Did radio help us through the pandemic?

7 May

More than any other media, radio helped us through the pandemic. That’s the view of journalist Miranda Sawyer, audio critic for the Observer newspaper.

Unusually for a Swindon Festival of Literature guest, Miranda doesn’t have a book to promote.

Sure, her book on middle age, Out of Time, is available – but that was published in 2015.

And there’s a new book in the works about long-term relationships, but that – she admits – is overdue. She hopes to finish it by the end of the summer.

Meanwhile, she’s been invited to talk to the Literature Festival – which is as much a festival of ideas as it is a festival of books – about radio.

“An interesting thing happened during the pandemic,” she says.

She’s been reviewing radio (and later ‘audio’ when the editors decided to throw podcasts into the mix) for 15 years, and it was always at the back of the culture section, behind the biggies – film, music, theatre, and art.

“But when the first lockdown happened, radio and podcasts went right to the top of the hierarchy.”

Arguably that’s partly to do with availability: movie studios stopped releasing films (James Bond and Peter Rabbit alike have found themselves in the same holding pattern for well over a year), while live music venues, theatres, and art galleries closed their doors.

Meanwhile, radio ploughed on. Live radio adapted incredibly quickly to the new normal and listeners benefited, argues Miranda, from both the continuity of the scheduling structure – “drive time, even when no-one was driving anywhere” – and the presence of a familiar voice “the idea of having friends when you couldn’t see your real friends”.

Both radio and podcasts benefitted from people being locked down, whether they were working from home, on furlough, or just unwilling or unable to go out.

Podcasts, meanwhile, benefitted from our desire not to ‘waste’ this time but to strive for self-improvement – to learn a new skill or acquire knowledge.

I grew up hearing The Buggles telling me that video had killed the radio star, while Queen insisted that radio was ‘yet to have its finest hour’.

And it could be argued that radio has been enjoying something of a renaissance for the last decade – although whether the content has always represented its ‘finest hour’ is a moot point.

“Live commercial radio is becoming a reflection of the ‘culture wars’ on social media,” says Miranda. “They want to get people talking and riled up.”

As tabloid newspapers need eyeballs, commercial radio stations need earholes to attract advertisers and generate revenue – and the best way to do that is to evoke an emotion.

“LBC really took off during Brexit,” says Miranda. “The yes / no question ensured people would be going hammer and tongs at each other. Listening figures went up and up.”

Still, during the pandemic radio was there for us. Presenting from home, DJs were able to adapt more easily to the challenges of lockdown than their television colleagues.

The best presenters demonstrated their humanity – they shared our shock, our fears, and our frustrations at the curtailment of normality.

Together we adapted to the new normal. And now, perhaps on radio more than anywhere else, we share positivity as the things we loved and thought were lost begin to return.

Words by Peter Davison

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: