Volume 18 Number 6
Radio '- Where the Pictures are Better
01 December 2005
Denis Nowlan speaks up for the medium which leads you by the ear
I CAN REMEMBER the day, when I was just tall enough to see the top of the kitchen table, that my father patiently assembled a crystal radio set: a shoebox, the tube out of a toilet roll, wound with copper wire, a few bakelite knobs and the whiff of melting solder. And then the unspeakable excitement as through the headphones came the faint, crackling sound of a Mozart sonata.
That was, and is, the wonder of radio for me-the conjuring of magical sounds, Prospero-like, out of the silently teeming air. And the sense of joining, instantly, with a vast community of listeners.
When I first started making radio programmes in the late Eighties, I was warned by wise colleagues that the medium was doomed. Radio audiences and budgets were falling, and the dominance of TV seemed unstoppable. To everyone's surprise, however, radio has not only survived, but flourished, while TV viewing is in decline.
Act of listening
This is partly to do with the way TV has changed, due to deregulation, new technology and massive commercial pressure. Digital technology has led to a revolutionary expansion in the market. But the net effect, in the eyes of many viewers, has been loss of quality. When budgets have to be stretched over a multitude of channels, production values inevitably get thinner. You end up with a spread of programmes that looks like Mark Twain's description of the Mississippi-'a mile wide and an inch deep'.
We tend to think, because of the way we listen while doing other things, that hearing is a secondary activity. Images, which demand our exclusive focus, are assumed to be intrinsically more powerful. Yet, there's something uniquely profound about the act of listening.
It may be that the aural is a deeper, more primary way of engaging with reality than the visual. In Radio in a global age (Polity Press, 2000), David Hendy describes recent anthropological studies which have illuminated the different hierarchy of senses in non-literate societies. When the word is not something to be read on a page but heard, listening is accorded a higher status. For example, the Suya Indians of Brazil say, 'it is in my ear', to mean that they have learned something-even if it is something visual, like a new weaving pattern.
The revelation of God enshrined in the Judaeo-Christian tradition was not originally a book, but experienced as a living Word, heard by the Prophets in the sacred space of the heart and spoken in turn by them to the people of Israel.
It may be that our soundscape is much more important to us in constituting the texture of reality than we realize. It is, after all, through hearing that we receive our first impressions of the world. We know that babies respond to music in the womb. While we float in weightless darkness, we absorb the drumbeat of our mother's heart, register the timbre of our father's voice.
All human experience is received in a soundscape. The radio producer knows there is no such thing as total silence: we always record wildtrack, the ambient sound of a place, even of an empty room, to use for covering edits.
It's often said of radio that 'the pictures are better'. While the sound comes out of the loudspeaker, the images come out of the listener's imagination. We may engage more deeply with a radio play than with a perfectly realized costume drama on TV. The fertile darkness of radio invites us into a more intimate and active encounter with the story.
Radio is less of an external event and more of an inner, interactive experience. It doesn't grab us by the lapel, but leads us by the ear.
Take news, for instance. The TV camera is bewitched by the scene of destruction, or forced to show us a talking head. On radio you're free to enter into the subtle interplay of ideas, issues and emotions.
After the bomb in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, in 1987, Gordon Wilson lay buried in the rubble with his daughter. He told an interviewer afterwards, 'She held my hand and said, "I love you Daddy", and then she died.' What pictures could add anything to that?
Of course there's plenty of trash on radio, too, but our vision in the BBC is of radio that makes connections, expands awareness and builds public value. It offers learning opportunities to young and old and extends the richness of music, theatre and comedy to millions who would rarely encounter them at first hand. And it actively sponsors the creation of new cultural riches. Radio 4, for example, is the world's biggest patron of new drama.
In the political sphere, BBC Radio is committed to providing listeners with rigorous, impartial analysis and informed debate. The BBC is the only nationally significant voice equipped to provide an independent check to the immense power Westminster has to shape our perceptions-whichever party is in power.
Along with these roles, BBC radio contributes to the coherence of an increasingly diverse and fragmented society, through creating a forum where all our dissonant voices may be heard. Perhaps the BBC is the only institution in the UK that can still reach across nearly every boundary of nation, ethnicity, religion and class.
The future of democracy may depend on our ability to maintain such spaces where we can keep dialogue alive, where we can be exposed to other people's prejudices, not just have our own reinforced. Radio can be the enabler of the vital conversation that society needs to have with itself.
Conversation entails a courteous willingness to listen, to abandon pre-conceived ideas. It requires the willingness to surrender our anxious, secret ambition to change the other person into someone like us. I would go further: it calls on us to accept the possibility that we might be changed by the encounter.
For five centuries, since the Renaissance, our culture has celebrated the outer over the inner, the technical over the spiritual, the visual over the aural. Much of the content of our media today simply reflects that fundamental option.
I wonder if we are beginning to see the emergence of a new synthesis which will bring together the two maps into a whole. We can pick up rumours of that emergence in many ways: the anarchic, global neighbourliness of the web; the spread of Buddhism and Ignatian spirituality among young urban professionals; new movements in music and poetry; a trend away from determinism among physicists and an openness to metaphysics among philosophers; a new concern for beauty in engineers and architects; the acute ecological awareness of our children; the compassion with which millions responded to the tsunami victims.
It's said that after the tsunami hit some of the richest coastal wildlife reserves of Asia, not a single dead animal was found. Something had urged them to move to higher ground hours before the wave came in view. You can't help wondering did we have that faculty once?
If we could cleanse the doors of perception and retune our hearing, we might find ourselves picking up frequencies and messages far beyond our current range.
Denis Nowlan is Network Manager of BBC Radio 4