Sunday, April 4, 2010

Radio Head

W H Smith's will be pleased—their Buy 1, Get 1 Half Price deal ensnared another victim: and the beneficiary of the munificence was me, who received Radio Head by John Osborne, without having done more than read the back blurb and show the book to my boyfriend. The book has inspired mixed feelings in me, but in no way would I wish to give back the experience of having read it. So infrequently are books written about radio that one must applaud any that manage to get published!

And radio is very close to my heart. I realize, upon reading Osborne's book, that it has always been. “Radio is an integral part of our everyday lives. We make appointments with our favorite programmes and become attached ot the familiar, reassuring voices fo the presenters we tune in to every day. Radio binds communities together, is an unvaluable source of entertainment for the elderly, the visually impaired, for those who live alone, for commuters, long distance drivers, places of work. Radio affects everyone.” Though in 2007 I discovered radio drama and writing for radio, eventually doing my MA dissertation in the discipline and developing a love for radio drama that caused me to listen to over 100 plays last year, I'd actually been listening to radio most of my life.

Classical KHFM out of Albuquerque first introduced me to radio presenters (the eclectic and the golden-tongued, with their quirks into the realms of P D Q Bach and Peter Sellers), first hearing a contribution of mine on air (a poem was read out once and I had loads of requests answered), nationally-syndicated programmes (the late, great Dr Karl Haas) and station-made programmes (Classics for Kids). I won tickets to concerts through the station, had letters answered, and one day met the presenters and saw the interior of the studio. I used to tape my favorite classical music off KHFM; ther eare dozens of these cassette tapes sitting around in shoe boxes. Christmas on KHFM was very special indeed, as commercial sponsors donated air time to seasonal music every day in December, and there were no ads on Christmas Day, only recorded greetings from the advertisers to the listenters. One year Kip Allen read the entire Christmas Carol on air.

Sadly, it all came to an end. Dr Karl Haas died, KHFM was turned into a soulless, commercialized Classic FM-style “classical-lite” rip off, all the DJs were fired or left, and everything went to pot.

John Osborne also has an unabashed love of radio, the music more than the spoken word, but the point of his book was for him to explore British radio stations, exclusively listening to one all day. However, Osborne doesn't do this for art's sake, he does it to supplement his dreary, boring temp's life, which frankly is the portion that I could do without. I found him to be an affable fool, and not a very good writer. My opinion of the writing aside, the rest of the book was very enjoyable, consisting of chapters on Virgin Radio, BBC Asian Network, BBC Radio 2, talkSPORT, Resonance 104.4 FM, The Jazz, BBC Radio Humberside, BBC Radio 4, Kiss FM, Classic FM, BBC Radio 3, Capital FM, BBC 6 Music, Radio Broadland, BBC Radio 1, BBC Radio Five Live, and BBC7, as well as interviews with those involved in different aspects of radio.

Osborne found plenty about radio that he didn’t like. He didn’t like Jon Gaunt’s confrontational “Broken Britain” persona on talkSPORT—“I can sense my blood pressure increase, my knuckles whiten, my face redden.” I’m sure it’s personalities like these that contributed to the obnoxious DJ satirized—and redeemed—in Danny Jules’ excellent Halloween-themed play that I heard last year on BBC7. And of course Britain doesn’t have a monopoly in this kind of antagonistic presenter. America is chock full of such people! More surprisingly, Osborne is so becalmed by Classic FM that he has to switch stations midway through the day—he is bored by classical music, and to be fair announces that in the chapter. More baffling to me, however, is his coolness toward BBC7 for some of the same reasons—he feels it’s hit and miss. I’m a huge fan of BBC7, but I guess I can understand why some of the programming would underwhelm him.

There are stations or programmes he liked that he didn’t think he would (BBC Asian Network, for one). He finds Woman’s Hour on Radio 4 curiously agreeable (I empathize with it being something you wouldn’t go out of your way to listen to, but when I used to clean people’s houses I had the radio turned to Radio 4 and Woman’s Hour was frequently on). Osborne’s explorations have made me interested in Resonance FM as well as Just a Minute --and he mentions (though Pandora is better). Because his mother is an Archers addict, he is curiously pleasant about the series; when I automatically start whistling the theme tune, I’m surprised at how few people recognize it. It’s certainly not a young people’s radio show, and perhaps its appeal is quite regional as well—still, I would expect its theme tune to have the same recognition as EastEnders or Coronation Street?

I’m thrilled and pleased for Osborne that by the end of the period Radio Head covers, he has achieved a lifelong ambition to do presenting on a radio station—Future Radio, out of his hometown of Norwich. However, I don’t think this angle of Osborne’s story is handled quite correctly. His yearning for co-worker Poppy, his un-relationship with those who share his data entry-temp world, isn’t rendered compelling enough to be interesting and should either have been developed (with a satisfying ending, if necessary) or left out altogether. On page 66 he laments, on behalf of people in similar situation, his failure to try harder to make his dreams and ambitions a reality. I don’t wish to sound cruel, but judging by the amount of effort he puts into his life as portrayed in Radio Head, it isn’t really surprising he’s ended up “working in an industrial estate in Norwich.” I think he’s adopting this slacker persona in order to dramatize his life and appeal to the widest audience possible, but I don’t think he need have done so. Another example of the timbre of Radio Head not being quite right is at the end of the chapter on Radio Broadland. Listeners have been following a tragic story of an abused woman who wants to return to her abuser. The neutral voice Osborne sometimes adopts works well here, when he’s just reporting a transcript of the programme, but he has to weaken the impact by including a cheap joke at the end. (Oh, and he misspells Doctor Who as Dr Who. I know I’m a true geek since that gets my goat!)

The core of the book was, for me, the interview with the head honchos at Radio Times. Gill Hudson reveals that 55% of UK radio listeners are aged fifty-five or older. That isn’t a surprise, really, but it explains why I have difficulty finding people my own age with whom I can discuss Radio 4 plays. Still, as many have said and I would agree, the Listen Again feature, “digital radio,” has changed accessibility to the genre. The core audience would still rather “book an appointment with a certain show,” but I love being able to scroll through the annals of BBC7 and find whatever I want whenever I want. However, as Hudson points out, “the drawback of picking and choosing your radio programmes . . . is that it denies the possibility of finding programmes by accident.” I must confess, if faced with Afternoon Play choices that are historical and contemporary, I will most likely pick the historical. I don’t actually own a radio, but if I did, I think I would be more inclined to just leave it on Radio 4 and thus benefit from the eclecticism of the programming. Equally, when I worked for several hours on my own from my employer’s home office, I had the digital radio tuned either to Radio 2, Radio 3’s Through the Night, or once or twice to the local station for weather (IMHO the Welsh regional stations are pretty insipid).

In the interview, Gill Hudson and Jane Anderson lament the fact that it’s difficult to put together a radio-based cover for the (aptly named) Radio Times because of lack of visibility—even celebrity presenters can’t compete with TV. I always feel warm and cuddly when I get to the back section of the Radio Times and discover that, somewhere in the world, there is still some coverage given to radio. In 1923 the Radio Times was launched to give the public a guide to their radio, long before TV, and it’s still rather impressive that the Afternoon Play can garner an audience of two million . While the interview doesn’t have in its scope the explosion of podcasts, which as we all know can be made by anyone with recording equipment and a mic, but it does suggest that “I can imagine having a radio station on every street if there was the demand for it. The point is, is it any good? Is there a demand for it?” I like the fact that Jane Anderson says there need to be more women in radio. That means ME! (Ha ha, just kidding.)

As you can tell, Radio Head got me very excited and thinking about radio in different and productive ways. I hope that everyone who read it feels this way, feels like supporting radio by listening, volunteering, writing for it, blogging for it, whatever. I suggest that people who aren’t familiar with what the British radio dial has to offer take a copy of this book and have their own adventure trying the different stations. They might even write a better book about it than John Osborne.