When I was a kid I used to fall asleep every night listening to I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again, Hancock’s Half Hour, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Blackadder on cassette. I thought I was an aberration, an audio dinosaur in a 12-year-old’s body. When Radio 4 Extra first launched I thought the only people who would listen would be me and anyone escaping The Archers Omnibus. I was wrong.
In a world of podcasts and digital radio, streaming and Serial, you wouldn’t have thought an audio version of Dad’s Army would be a hit, but according to the latest figures, 2.17 million people tuned in every week to the BBC’s audio rattle bag, making it more popular than Radio 3 and sister digital-only station 6 Music.
We complain when repeats clog up the TV schedules, but radio is different: until BBC7 came along (as Radio 4 Extra was called in its early years) most of the classics had been buried in the archives for decades, or only available as expensive audiobooks. There’s nothing ‘extra’ about Radio 4 Extra – it’s the only place to find a fix of vintage radio.
In truth, I very rarely listen ‘live’ to Radio 4 Extra, preferring to sift through what’s on iPlayer before drifting off to sleep. And my radio panning always turns up gold.
Last summer, for example, I went time-travelling when the wonderfully eerie 50s sci-fi Journey Into Space earned a repeat. It’s a relic from another era, a time when more people listened to radio than watched primetime television. It’s also some of the best sci-fi this country has produced: if you want to understand what peculiarly British planet Doctor Who came from, this is the show to listen to.
But it’s not just repeats. After the first episode was aired on Radio 4, the rest of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere (starring James McAvoy and Benedict Cumberbatch) was shuffled out to 4 Extra, only to capture a whole new generation of radio listeners on iPlayer.
Acerbic American essayist David Sedaris was first broadcast in the UK over on 4 Extra, while Sarah Millican’s radio Support Group had its digital debut before being called up to the main station.
Radio is undergoing a revolution; series like Serial can get a worldwide audience from a small studio in Chicago, while millions consumer Woman’s Hour and The Archers via podcast. But I selfishly hope that Radio 4 Extra will never be surplus to requirements.