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Date: 20/04/16

Radio! Radio?

On the the few advantages of my current state as an official (but, I fervently hope, temporary) invalid (I've just been signed off work for another four weeks, so you might be subjected to more posts here than you might care to read: be warned!), particularly of spending a large amount of time abed on medical advice, is that it has wrested me away from this 'ere keyboard for a few days. I have no computer equipment in the bedroom. This is by design, recognising that that way lies madness.

Given that my condition is far more uncomfortable than it is 'serious', this meant that I spent a large chunk of the daylight and evening hours last week lying awake and being entertained by the various sounds of the passing scene: teenaged males desperately trying to cut a noisy dash in Peugeot 205s and Vauxhall Corsas; buses being forced to idle their minutes away waiting for some garrulous old twit to shamble his way all the way up to the back of the bus when there are a dozen vacant seats down the front; skylarking high-schoolers demonstrating a rather limited exercise of vocabulary.

Otherwise, I have been thrown back on the two media which dominated my life for many years before all this high-and-heavy technology, namely books and radio.

I started re-reading Terry Pratchett's Discworld® books in sequence once again shortly after the great man's death just over a year ago, and my enforced horizontality has enabled me to get through Making Money rather more quickly that would have been the case had I been restricted to my normal bedtime reading practice of 'half an hour a night, if I can be arsed'. I'm now on to Unseen Academicals which, from what I recall of my first reading of it, is probably the weakest (certainly the least coherent) of the books he wrote after he hit Peak Discworld in the late 90s.

When either inclination or stamina deserted me on this task, though, I reverted to the entertainment which was central to my life for nearly three decades: the good old wireless. I've mentioned a number of times before how central radio was to my childhood and youth, in ways that television could not have been. But once I had finally got online nearly fifteen (fifteen? Sheesh!) years ago, and with the passing of John Peel, I found myself drifting away from its old-style magic and into the realm of 'pull' media, whereby I chose what I wanted to hear, rather than have it pushed upon me by others.

The past week or so has led to some degree of re-acquaintance with the medium, although - as with my very occasional meanderings during the still watches of the night whilst suffering from an access of insomnia - I started doing so with little hope of anything of great interest emerging from the enterprise.

Because of my lack of interest in radio in recent times, I've never got around to getting one of them there digital jobbies. Apart from the fact that it would have sat redundant on my bedside table for much of the time, I've not been remotely impressed by many of the comments I've read or heard about this new 'platform', either in terms of its range of programming (someday, someone will twig that - when cultural talent is required - 'more' doesn't mean 'better', but simply, 'what talent there is is spread far more thinly, and it shows'), or its technical quality (stations often being broadcast in lower quality audio than on FM, signals being scrambled by a passing yak, that sort of thing).

So, I have my twenty-odd year old Panasonic four-band with the twin cassette decks (which decks seem to have undertaken a successful suicide pact a couple of years ago, leaving me without anything to play those old tapes on anymore, the twin decks on my Aiwa hi-fi in the living room having given up the struggle in similar fashion sometime late in the last decade).

Note where I said 'four-band' above, by the way. This is another thing which connects my radio-listening habits with - if not Nineveh and Tyre - then certainly with Lopik and H÷rby: the presence of a short-wave band, something that you won't find on any receiver for domestic use today except for a very small, specialist market. But back in the early nineties, that short-wave band was an absolute must for me, even though the variety of voices and opinions to be found there had already diminished sharply after the fall of The Wall and the final triumph (we were assured) of freedom, democracy and a lot of other things that the truly entrepreneurial and aspiring would sell their teenage daughters to a Port Said pimp for.

When I do my little excursions of the bands, though, I don't start there. I begin right at the bottom of the FM broadcast band (around 87.5 MHz hereabouts). This starts with a lot of interference until I switch off the LED light over my bed and just fumble around in darkness. I am old enough to remember when, at least around here, the entire FM broadcast spectrum was the preserve exclusively of the BBC, with Radio 2 at the bottom end, moving via Radio 3 and Radio 4 to the available Local Radio stations (such as Stoke, Merseyside and Manchester) before it petered out at about 96 MHz and got really interesting as the police had the frequencies the rest of the way up to 104 MHz (that being the ceiling at the time); many a dull late Friday night had been enlivened in the late seventies and early eighties by listening to North Wales' finest chasing car thieves up the A55.

Now the broadcast band goes right the way up to 108 MHz and is packed not just with the Corporation's various offerings but by a bewildering number of commercial operators, mostly legal but with the occasional very naughty boy edging into hearing. But what these stations mostly are, I'm afraid, are clones, staffed by Stepford DJs, if you will. The playlists are much the same (especially at the time of evening I was conducting these little tours), the inane jabbering varies only in the accents in which it is provided, the commercials - if you can bear them - seem designed to produce brain-balm for the stupidest and most gullible and - for all the guff about these being 'local' stations - you find on further investigation that nearly all of them are owned by the same two or three huge media corporations.

Little sustenance for the intelligence to be found there, then. But I have entertained from time to time a desire - just as an exercise in Higher Level Pseudery you understand - to spend an entire day (or, at least, the entire waking part thereof) listening to Radio 3, just to get some idea of all this high culture I've been studiously avoiding all my life. Well, I can't claim that that is what I did on the first two nights confined to bed, but on each night I came in part of the way through an orchestral concert. As an intellectual exercise - neither piece being familiar to me - I tried to deduce the period in which the piece was written and from which country the composer came. The first one I guessed as being from between 1900 and 1930 and probably French; I got the time right, but it turned out to be Elgar's First Symphony. The second one I figured was from the turn of the twentieth century and possibly middle European. I wasn't too far out on either, in that it was Bruckner's Eighth, a symphony which, if it has an 'unofficial' name (in the manner of the 'Pastoral', the 'Organ', and so on) should be called the 'Frankly Interminable'.

Further up the dial proved rather fruitless, as it comprised - in addition to the BBC local stations I referred to above - just an awful lot of commercial stations of varying degrees of gormlessness, including that audio Reader's Digest known as Classic FM and Radio 1 which seems (even more than I remember it being) stuck with its obsession with Yoof in general and 'Urban' (c'est-Ó-dire black) Yoof in particular.

Reaching the indeterminate white-noise hiss at 108 MHz, I flicked the switch and started heading down the long-wave band. Now long wave - presumably because of the wide bandwidth needed - was always a place of few stations, but ones with great carrying distance, particularly Daventry (later Droitwich) which carried in succession the BBC National Programme, the Home Service and Radio 4. Radio 4 is still there, slap bang in the middle on 198 KHz, but much of the landscape around it has changed or been bulldozed completely. RT╔ Radio 1 has taken Atlantic 252's old spot, but my own favourite stop on that particular dial stands no more.

I can't for the life of me now remember how it was I started listening to the maritime weather report and forecast which used to air on Deutschlandradio Berlin (later Deutschlandradio Kultur) just after the midnight news. A combination of boredom and radio and language geekery, I suppose. Enough to say that I listened nearly every night (reception permitting) for a few years, during which time I picked up the German words for 'backing', 'veering' and quite a few other metereological terms which I'm sad to say I have found of somewhat limited utility in everyday life. Sadly, DK ceased its long-wave service at the end of 2014, so the weather reports from Thybor°n, Bornholm and the Kiel Lighthouse are now, alas, a closed book to me.

Beyond the sturdy peak of France Inter, another click of the switch placed me at the bottom end of the medium-wave band. Here too, the old familiar landscape has been changed. Once mighty pinnacles such as RT╔ and Radio Luxembourg have long since crumbled to scree, the US Armed Forces Network output from Germany through which I had listened to Major League baseball has gone, and both Radio France and Deutschlandradio have recently abandoned the entirety of their MW services, leaving largely a series of foothills (with the exception of two low-power but local transmitters). This has allowed some odd little stations to appear through the mists, though: a Christian station broadcasting out of County Monaghan, Ireland, for example; or an Asian-orientated station reaching here quite clearly late at night from a distance of over 150 miles from London despite a mere 1 kW of power.

But unless you want to hear (as far as English-language programming is concerned, at least) the same sort of mix of bland music and trullian phone-ins that are the staple of much of the FM band, there's little of any distinctiveness left.

Giving the band-selector switch one last shove to the right, and we reach the fabled short wave band, starting (in the case of my old relic of a receiver) with the 19 metre band, up around 15 Mhz. The problem with short wave - now as ever before - is that to get the best out of it you need a top-notch set with a particularly sensitive aerial. A receiver which was designed to be all-purpose with just a telescopic whip antenna just won't cut it, especially in built-up areas. So it is that I regularly find (that is to say, as regularly as I undertake an exercise such as this) that large parts of the entire short-wave spectrum available to me are blanketed (although 'swamped' would perhaps be a more descriptive term) by local electrical interference.

Picking out little morsels from this soup of static is difficult in any case, given the equipment available, and a rotary tuning knob which probably operates a cat's cradle of string inside the casing is scarcely sensitive enough to be able to hold on to one frequency for very long. The mass presence of Radio Moscow - a regular accompaniment to those late nights in Uni when I was pretending to rune 11th century poetry - is now no more, although one other former companion in propaganda still exists, albeit in radically altered guise. Good old Radio Tirana still broadcasts, but instead of the ugly and strident interval signal which marked its programmes in the high days of Hoxharian paranoia, it now sports one of the most beautiful signals I've ever come across (*).

Beyond that, the short-wave spectrum now seems to be dominated by those few areas where geography dictates its necessity (Russia, India - good to hear All-India Radio is still going - and the Arab world), or has been taken over by either American fundamentalist Christian stations or by Radio Beijing pumping out its own variety of snake-oil to the world.

In all of this, in whatever band and whatever context, radio as a medium - once a sort of miracle, where voices came out of the supposedly inert air to tell you about the world in all its colours - seems to have become sadly diminished, possibly to the point where - at least as far as long-distance communication is concerned - it is deemed no longer to be effective, to be left merely as a local or niche phenomenon; regions, cities and towns (or, as we are seemingly obliged to call them, 'markets') and followers of ever more esoteric music types talking largely to themselves, oblivious to all beyond.

I wouldn't want to end this piece on a downer though, because my enforced prospecting through the thin seams of the ether today has brought some little gems of music to my attention for the first time.

For starters, here are the veteran Irish punk band The Radiators From Space (fronted by the late Philip Chevron) with their 2012 cover of Rory Gallagher's It's Happened Before, It'll Happen Again:

Here's one which I may have already known, but came across somewhere on medium wave, namely R.E.M.'s tuneful Man On The Moon:

And finally - and most intriguing - a track I caught when scurrying across the exposed ground of Radio 1 on Sunday night. Public Service Broadcasting - a two-man outfit from London - appear to be a sort of dance/proggy re-incarnation of the wonderful Boards Of Canada, using beats and old sound clips from radio and film to create highly atmospheric pieces such as Sputnik:

They need looking into further, I think...

(*) Sound files courtesy of Interval Signals Online