Eddie Mair: Radio is immediate, intimate, reliable and essential

On BBC Radio's 50th anniversary, the broadcaster asks why radio is still thriving in our digital age...

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Eddie Mair: Radio is immediate, intimate, reliable and essential
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Eddie Mair

Print, they say, is dying: no one wants to get their news from ink squirted onto dead trees.

Television’s top-rated programmes are watched by a fraction of the numbers who used to tune in despite the fact there are more ways to watch, record and absorb TV than ever before.

Mobile devices armed with internet access place a world of information in our hands any time, anywhere. Everything tailored to your personal tastes. Your music. Your news. When you want it. It’s breathtaking.

So why, in the name of Marconi, is British radio in such rude health, 90 years after the BBC’s mics first went live? It broadcasts what it wants, when it wants. Music stations play their playlists, not ours. Speech networks tell us the news when it suits them.

Radio broadcasts at us in 2012, as it did to our parents and grandparents on transmitters that are almost as old as Nicholas Parsons.

I can’t speak for you, but for me, perhaps it’s about intimacy. There are voices I grew up with still broadcasting. I hear them more than I hear the voices of family and friends. When they disappear on holiday, my life’s rhythm is mangled. I trust these voices to tell me what’s going on or to twinkle reliably between records. Steve Wright is as good today as he’s ever been, and when I hear him I am with him in the moment, and also back in the sixth-year common room where I first tuned in. He’s merely moved from Radio 1 to 2, but half a lifetime has passed for me and he’s been part of it. We’ve never met and we never will.

Terry Wogan was handing over at 9.30am to Jimmy Young the moment my exam results were handed to me by the postie. I had of course been turning the radio down a bit during the music, and back up to hear Terry talk.

The voices of Radio 4 continuity and newsreading have been keeping me right for as long as I can remember. I can call on a million different information sources, but it doesn’t make sense until I’ve heard it from Peter, Harriet, Charlotte and the rest.

If I catch old Jimmy Clitheroe, these days, I am a small boy listening in the back of the family car. Hearing Hitchhiker’s Guide transports me to my teenage bedroom, marvelling at the sounds and the craziness. Noel Edmonds’ voice forever makes me think of having breakfast and laughing. Alistair Cooke is Sunday mornings.

I can hear in my head the voices of beloved broadcasters long since dead. Their tones and cadences.

I don’t have big answers to the question I posed. I don’t know why an analogue medium is thriving in a digital age, other than to relate this personal relationship I have with my radio. Immediate, intimate, reliable, essential.

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