, employing football commentators and news readers to host its prime time shows. It’s a failure of vision at management level that refuses to trust in the intelligence of the station’s listenership, and apart from doing a disservice to the tax-payer and the music itself, it must be an insult to those who, late into the night, are still making great radio across the corridor.
But this kind of compromise between drivetime classics and high quality programming doesn’t need to exist in a digital radio culture, a place where there is no graveyard shift, and no single listenership for broadcasters at any one time. By losing its medium, radio can become something much closer to its idealised form. More than a technology, more than a medium, radio has always been an idea, and now that idea is ready to be extended.
It is December, and we have just driven four hours through a blizzard to Johan Vandermaelen’s recording studio in rural Belgium. My sense of geography, let alone mortality, has never been more real. Once in the door, I hear a jig playing. Johan emerges from the kitchen, grinning and clutching his new digital radio. It is playing Clare FM, a local station from the West of Ireland.
The first defining feature of a new digital culture, no longer defined by the range of a radio wave, may be its internationalism, and a general tendency to cater for international listenerships defined only by interest or subject matter. This is not to dismiss the importance of local radio. Regional, language minority and community broadcasting, in being so specialised, is perhaps a model of what is to come on a much larger scale. The makers of radio can now follow niche musical and journalistic threads in detail for a potentially very large international audience.
This also encourages new economic models for radio. As we gradually get used to the idea of paying for digital content, and as the platforms for buying and selling it improve, there is the potential for small, specialised radio production to support itself without advertising revenue or licence fee – programme-makers equipped with the necessary technology to produce, broadcast and find markets for their work. The model of government-subsidised radio, too, will come under scrutiny: institutions of public broadcasting are surely one of the finest inventions of our civilisation, but the world now places radically different demands on them. Can we ever imagine a time when we will not need them for investigative journalism, objective news reporting and as a recorded depository of our culture? These things also are changing, and if large broadcasting institutions are to be needed, it is in the context of an information culture that is more open and participatory.
On the first of May this year in Berlin, when Mayday riots threatened to ignite all over the city just like every other year, I was able to sit on the U-Bahn and follow the location of any of the skirmishes taking place. I didn’t get this information from the radio, or even the websites of news corporations – this information came from hundreds of Twitter users who were walking the streets. Technology has invited us to all be contributors, and now every citizen is in some way a broadcaster.
In an age in which technology has democratised almost every profession, anyone with some software and an internet connection can now put together a broadcast, and it has to be acknowledged that the ability to articulate oneself publicly and globally, uncensored, is undoubtedly a good thing. The result is many modes of information coexisting in the public arena, voices that are poetic as much as factual – one man’s comment about his day can be as illuminating as the nine o’clock news. In many ways this multiplex media is more in line with the emotional and intellectual complexity of human beings than its monochrome predecessors. Life is essentially chaotic, and a media that copes with that reality can help us do the same.
The obvious comparison in the visual medium is YouTube, whose slogan is ‘Broadcast Yourself’. If YouTube, now with millions of videos, is a new form of television, then it’s both a beacon and an omen for a new, participatory radio platform. YouTube has successfully made everyone a broadcaster, but it hasn’t done anything to make sense of the vast quantities of new content it has coaxed into the world.
I think of all the nights spent proof-reading this magazine in the companionship of BBC Radio 3’s Late Junction. A model of the best kind of radio, this show is intelligent, ambitious, informed and unpredictable. Here you can find Beethoven next to Québécois fiddle music and the presenter’s own field recordings of birds, and all in a way that appears to make sense. I think of Ciarán MacMathúna’s Mo Cheol Thú on RTÉ Radio 1 every Sunday morning for thirty-five years, his soft voice grandfatherly and nostalgic on behalf of the nation, speaking over an arrangement of ‘The Lark in the Clear Air’ for violin and piano. That tune belongs forever to Sunday mornings of my childhood, and those of many others, just as the pastor-like voice of Garrison Keillor and A Prairie Home Companion has belonged to many Americans.
And on earth peace, goodwill toward men. The voice of Reginald Fessenden is still sounding. Programmes like Late Junction, Mo Cheol Thú and A Prairie Home Companion are perhaps the realisation of this sentiment, humanitarian in the truest sense. More than anything, the radio we love is made of this ethos – and this ethos defines what radio is much more than the little box of wires, dials and aerials. YouTube is content without ethos, and it cries out for something to make intelligent the chaos in which we find ourselves. We need something to hold things together, to filter and communicate through the noise. The potential of a radio set free is truly exciting, but it should hold onto that ethos with all of its teeth. Just as Twitter is not the same as analytic journalism, the best radio will continue to be a connecting, editorialising agent, meaningfully stringing together discrete elements. This is the idea of radio, and if it can be applied to a world that is fluent and participatory, yet sustaining old-fashioned qualities like expertise, spontaneity and empathy, it will find itself back at the hub of life.