The very first sound that a baby responds to is the sound of its mother’s voice. And what is most likely to soothe a frightened child, or calm them when they’ve fallen? The sound of the human voice. We are biologically programmed, like all animals, to respond to the sounds of our own species.
Our earliest forebears were grunting at each other even before they were scratching pictures on the walls of their caves. The voice – sound – is the most basic means of communication. Little wonder, then, that radio, which carries the human voice to every corner of the globe, is still the most powerful communication medium of them all.
If you broadcast on the radio late at night, which I did for more than 20 years, as presenter of The World Tonight on Radio 4, you often find yourself murmuring into the ears of listeners as they drift off into the Land of Nod. You walk around inside their heads, and your voice is often the last thing they hear before they fall asleep.
So when I started in radio, I decided to develop an aural equivalent of the wink that Michael Buerk used to deliver at the end of the Nine o’Clock News on TV. Not always easy when the news is unremittingly depressing, as it so often is. But it was an attempt to encourage sweet dreams rather than nightmares.
Newspaper sales are falling off a cliff. Yet even in the age of the internet, an impressive nine out of ten people still listen to the radio at least once a week. Not bad for a medium that was meant to have been killed off by television more than half a century ago.
When a bird sings, or a dog barks, they’re sending a message – and the message is immediately understood and trusted by others of their species. Similarly, if we listen to the radio, we tend to trust what we hear. And with good reason – unlike the ramblings and ravings that take up far too much space on Twitter and Facebook, what is said on the radio is (usually) the result of some thought.
A voice tells you a lot about someone. If you like their voice, you’ll probably trust what they say. And because we tend to be alone when we listen to the radio, it’s easy to believe that radio broadcasters are talking only to us. It was no mistake when the great Terry Wogan signed off with the words “Thank you for being my friend” – singular – because he knew full well that his battalions of devoted fans each believed that they were special to him.
Terry Wogan broadcasting in 1980
Most of us listen to the radio when alone. I had one BBC colleague who was embarrassed when we bumped into each other, because she usually listened to me in the bath, which made her feel that we knew each other rather more intimately than was in fact the case.
Radio is the most intimate of communication tools. My voice, your ears, and nothing in between. But of course, intimacy can be dangerous. Broadcasters, like lovers, can use their voice to mislead, to lie and to wound. No one who’s ever listened to one of America’s notorious “shock jocks” would ever argue that radio is always a force for good. Neither should anyone forget the role played in Rwanda by the notorious radio station Radio Mille Collines, which fanned the flames of the genocide of 1994.
So-called “fake news” (I prefer the word “lies”) is now regarded as such a danger that a parliamentary select committee is to hold an inquiry into what should be done about it. Its members may wish to consult a survey conducted a couple of years ago by the European Commission that found that only one in five people in the UK, the lowest proportion anywhere in the EU, trusts what they read in their newspapers.
In the past, when most people relied for their news on what is now called the “mainstream media”, they were fed a diet of what was, largely, an honest if imperfect attempt to report accurately what was going on in the world. These days, increasingly, they turn to sources that deliberately manufacture “news” for political ends. Mistakes are an inevitable part of journalism, but the creation of “fake news” is, to me at least, a deeply worrying development.
If you’re told, falsely, that ballot boxes stuffed with pre-marked voting slips have been found in a locked warehouse, that may well change the way you cast your vote. Last month, an American college graduate, Cameron Harris, admitted to The New York Times that he’d invented a story headlined, “‘Tens of thousands’ of fraudulent Clinton votes found in Ohio warehouse”. It was shared on Facebook by six million people.
Is there no fake news on radio? I expect that if you tried hard enough, you might be able to find some – a conspiracy theorist not properly challenged, or a talk-show host with an obsession with 9/11 – but the vast majority of radio output is a good deal more trustworthy than what spews forth these days on social media. (This doesn’t, by the way, mean that I agree with everything I hear – what a dull old world that would be.)
Radio provides information, entertainment, reassurance, comfort and, most important of all, company. With a radio, you may be alone, but you will not be lonely. So if Kirsty Young ever banishes me to her desert island, I shall insist on being allowed to take a solar-powered radio. Not as a luxury, but as a necessity.