This comes with a spoiler alert…

…the best bit is right at the end of this piece. It’s the music by James Blake called ‘Radio Silence’. If you don’t know the track already then you’re in for a delightful surprise.

But first, I want to point out that the year 2016 was coincidently distinguished by having both a best-selling book and an innovative post-dubstep track called “Radio Silence” published by two very different English creatives within three months of each other. Chance? Dunno.

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She’s described as a writer for the social media generation (Alice Oseman, Radio Silence, Harper Collins Publishers, London, 2016). According to the blurb her first book marked her out as a writer in the style of Catcher in the Rye for the digital age. It is a novel that is clearly aimed at its target age group. Like Catcher in the Rye there’s a tone of address that intentionally excludes adults.

Here in Oseman’s work there’s explicit mention of consumer products, films, and TV shows from the start of the century (the British version of The Office, and the BAFTA-winning [is this right? Ed.] constructed-reality show Made in Chelsea). The novel, Radio Silence, is firmly UK-based, with a narrative of being seventeen-years old, getting A-level results and the ways of the English university undergraduate application system.

Being a teenage novel it contains storylines about feelings of alienation, the awkwardness of making friends, blended multicultural families, gender, sexuality and a very small amount of bad language. All of this is presented in the best possible taste and the characters appear to be engagingly middle class. For example, the hero is head-girl at school and a potential Oxbridge student. At home she and mum talk over the breakfast bar – which suggests a larger than average kitchen floor area.

Underlying the narrative there’s also that nagging need every teenager has to be accepted and to fit in. It’s what pundits these days call FOMO. And social media is – apparently – making FOMO worse (fear of missing out, since you ask). See this entertaining little piece in the Economist Expresso from December 2018

In Oseman’s novel there’s plenty of mentions of Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr, and the central concept is about Universe City, “a YouTube podcast show about a suit-wearing student detective looking for a way to escape a sci-fi, monster-infested university” (p.10). The presenter of this podcast is called Radio (p.1) – with his full name being Radio Silence, hence the novel’s title. As we discover, that’s not his real name…

But some things I find problematic. The trade-name mentions will date the novel rapidly. Imagine picking up a book today that was written in 2008 about MySpace

I have reservations as to whether podcasts are ‘radio’; but we’ll leave that to one side for now. I am, however, curious as to how a ‘podcast’ works on YouTube. I am convinced that YouTube is a video platform, not an audio one. I’m not alone in this view, and some commentators think audio has no place on YouTube.

Meanwhile others say they’ve tried it with some initial positive results.

However I’m inclined to look beyond the technical niggles, indeed to ignore the somewhat slack use of the word ‘radio’ in the book’s title. This is, after all, a novel about communication through social media platforms – using sound only. That’s how the great-reveal works in this novel: when the heroine realises the boy she’s with is actually ‘Radio Silence’ himself…

It’s the surprise of the moment when voice and visuals get together: to realise that the face in front of you is the one that has been making the noise you’ve been hearing from the loudspeaker/headphones all this time. And, for me, that’s the important point which this book makes clear to the next generation who’re growing up in a multi-platform world where ‘radio’ has no special and particular meaning. Oseman is doing right by re-inserting radio back into youth culture.

More on radio silence in a moment, but first some podcasts for 2019 – ones to watch (or listen to…) by Philippa Goodrich, a BBC reporter. I like the quote at end of her piece: “But audio has never been all about the money. It’s a medium for enthusiasts produced by enthusiasts…” Quite so.

So, back to Radio Silence. Alice Oseman’s teen-novel was first published in February 2016. In May of that very year, an English musician, James Blake, released a track of exactly the same name.

It is electrifying. It’s everything that the-silence-that-comes-from-the-radio is; and the song translates those two words and the emotions around them into perfect heart-wrenching music which reflects humankind’s own frailty when it comes to relationships. I defy you not to be emotionally moved when you play the track. And again. And again. I did and I was. Find a brief biography of James Blake here.

I argue that it is Blake who has – in the second decade of the 21st century – perfectly captured the essence of ‘radio’ in musical form. Let me know your opinion.

2 thoughts on “This comes with a spoiler alert…

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