In this series of articles so far I’ve considered what BBC radio producers, presenters, and TV editors have thought about their audiences. The people they’ve been broadcasting to for a century who’ve sat there quietly listening and watching this stuff every day. Were they ever even listening or actually paying attention?
Since radio’s earliest days the fear within the industry has been that everything we’ve carefully crafted has been “broadcast into a void”. Those were the words of the Corporation’s first head of drama, who was complaining in 1930 about the lack of audience research.
In the three previous articles in this series I’ve shown that the lack of detailed knowledge about our listeners has dogged us for the best part of a hundred years. And I suspect that the uneasy feeling of broadcasters “not knowing” still exists today. Read about my research in part one, part two, and part three. I’d welcome your comments
But here’s the thing: I reckon there has been a crucial section of our audience that has bucked this trend, and by doing so has – in fact – paid special attention to what we’ve been broadcasting on the radio.
They’ve been listening intently – and remembering in detail some of their favourite radio moments. Their reactions, opinions and critical comments have been on public display for us all to see.
Whilst they may not have been a representative sample of the listening audience, their comments do offer a unique insight into the way listeners have appreciated radio in Britain.
What follows is a just a small offering of the multiple responses to one hundred years of radio listening. I go into a lot more detail in my new book, Radio’s Legacy in Popular Culture, published by Bloomsbury Academic to mark radio’s centenary in the UK.
And the examples that I include here show listeners who have delighted in the nostalgia and special memories that the very idea of radio presented to them. They are highly personal reactions, and show how radio listening had – for a post-war generation of creatives – been such a special experience.
The theme in each one of these is nostalgia. Simply, demonstrating that memories of listening to the radio as a young person during adolescence alone in the bedroom at night can be so enduring. Each of these individuals could imagine that the sounds of the transistor radio perhaps offered them some personal companionship and solace.
Firstly, Buggles. Writer and producer Trevor Horn here remembered how radio sounded when he was a young boy. Born in 1949, his peak listening years were probably between 1958 and 68. He would have heard Luxembourg and the pirate stations such as Caroline, as well as the BBC’s Home and Light Services.
Trevor Horn was 30 years old when “Video Killed the Radio Star” was a hit. Here in this song he harked even further back – to his infant years:
I heard you on my wireless back in ’52, Lying awake, intent at tuning in on you. If I was young, it didn’t stop you coming through.
The second piece of music to consider is Roxy Music’s 1980 hit “Oh Yeah”, which was also full of nostalgia. Indeed, it had an almost Proustian obsession with a search of lost time, and a lingering memory of an old love affair. It was not a madeleine cake that enraptured Bryan Ferry, but rather a song on the radio.
Ferry was born in 1945 and wrote the tune when he was 35 years old. Like Trevor Horn, here was a young middle-aged man reminiscing about his late teenage years. He recalled going to the movies, and the warm nights of his long-lost summer love. It was the sounds of the wireless that brought it all wistfully back to him:
There’s a band playing on the radio, With a rhythm of rhyming guitars. They’re playing ‘Oh Yeah’ on the radio; And so it came to be our song.
Then, thirdly, Queen had a hit in 1984 with “Radio Ga Ga”. Roger Taylor, the band’s drummer, wrote the song.
Taylor was born in 1949 and was 35 when it was released. In the lyrics he offered a critique of contemporary radio which he thought had become mindless, overly automated and without a soul. He also reflected nostalgically about what he had listened to in the 1950s and early 60s, growing up in Norfolk and then Cornwall.
I’d sit alone and watch your light, My only friend through teenage nights. And everything I had to know, I heard it on my radio. You gave them all those old time stars: Through wars of worlds invaded by Mars. You made ’em laugh, you made ’em cry; You made us feel like we could fly.
My final example is a track from Van Morrison’s LP Enlightenment in 1990. It’s a song called “In the Days Before Rock ‘n Roll”. I get quite emotional and misty-eyed listening to it. It has a magical quality that goes beyond a couple of middle-aged men reminiscing about their childhoods. The track was co-written and performed by Morrison (born Belfast, 1945) and the Irish poet Paul Durcan (born Dublin, 1944).
In the background Georgie Fame (b. 1943) messed about with his Hammond organ to provide the sounds of short-wave radio Morse code, and Morrison joined in by making noises pretending to be the crackles of radio interference on medium wave. Meanwhile Durcan intoned his words with a staccato forcefulness that mimicked the stuttering of a distant radio station. A cynic would say it was indeed just noises made by grown men mucking about in the recording studio. I think it was much more emotional than that.
The song was, apparently, the final track played on Radio Luxembourg when it closed its English language service on 208 metres medium wave in December 1991.
I am down on my knees, at those wireless knobs. Telefunken, Telefunken. And I’m searching for Luxembourg, Luxembourg, Athlone, Budapest, AFN, Hilversum, Helvetia. In the days before rock ‘n’ roll.
What these songs show is that for one group of baby boomers the radio held a special place in their hearts. That they were/are all men suggests a gendered discussion of this is required at some stage. They were all born around the end of World War Two and each one was sufficiently moved to write a song about the medium of radio.
What we, as future generations, have is the memories and nostalgia of this post-war cohort of musicians which represent their reactions to radio listening.
Indeed, far from “broadcasting into a void” the carefully crafted radio programmes and soothing voices of the mass medium had been having a direct and consistent influence upon listeners. The evidence is here before us.
Some felt so deeply that they treasured their earliest memories and later turned them into artistic works. They topped the pop charts too.
It may be wistful memories of lonely teenage years; it may be rose-tinted melancholy, but it is also reactions that are critical of modern radio production techniques. The general suggestion appears to have been that “It were better back when I were a lad…” This evidence represents a special collection of audience reactions and is to be treasured.
And in finishing, let me note that such nostalgia was not only an Anglo-Irish thing. The same return-to-the-past was going in the United States of America.
To prove this point I offer here the examples of George Lucas’s (b. 1944) movie American Graffiti released in 1973. It’s one of my favourite ‘radio’ films, and featured an engaging cameo from Wolfman Jack (b. 1938) who explained the disconnect between the audio and the visual in radio.
I also commend to you The Carpenters’ “Yesterday Once More” from the same year – which was not only a hit single but also an extended B-side of their LP Now & Then that included simulated DJ intros in between versions of old doo-wop songs from the 1950s (Richard Carpenter b. 1946, Karen b. 1950).
I’ll leave those for another time and another article. But if you want to read more, do check my book which goes into much more detail about the nostalgia tendency on radio. That’s where I also point out that Van Morrison went on to reference his love for radio in both “Caravan” and “Brown Eyed Girl“. It was a developing theme for him…
In the meantime, let me know your radio memories. In particular, how was listening for you in your teenage years? Any special songs you remember? Any favourite DJs? Drop me a line in the comments box below.