Words in the airways

A guest post from graphic designer Mike Dempsey, who writes about his life-long love affair with the radio.

“Wake up! I heard something downstairs!”

“What? For God’s sake, it’s 3 in the morning.”

(Bang! Crash!)

“There is someone down there!”

Terrified, I pull the duvet tightly around my neck. Then realise it’s the radio next to my bed. My heart slows down and I cast aside the image of a knife-wielding burglar…or worse.

My bedside companion

Being a designer, I have always thought of myself primarily as a visual person who looks intensely at everything around me. But I often spend 70 hours a week listening to the radio. 280 hours a month adds up to 3,360 hours a year. Taking this calculation further, we end up with 201,600 hours of radio from the age of 8. That’s 8,400 days – or 23 years of continuous listening.

We are so fortunate in the UK to have a genuine public broadcasting service. Without the BBC, our lives would be far poorer. And as someone once said, radio has far better pictures than television. It also has is the ability to deliver words that inspire, enrage, move, titillate, educate and hypnotise. Quite simply, I adore the radio.

Recently, I have been enchanted by several documentary series on BBC Radio 4. Lives in a Landscape transports us alongside presenter Alan Dein – who has a knack for instantly engaging with people from all walks of life – as he travels around the country collecting slices of social history. One programme featured regular travellers on the Caledonian sleeper from London to the Highlands of Scotland. Dein accompanied three passengers and during the journey wove together a collage of fascinating stories. He does it with an understated modesty that allows his subjects to shine – a rarity in this age of ego-inflated celebrity.

Alan Dein, the oral historian and broadcaster, in the landscape.

In Don’t Hang Up, Dein calls random telephone boxes and waits for a passer-by to answer and these conversations generate wonderfully original stories. In Don’t Log Off he posted a message on Facebook inviting anyone to Skype him. This simple idea has spawned poignant and sensitive accounts of every-day life.

Alan Dein is the natural successor to the great social historian, Ray Gosling, who from the late 60s to the 90s chronicled stories from ordinary folk on radio and television. He too extracted remarkable truths from his subjects.

Ray Gosling is an English journalist, author, broadcaster and gay rights activist.

But sadly, a few years ago Gosling became the story when he confessed on camera to smothering his long-term partner who was dying of cancer in hospital. The police investigation proved that Gosling had been nowhere near at the time of death. This bizarre fantasy effectively ended his broadcasting career.

The Listening Project on Radio 4 is a collaboration between the BBC and the British Library. The concept involves recording two people sharing an intimate conversation without editorial interference. Listening to these brief, intense encounters makes one realise that the spontaneity and unpredictability of everyday speech has a purity and truth that is difficult to simulate in fiction.

The late Studs Terkle American author, historian, actor, and broadcaster.

The origin of The Listening Project goes back to the legendary Chicago-based Studs Terkel, who recorded many conversations with everyday Americans. More recently, US documentary producer Dave Isay trained two African American kids to record their lives in the projects of Chicago’s South Side. Short Cuts also on Radio 4 features a selection of brief encounters, true stories and found sound.

Meanwhile, back in bed, I drift… “That’s a good idea, son…” “And if you could only take one record…” “He’s fallen in the water…” “Viking, Forties, Humber, Faeroes…” “Welcome to Just a Minute…” “Stop messing about…” “We are such stuff as dreams are made on; and our little life is rounded with a sleep…”

From a glowing Bakelite wireless in the distant 1950s to the latest digital receiver, my ears have experienced an onslaught of millions of multi-layered words. Words that have drifted around the homes I’ve lived in like a comforting blanket of sound.


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