On Christmas Eve, 1906, the first public radio entertainment show was broadcast from Brant Rock, Massachusetts. Since that day over 110 years ago, the basics of radio have remained remarkably constant.
While television has seen rapid change since its inception, and the film industry embraces new looks and ideas every year, radio appears much more comfortable in its own skin. The technology has changed of course, but the basic principles – broadcasting into the home, a host, some songs and so on – have persisted.
In the grand scheme of things, this may cause a problem. Radio risks becoming an outcast of media. Spotify and other streaming platforms are the main way people are exposed to new music, displacing radio. The podcast revolution also means that what was once only possible in an expensive broadcasting studio can now be mirrored by someone sitting in their pyjamas at home with a decent microphone. Can traditional radio keep up with such changes?
Well, yes, according to the numbers. Ofcom reported in 2016 that over 90 per cent of UK households – 48.7 million people – tune in to the radio regularly, and are listening for longer as well. The industry is becoming more diverse; both BBC Radio 1 and Radio 2 are losing listeners when the likes of LBC and other commercial stations are enjoying an audience renaissance. Radio is going nowhere.
This has been well covered by many commentators and media outlets. What has often been overlooked is the potentially significant role that radio can have in the life of a student. University students are (mostly) intelligent, busy, in debt, never resting… all in the name of a good degree. What role does radio have in such a hectic existence?
Salvation. Just imagine returning home after hours of lectures, exhausted from reading and listening and writing and more reading. Just imagine flopping down on the bed and, with the push of a button, allow a comforting voice to suddenly fill the room. Just imagine breathing slowly, eyes closed, embracing the wonderful sounds broadcast on the airwaves. Just imagine.
If this is not salvation from a busy life, then salvation does not exist. A wonderfully predictable joy in an unpredictable day can emerge as a saviour. It does not require the attention or effort of watching TV or finding a podcast. Radio is always right there whenever it is needed, like a faithful hound that loves its owner dearly and never leaves his side. Radio exists solely to make whoever is listening feel a little bit better in a world that can easily seem against them.
Maybe radio did serve a more important purpose once upon a time. But then, as Freddie Mercury once sang: “You had your time, you had the power. You’ve yet to have your finest hour.” As a relentless academic year of brain-frying work and exhaustion takes hold, an hour of radio may well be the finest hour of the day.
Image: Alan Levine @ Flickr