When I was a child, there were two things that I used to do instead of going to sleep, after the lights were turned out: read (avidly) by torchlight under the bedcovers, and listen to the radio. I suspect that many of us brought up in the latter half of the twentieth century were the same – before kids expected to have a TV, or latterly a games console or computer, in their bedroom.
Reading has played a similar role in the lives of children and adults ever since education (hence literacy) caught up with technology (printing), which depended on where you lived and social class. It inspired many of our most brilliant minds, and continues to feed and comfort our minds. It is reassuring that so many still subvert recent technological advances by using mobile devices to read good old-fashioned words.
Radio was one of the defining technologies of the twentieth century.
From the introduction of maritime distress calls before the loss of the Titanic, to the dissemination and propagation of popular music and culture, and radio’s decisive use and development in the century’s seemingly ceaseless wars, few lives did not depend on its insensible waves.
Some curious cultural phenomena resulted. The ability of radio to broadcast weather news to those at sea brought Shipping Forecasts, which were (and still are) listened to as ritual by those living far inland, an essential part of the routine of rising, or retiring when the day is done. The UK forecasting regions – with evocative names like Fisher, Dogger, and German Bight – have inspired paintings and books, and form a mantra whose broadcast recitation must continue, even though there can be none at sea who still rely on the service.
Radio brought about some of our cultural bastions like the BBC, known across the globe by its World Service, ‘auntie’ bringing news and the English language across the countries of the Commonwealth and beyond.
Its immediacy started the revolution in news reporting. No longer did we hear about celebrations and calamities by slow percolation through the pages of newspapers, but reporters at the scene, at the time, told us what unfurled in front of them. Their words and background sounds painted pictures in our minds long before the blatant images of TV. Radio pioneered so much that TV later assumed: radio drama capable of throwing the audience into panic, soaps, and state funerals.
Citizens’ Band and ‘walkie talkies’ originally developed for the military enabled us to chat, long before the advent of the mobile phone or social media. They entered popular culture through their use by truck-drivers, and CBers’ cryptic codes anticipated what was to come in texting and other sub-languages.
For today’s young in the West, radio may only be an enabling technology for WiFi, Bluetooth, GPS, and mobile phones. But tune in to the shortwaves and you will find the rest of the world still out there: the religious preaching piously, fundamentalists fomenting discontent, noisy rabbles of hams jostling for an exotic station, and the BBC talking side-by-side with Radio Romania, China Radio International, and countless rock stations.
There is hardly a spot on the surface of the earth that they cannot reach.