Why radio is thriving in the digital age

Our beloved box with no pictures can give us the mental peace that's hard to find in today's increasingly fraught world, says Emma Barnett

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One Friday morning I was doing my usual impression of a wasp trapped inside a sticky glass: fizzing around my house trying to look after a screaming two-year old niece who’d come to stay, all while washing, feeding and clothing myself. Badly. Then something stopped me in my tracks. It wasn’t my husband offering a strong brew. Or even our beautiful niece’s wails.

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No, it was the smooth tones of Vishvapani Blomfield wafting out of my bathroom radio. (Naturally I have a set in every room – doesn’t every right-minded person?) The Buddhist teacher and writer was opining gently on Radio 4’s Thought for the Day and, my God, was he talking sense!

Cleverly, he stitched together two of the week’s big news events – offering a perspective that red-hot news bulletins simply couldn’t: “If you struggled to and from work in London yesterday because of the Tube strike, you have my sympathy. Behind it was the plan to run Underground services throughout the night, making London a true 24-hour city and boosting its night-time economy. Meanwhile, Wednesday’s Budget included a consultation on proposals to devolve powers on Sunday opening to local authorities.”

He continued: “The case for these changes is that they bring jobs and economic growth. But they also bring the prospect of seven-day high streets and a nation that never stops shopping while the non-commercial sphere keeps declining.” How true and wrong that is, I mused. Earlier this year I presented a Radio 4 documentary on mindfulness, the meditative practice that has roots in Buddhism and encourages you to focus on the present, rather than anxieties of the past or future.

While I struggled to calm my overactive brain and get on the West’s latest Buddhist bandwagon, I understood people’s desire for mental peace in an increasingly fraught world. And that’s what radio, at its very best, can do. Once we leave formal education, there are no more morning assemblies where a benign headteacher pumps your head full of motivational fables about wise animal characters to spur you on to a great week.

You no longer receive annual reports (OK, I am slightly thankful about this aspect), letting you know your brilliant bits, where there’s considerable space for improvement and, most importantly, how you go about revamping yourself for the coming term. With the decline of organised religion in this country, people are searching harder than ever for something bigger than themselves to help them navigate their lives.

Hence the boom in trends like mindfulness, secular lecture clubs, such as the Sunday Assembly and the Lost Lectures. I also think a desire for wisdom and lucid conversation has kept speech radio stations like Radio 4 and 5 Live thriving in the digital age. Think about it; radio just shouldn’t work in this day and age. A box with sound and no pictures? Madness. And yet it flourishes. To many, British speech radio is the soundtrack of their lives and can take the place of the school assembly we adults crave and miss – an audio balm to the soul.

And when it stops us dead in our tracks, as Vishvapani Blomfield made me do, we suddenly feel revived. The world stops spinning and just for a moment, you’re really young again – imbued with hope, time and ideas.

Emma Barnett is women’s editor of the Daily Telegraph; she hosts the 5 Live Hit List (Sunday 7.30pm) and also presents America’s Fan Club (Friday 11am R4 FM).

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