A man listens to radio in Nigeria's Borno state, as the region recovers from clashes with Islamist groups. Photo: Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP/Getty Images
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As governments shut down radio, the BBC world service is a lifeline

“The exercise of making radio matters,” said a caller. “It’s a symbol of resistance.”

Over to You
BBC World Service

In the week when Apple’s Beats 1 radio station was launched – “Worldwide. Always on . . . It broadcasts 24/7 to over 100 countries from our studios in Los Angeles, New York and London” – there was also discussion of the BBC’s latest global audience measurement figures. The most striking thing in the report, which tracked listening habits and how they had changed over the past year, was how short-wave radio – in rural and poorer areas where there is no FM, no cable and no electricity, it’s still the only way of tuning in – is under increasing threat from something as basic as jamming.

Apple’s idea of radio as digital and impermeable never felt more breezily First World. Listeners to the English-language programmes on the BBC World Service, for example – in India, Nepal and Bangladesh, in particular – have almost halved in number because of deliberate disruption on the short-wave signal, apparently from China, forcing stations to rotate frequencies on the same band to at least attempt a slot.

“Tune around . . . You’ll find us. We will be there,” advised a technician on Over to You (4 July, 5.50pm). It conjured that most antiquated and urgent of images: a person clutching their temples, coaxing a dial, trying and trying to find a signal.

“I grew up with short-wave radio,” insisted a caller to the show, “and I got to understand the world, got to understand life. If you don’t know short-wave radio, you don’t know life.” Only moments later, there was talk of the closure of all the non-state-run radio stations in Burundi (one of the poorest and least connected countries in the world). Before the recent coup attempt, independent radio stations played a huge role in holding the government to account but many radio journalists are now forced to report using what social media is available.

“The exercise of making radio matters,” said a caller. “It’s a symbol of resistance.” And another, with some disdain, said: “Doing it on the internet is just a way of keeping it on record.” The more than century-long act of turning a dial and finding a signal, with a human voice hitching a ride on electromagnetic energy through space, is something it seems our species now feels in the bones. But worldwide? Always on? Only for some. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 09 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The austerity war

Gettty
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The mizzly tones of Source FM

Drewzy (male, fortysomething) composedly, gently, talks of “time condensing like dew on a damp Cornish window”.

A mizzly Thursday in Falmouth and the community radio presenters Drewzy and the Robot are playing a Fat Larry’s Band single they picked up in a local charity shop. Drewzy (male, fortysomething) composedly, gently, talks of “time condensing like dew on a damp Cornish window”, and selects a Taiwanese folk song about muntjacs co-operating with the rifles of hunters. The robot (possibly the same person using an electronic voice-changer with a volume booster, but I wouldn’t swear to it) is particularly testy today about his co-host’s music choices (“I don’t like any of it”), the pair of them broadcasting from inside two converted shipping containers off the Tregenver Road.

I am told the Source can have an audience of up to 5,500 across Falmouth and Penryn, although when I fan-mail Drewzy about this he replies: “In my mind it is just me, the listener (singular), and the robot.” Which is doubtless why on air he achieves such epigrammatic fluency – a kind of democratic ease characteristic of a lot of the station’s 60-plus volunteer presenters, some regular, some spookily quiescent, only appearing now and again. There’s Pirate Pete, who recently bewailed the scarcity of pop songs written in celebration of Pancake Day (too true); there’s the Cornish Cream slot (“showcasing artists . . . who have gone to the trouble of recording their efforts”), on which a guest recently complained that her Brazilian lover made her a compilation CD, only to disappear before itemising the bloody tracks (we’ve all been there).

But even more mysterious than the identity of Drewzy’s sweetly sour robot is the Lazy Prophet, apparently diagnosed with PTSD and refusing medication. His presenter profile states, “I’ve spent the last year in almost total isolation and reclusion observing the way we do things as a species.”

That, and allowing his energies to ascend to a whole new plateau, constructing a two-hour Sunday-morning set – no speaking: just a mash-up of movie moments, music, animal and nature sounds – so expert that I wouldn’t be surprised if it was in fact someone like the La’s Salinger-esque Lee Mavers, escaped from Liverpool. I’m tempted to stake out the shipping containers.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle