The airwaves can shock, inform and entertain. And now, more than ever, it pays to listen.
Who do you trust in a crisis? Throughout the pandemic there’s been a real premium on media outfits able to track reliably the development of the disease and the vicissitudes of global governments’ reactions. Where to find those newsrooms that have managed to reflect legitimate concerns while offering much-needed perspective, satisfying curiosity without succumbing to the hyperbole of the strident anchor or the wearying pace of the news ticker? In pursuit of a news source that resonates, the chances are that you turned on your radio.
In turbulent times people need voices that they can trust, sure, but they also need a sense of connection, particularly when we’re all “socially distanced”. Radio is delivering this togetherness emphatically: even by conservative estimates, markets such as the US and UK experienced a 15 per cent-plus uplift in live listening in the earliest days of the outbreak. This is something of a rejoinder to the idea that podcast-powered, non-linear listening has ended the primacy of “live”. And it is happening because – if it’s done right – radio offers something that no other medium can deliver: a spellbinding combination of immediacy, intimacy and humanity.
It was a lesson I learnt long ago, sometime during the latter part of the first Reagan administration. That might seem a curious marker for a Londoner but it might make sense if I explain that it was when I heard Alistair Cooke’s peerlessly brilliant Letter from America for the first time. Cooke’s long-running broadcast was a fixture on BBC Radio 4 (and formerly on the Home Service, although this correspondent’s recall does not stretch back quite that far) for almost 60 years until 2004.
Every one of the nearly 3,000 episodes recorded over that period was presented by Cooke. I couldn’t tell you which one caught my attention but I know to this day why it worked. It was the craft of his writing, the gentleness of his humour and the warmth and honesty of his delivery that made me take notice and – dare I say it – trust what he had to say.
If the pandemic changes anything irreversibly let’s hope that it’s the emotional investment we put into our media. Here’s to less airtime for the voices that shout loudest; fewer eyeballs on clickbait and churnalism, and on spurious or downright dangerous platforms spreading little but discord and disinformation. More power, instead, to a medium that has reacted to an unprecedented global crisis by reasserting its credentials as the truest form of what I consider a genuinely “social” media: the voice in your ear that can reassure and cajole, inform and entertain and – who knows – perhaps even inspire.
About the author: Edwards is executive producer of Monocle 24, our radio station, which launched in 2011. Head to monocle.com/radio for more – and to listen.