Radio: once more the nation's comfort blanket
British radio has always triumphed during times of national crisis, writes Torin Douglas - and all the evidence proves it is working just as well today
As an inveterate radio listener for 60 of my nearly 70 years – and unimpressed by all but a handful of podcasts, compared with the daily broadcasts of UK radio stations - I have been trying to get into new habits as a way of living under COVID-19.
While I believe my former colleagues in BBC News are doing an excellent job in reporting on and analysing the current crisis, I have largely forsaken the Today programme in favour of reading books in bed for an hour when I wake up.
Nicholas Coleridge’s The Glossy Years - a Christmas gift that I’d not yet got round to opening - has been the perfect antidote to coronavirus.
The former president of Conde Nast International is a hilarious and shrewd observer of the media, business and social scenes that he’s occupied for 50 years - as journalist, editor, publisher, managing director and globetrotter, not to mention environmental campaigner and chairman of the British Fashion Council and the Victoria & Albert Museum.
His description of those endless awards events at the Grosvenor House – with a sullen Vogue table being beaten by a jubilant Practical Caravanning – and the coded acronyms at PPA board meetings – NRS, TGI, ABC, AOP, IPA, NPA, PAMCo, GA and AMP – had me laughing out loud in recognition.
But reading his book in these strange times does make you wonder what will happen to those glossy industries when all this is over. And reality was brought home very sharply by the sad and sudden death of Terry Mansfield, who appears on many of its pages.
I’ve now moved onto The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal – which has long been on my to-do reading list but never got to the top of the pile. It was prompted by seeing Tom Stoppard’s Leopoldstadt – which covers similar historical ground - shortly before the theatres closed down. I have found it a revelation, evoking a by-gone world of art, culture and wealth, and again I wonder: what will happen to all this?
At 9:45am, Radio 4’s Book of the Week has been Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin. I’m not sure why it was chosen now - nine years after it was published - but it has been a fascinating reminder for me, as a journalist once driven by hourly deadlines, that there is no greater stimulus to creativity than the ticking clock.
How the Dickens did he keep up the quality while writing those monthly, best-selling instalments - and how could he have produced so many chapters of Oliver Twist and The Pickwick Papers at the same time?
At 10am I turn to the wonderful Emma Barnett on Radio 5 Live, who does a great job juggling listeners’ calls while holding politicians and others to account over the unfolding crisis.
I first met Emma in the press room at the Royal Television Society Cambridge Convention when she had just joined Campaign - and it has been a pleasure, if exhausting, to see her career flourish so rapidly and deservedly, first in print, then digital at the Telegraph, and then broadcasting at the BBC’s Radio 5 Live, Woman’s Hour and Newsnight.
Emma and I were among a handful of journalists (with the legendary Gillian Reynolds) to be invited to celebrate the 80th anniversary of Roberts Radio with the Prince of Wales at Clarence House. I still treasure the photos. And two years ago, as chair of the Broadcasting Press Guild’s radio jury I was delighted to be able to present her with the BPG Award as Radio Broadcaster of the Year, shortly after her son was born (she wisely thought better of bringing him to what would have been his first awards ceremony).
To escape from COVID-19 news, I have been turning to Classic FM more often, which provides a soothing and sometimes rousing interlude of so much familiar music. But I’m getting very sick of the Michelin tyres commercial, which doesn’t bear much, if any, repetition. It almost, but not quite, takes me back to the days of Freddie Barrett, in the very early days of commercial radio, which I covered comprehensively for Campaign in 1973.
Barrett’s tuneless and equally repetitious rendition of the Barrett Liquormart jingle drove away many of the few listeners who chose to tune in in those early days. And for many commercial radio pioneers, I was the messenger blamed for bringing the bad news.
In the autumn of 1973, with just LBC and Capital on the air, it was all bad news until Hogmanay when Radio Clyde was born, showing the world how a UK commercial station should be run.
Later, when I edited Creative Review in the early 1980s, we ran an Ad of the Month competition with Capital Radio and, for my sins, I had to listen to every commercial that appeared on the station – a form of aversion therapy that I wouldn’t recommend. I then joined LBC to present Advertising World on Wednesday evenings, much to the astonishment of its former editorial director who still blamed me personally for its early tribulations.
My other COVID-19 change to routine is that I have finally unwrapped the exercise bike that has been sitting unused in our summerhouse for several months. I now listen to Radio 4’s PM while cycling for half an hour at a time, including the daily Government press conference.
And it was while on my bike that I took in The Media Show on Radio 4 this week, which itself was focused on how radio was providing entertainment and companionship in the current crisis. The tireless Amol Rajan (who popped up three hours later on The One Show on BBC One) interviewed Scala’s Simon Mayo, Talk Radio’s Iain Lee and BBC Radio Merseyside’s Linda McDermott - and it was Linda who came up with, for me, the most memorable observation.
At a time when the BBC’s enemies want the Corporation dismembered and even some of its friends seem, astonishingly, to believe it should do away with its local radio stations (ignoring or forgetting their coverage of the recent floods), Linda gave a fascinating reminder as to why local radio is so very important - particularly at a time of national crisis.
“People were going through terrible things in the war but radio was the nation’s comfort blanket and that’s exactly what the founding father of BBC local radio, Frank Gillard, intended,” she said.
“He’d covered the Dieppe raid, the D-Day landings, he was embedded with the Eighth Army under Montgomery and he’d met all these soldiers with different dialects, different traditions and different words for things.
"One-size radio was never going to fit all. So the whole of the UK in its infinite variety needed to be celebrated and supported and cheered - and we rest on the shoulders of giants in that sense."
This could be radio’s finest hour.
Torin Douglas covered the launch of commercial radio for Campaign and Marketing Week in the 1970s, presented Advertising World on LBC Radio in the 1980s, and was the BBC’s media correspondent, reporting mostly for its radio outlets, from 1989 to 2013.
You can read his 2013 lecture on the 40th anniversary of commercial radio: The Wonder of Wireless: Why video didn’t kill the radio star.
Between 6 - 17 April Mediatel is hosting The Future of Audio - a free digital event to experience during lockdown. Click here for the full agenda, which includes live-streams, presentations and audio-themed editorial.