Why listening to the radio is special even in the age of TV
There is always the opportunity in India to make excellent radio programmes that are not news or current affairs, but unfortunately the private sector broadcasters have not taken up that opportunityUpdated: Aug 27, 2017 07:36 IST
Recently I had a bout of an unpleasant complaint called Menieres Disease. The symptoms are unfortunate as well as unpleasant because they include severe vertigo, which makes a victim look as though he/she is drunk — lurching about the place and even falling down. The vertigo can be brought on by reading, particularly reading, and by looking at television screens. So I found myself doing a lot of listening. That has prompted me to write about the pleasure of listening quietly in today’s noisy world.
First of all what did I listen to? As a school boy I enjoyed Charles Dickens but in my adulthood I found I was too impatient to persevere with his lengthy prolix novels. So with plenty of time on my hands I decided to have another go at two of them, this time of course listening to them rather than reading them. I listened to a reading, called an audio book, of the entire story of David Copperfield, which contains some of Dickens best known characters, David himself searching for a home, Micawber, always in debt but always optimistic about finding a way out of it supported by his long-suffering wife, and there is of course the repulsive, miserly, hypocrite Uriah Heap.
Encouraged by my enjoyment of David Copperfield, I turned to the Pickwick Papers. I heard a BBC Radio drama recording of the comic adventures of that irrepressible gentleman. Then I listened to the renowned BBC foreign correspondent, the late Charles Wheeler’s radio documentary about national service. I was reminded, sometimes uncomfortably, sometimes with amusement, of the two years I spent in the British Army. I listened to poetry too; and of course music.
I always listen to the news on radio but I spent more time doing that when Menieres Disease struck me because I couldn’t read newspapers. I heard wonderfully weird radio programmes too, including one about beards in which I heard the presenter having his beard trimmed.
Whenever I talk to students of journalism in India about radio I am told “It’s dead. Killed by television”. As the presenter of a radio programme broadcast in Britain I know that’s certainly not true there. Here, for some reason, I have never been able to understand, while the government has lost control over television it retains a monopoly over radio news. Of course there is always the opportunity in India to make excellent radio programmes that are not news or current affairs, but unfortunately the private sector broadcasters have not taken up that opportunity. All India Radio does make some excellent documentaries but they are difficult to find because so little effort is made to publicise them.
Having got my gripe about radio in India over, I want to return to the charm of listening. There are, in my view, three reasons why listening is special. The first is that listeners have to create their own pictures. That’s why broadcasters say “the pictures are better on radio”, and why the former head of BBC Radio, Liz Forgan, once said to me, “Radio has a great future provided you don’t start putting pictures to it.” That is a temptation in these days of digital radio.
Creating one’s own pictures requires concentration and imagination. Because they are listeners’ own pictures and because creating them needs effort they stick more firmly in the mind than pictures which are provided for them.
That is the second reason why listening has a special quality. The third is that listening is usually a solitary occupation which makes it peculiarly intimate. Radio broadcasters can give listeners the impression that they are speaking to them individually. Prime Minister Narendra Modi sometimes achieves that impression in his Maan Ki Baat broadcasts. I assume that is why he has chosen radio as the medium for those broadcasts.
I first learnt to love listening when I was a small child and my mother used to read to me. I didn’t need Menieres Disease to remind me of the special pleasure it gives but listening did mean I felt no deprivation when I couldn’t read or watch the television. It meant more than that. It meant I could spend my time well.
The views expressed are personal
First Published: Aug 26, 2017 17:33 IST