in Listening, book edited by Cathy Lane and Angus Carlyle published by CRiSAP and RGAP, Cornerhouse publication, published October 2013

A short history of radio listening

I do not listen to the radio, I listen to the computer playing the radio, I listen to the I-pod replaying the radio, I watch on YouTube videos of people in radio studios making radio, I listen on DAB. The air is thin here, no more waves, no more voices of the dead hiding in the murmur of the lost signal. The uncertain fuzz of analogue radio is gone and with it its poetry, flattened into a perfect signal: Clear, faultless but thin. I am sure there is poetry in that thin flatness of the digital, something new, a different metaphor that people will bemoan when it is gone, I am just not sure what it is yet.

    My granddad listened to the radio, a big great wooden thing, big as a cupboard, made from shiny wood with ivory tuning dials.

    He sat in front of it most afternoons and evenings, perched on a heavy wooden armchair upholstered with a flower patterned fabric, leaning slightly forward so as to glean every word that came through the ether.

    My grandma would bring him coffee and biscuits and she embroidered little rectangular coverlets to put on the armrests of the chair to protect them from the grease of his chuffing suit jacket and the coffee stains.

    I overhear it as I do the dishes, iron, tidy up or work. It’s there, I am there, no leaning forward required. I am not that interested in what it says, I only need it to sound.

    My grandma hated it, she much rather wanted to go to dances, meet friends be out and about, but the voices from the wooden box held my granddad indoors, ears glued. She heard it, he needed to listen. He needed to know what was being said out there about the great stories of the day.

    I have to sit in front of the computer constantly linked to websites, emails, facebook. No dancing for me either, other things going on that I just simply need to be part of and check in to.

    My granddad was part of one radio community. His was a shared listening, not with my gran, but with all the other people living within reach of its signal, who would all hear the same. This community was imagined but real. They altogether alone followed the stories and news on the radio that put into words the reality of the world out there and furnished their worldview.

    I am part of different communities on-line, many different ones to serve different aspects of the complex post-post-modern personality. These communities are not really out there however, but are in here, in my machine with me, feeding a more solipsistic sense of reality.

    My grandfather was a customs officer in the Second World War. The voices speaking on the wireless were vital for him to understand the situation, his own purpose and position: Who to let in, who to keep out.

    I am inseparably joined to the internet, which insidiously merges my leisure and work and produces them as one boundariless activity: A shapeless whole, with little purpose and not much scope to differentiate.

    My grandmother let the refugees in through the back door of the customs officer’s house, whose garden bordered on enemy land, and out through the front into her own country.

    My granddad berated her, believing she just did not understand the severity of the situation. She should have listened to the radio to understand what was at stake.

    My grandma thought it was lives at stake: People, families, the real world we live in.

    My parents did not care much for the radio, and still don’t. The last one broke years ago and sits still unrepaired in their basement. They read, and then they bought a telly, a little white plastic one that showed black and white images. They lived Vietnam, the Cold War and the conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina on that little box. Theirs were visual wars, remote and without consequences, not the call to arms my granddad had experienced.

    My parents little black and white telly broke down when my mum did an all night Formula One session, went straight up in flames. Now they have a flat screen one but they still watch only the analogue channels; German detective stories mainly.

    I listen to the rebels in Libya, Egypt, Bahrain…on-line. Flicking between newspaper, al jazeera tv, BBC radio, twitter messages and YouTube appeals, I live precariously through their lives a revolution that I will not have. They are not out there, they are in here together with all the other communities I gathered up on my machine and that fill my life with information, opinions, a sense of self and things to do that I will never do because of the life in here that needs to be seen to and written about.

    My parents both worked in industries that did not rely on news from the front. Cosied up in the post-war boom the connection had become irrelevant. It was about something else, about entertainment and things happening somewhere over there. They did not listen together and neither made coffee or biscuits for the other. Instead they sat and stared into one box.

    My grandfather’s listening was ideological and political. He heard a rallying call and took it as a cue how to live his life, what side to take, what wars to fight.

    My listening is tautological. I listen to listen. Maybe I mutter to myself in-between or write something on facebook or rant in an email, and then I go back to listening without hearing much.

    My grandparents phone hung on the corridor wall, incoming calls only.

    My parents phone sits on a little table next to the settee, on its very own carpet. It is a short message machine to say hello, to ask how you are and to arrange for you to come over. My mum does not really know how to hold a longer conversation on the phone, she cannot listen unseen and so she only talks, breathless and fast and then hangs up.

    My sister skypes for hours.

    My phone does everything. It connects me to my various communities that are always with me in miniature form on the little screen of my Blackberry. I am never alone. No need to be restless pushing the children on the swings, no need to feel awkward waiting for somebody. There are things to listen to, podcasts to download, emails to check, facebook friends to poke…

    The radio has shrunk from the big hefty cupboard thing of my granddad to the little black shiny thing in my pocket. It allows me to listen on the go but also stops me from doing anything about the heard as I am constantly listening on the go.

    My granddad retired and went traveling, everywhere, all over the world: Nepal, Mexico, the Amazon, India, Afghanistan.

    I connect daily to lots of global on-line communities, communicate with people all over the world.