The Power of Radio

The Power of Radio

THE POWER OF RADIO by Robin Lustig, award winning journalist and broadcaster

I know that much of your time here will be devoted to considering how best to deliver radio content to listeners and potential listeners. I hope you won’t misunderstand me if I say right at the outset that I’m not too bothered how you deliver the content — what matters to me is that you do it somehow. To be honest, even when I listened to my first transistor radio under the bedclothes as a rebellious teenager, I had absolutely no idea how the damn thing worked — and I’m not sure I have a much better idea 50 years later.

So I’m a content man. For the first 40 years of my life I consumed the content — or listened to the radio, as ordinary people say — and for the past 25 years I’ve played a part in creating content. I know, in other words, from both sides of the radio set, just how powerful a medium it is.

As a child, I was brought up in a home without a television. My parents took the view that words were much more important than images — both the spoken word and the written word — so I was encouraged to read books, and, of course, to listen to the radio. At the time, I felt I was being deprived of something that every child should have access to: the children’s television programmes that formed the basis for daily playground conversations at school, conversations in which I could participate only if I pretended to have seen programmes that in fact I hadn’t seen.

Looking back now, I see how that childhood deprivation played an invaluable part in my developing a skill that is essential for all radio news presenters: the ability to talk convincingly, and apparently knowledgeably, about things we know absolutely nothing about.

I have lost count of the number of times over the years that I’ve been asked: “But why don’t you do any television?” For many people, it seems, radio will always be television’s poor relation, what one former BBC executive is reported to have called “television without pictures”. I have a different way of expressing the relationship between the two forms of communication: I call radio “television for grown-ups”, which always went down especially well when I shared an office with colleagues from the BBC television Newsnight programme.

To me, and I’m sure to you as well, it’s blindingly obvious why radio is such a uniquely powerful medium. After all, like most animal species, our primary means of communication is through sound. A baby cries, a mother soothes or sings, a dog barks, a cow moos, a bird chirps. Each sound carries a message, and that’s precisely what radio does. It is the closest artificial means of communication to our natural means of communication: the transmission of sound conveying a message.

As some of you probably know, for more than 20 years, I presented an evening radio news programme called The World Tonight, which goes on air at 10pm. A lot of people listen to it in bed, with the radio at their bedside, or with earphones plugged in so as not to disturb a partner. My voice was sometimes the last thing they heard as they drifted off to sleep — and I often used to be told, I think it was meant as a compliment: “Oh, I often go to sleep listening to you …”   

One BBC colleague used to tell me that she was always embarrassed when we met in the office, because usually she was in the bath when she listened to me, which somehow made her feel that we knew each other rather more intimately than was in fact the case. It is true, I think, that radio can be a uniquely intimate medium: listeners often say they feel a radio broadcaster is talking just to them, which is never the case on television.

We are programmed from the moment we are born to recognise the human voice. And I have countless stories to suggest that people do remember, and recognise, voices from the radio to a remarkable degree. I used to broadcast extensively on the BBC World Service, and my wife still hasn’t got over her surprise in a restaurant in Boston some years ago when a waitress, after having taken our order, looked at me wide-eyed and said: “Are you Robin Lustig from BBC Newshour?”

I was equally surprised when in a remote United Nations base in southern Somalia, I told the young Somali on the reception desk that I was from the BBC, and he said: “I know who you are: you’re Robin Lustig from Newshour.” More recently, in of all places, Chattanooga, Tennessee, I met the Nigerian-born principal of a local community college. When I gave him my business card, he immediately insisted that I should autograph it, so that he could send it to his Dad back home. They were both, apparently, devoted listeners to the BBC.

It’s worth considering why radio has managed to retain, and even to extend, its reach in this era of new online communication technologies. Let’s look at the numbers: here in the UK, more than 90 per cent of adults listened to the radio during the last three months of last year. That’s 48.4 million people, an increase of nearly one and a half million over the same period the previous year. A quarter of them listened on their mobile phone — that was up by a third on the previous year — and the number of people listening via digital platform was up by 10 per cent.

If we look at the global picture, it is equally encouraging. According to UNESCO: “As radio continues to evolve in the digital age, it remains the medium that reaches the widest audience worldwide.”  In other words, more than newspapers, more than television, and of course, more than the internet.

I’ve just been in Burma, or Myanmar, and I spent a few days deep in the Delta region, where there are no roads, no telephones, no electric power, and, to my horror, I didn’t come across even a single radio. What I did find, in the village where I was staying, was a man who, every morning at sunrise, broadcast via a loudspeaker the day’s local news and announcements. He was, in effect, a one-man community radio station.                     

I wasn’t around when the printing press was invented, but I know there were plenty of people at the time who were convinced that it would herald the end of scholarship. Then when newspapers came along, they were going to kill off books. Then radio was going to kill newspapers; television was going to kill radio — and of course, the internet is going to kill everything.

In fact, they’ve all survived. True, books and newspapers have had to adapt to the development of new communications technologies — and so has radio. When I started out as a journalist more than 40 years ago, the first thing I’d pack before heading off on an overseas assignment was my trusty short-wave radio, a frequency guide which showed me on which frequences the BBC World Service broadcast in the country I was headed for, and a wonderful extendable aerial to clip to curtain rails, metal window frames or radiators in hotel rooms. Oh yes, and I always made sure to ask for an outside room, so that if necessary I could stick the aerial out of the window.

These days, I don’t even pack a radio, but simply ask at check-in: “And what’s the wifi code please?”

It is a remarkable fact that radio has not merely survived, it has flourished in this new media environment in which we now live. Let me share some more figures with you from UNESCO. In Tanzania, 83% of people say they get their news and information from radio, that’s more than from any other media or non‐media sources. In Latin America, the total number of community radio stations is around 10,000 — in Brazil alone there are said to be more than 10,000 community radio stations still waiting for licences.

In rural areas of the Philippines, radio reaches 85% of households. In Russia, where the total audience for traditional news media is steadily decreasing, radio audiences increased by 4% between 2008 and 2012. So the radio picture is a very healthy one. That’s probably one reason why we always say that the pictures are much better on radio anyway.

There is, of course, a darker picture as well. Not everything that is broadcast can be said to be of lasting benefit to humankind. If I say Radio Mille Collines, many of you will immediately know what I’m referring to — the radio station in Rwanda that played a significant role in inciting and encouraging the genocide of Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 1994. Radio can be a power for evil as well as a power for good.

If you’re familiar with some of the most popular talk radio stars in the United States, you’ll know that not all of them would pass BBC tests of impartiality and objectivity.  On the other hand, you may also be familiar with the work of Ira Glass on a wonderful programme called This American Life, or of Garrison Keilor, both of whom use radio to tell stories that stay in the mind long after you have heard them.

Telling stories is what radio excels at. It uses the human voice to create a link between people who have never met and who may live on opposite sides of the planet. It also, of course, enables millions of people to enjoy the music of their choice — and music is perhaps the most potent of all arts forms. Thanks to downloads and podcasts, listeners can now enjoy that music wherever and whenever they want. Whenever I travel on the London Underground, and I see all my fellow passengers with earpieces attached to their iPhones or their iPads, I find myself wondering: “What on earth did we use our ears for when we travelling before the invention of earphones?”

That’s another of radio’s great strengths – its portability and its flexibility. It’s the ideal medium for busy people, perfectly suited to the era of multi-tasking. It’s hard to read a book while you’re doing something else, and it’s never advisable to watch a TV show on your iPad while driving to work. But radio? Perfect.  Radio while you’re working, radio while you’re cooking, radio while you’re out jogging. Radio is the perfect companion.

Many years ago, a new boss of the BBC speech radio network Radio 4 decided to make some fairly radical changes to the network schedules. He moved some popular programmes around, shook things up a bit — and ran into a firestorm of abuse and anger. So much so, that he decided to come on to a radio phone-in programme that I was presenting at the time to answer some of his critics head-on. I’ll never forget one of the callers in particular: “Mr Boyle,” she said. “I have only one thing I wish to say to you. You have ruined my life.” That’s the power of radio. 

We don’t aim to ruin people’s lives, of course, and I’m confident that most of the time we do precisely the opposite. One of the many joys of having worked for BBC radio for so many years is that everyone I meet wants to tell me what they love — and what they hate — about the BBC’s radio output. Like that woman on the phone-in programme, they feel deeply and personally connected to what they hear.

Like any form of communication, radio is a connector. It brings people together. But unlike most other forms of communication, what it’s best at is connecting individuals — I cannot tell you how many times people have said to me over the years: “I always feel that you’re talking just to me.” Radio is intimate, it’s direct, and it’s human — that’s its power. The power to inform, to entertain, to comfort, and to challenge — the power to be a friend, a companion, a teacher, and a listener. I simply cannot imagine what life would be like without it.