Back in the days before News 24, when television made itself a mug of Horlicks at about 11.30 each night, the only refuge for insomniacs was Radio 2. "BBC1 is closing down now for tonight, but those of you who aren't quite ready for bed yet can join our friends over on Radio 2, where Bill Rennells is just about to begin his Nightride," intoned the announcer seemingly every night of my childhood.
As an adult, I am no less hyperactive, but these days the choice of distractions is much wider. For the connoisseur all-nighter, however, radio remains where it's at. I don't mind admitting it: I sleep around - Radio 2, Radio 1, Radio 5 Live, Radio 3. Sometimes when schools programmes begin on Radio 3, I find myself semi-consciously joining in with Music and Movement. More often than not, however, I opt for the World Service on Radio 4's VH frequency. By morning, they've all gone, without leaving so much as a note on the pillow, but, rather, the faintly distasteful feeling of having been violated by Steve Wright.
Wright has taken over the slot once occupied by the less irritating Dave Lee Travis. He reads out requests from listeners in Bulawayo very slowly, and hosts a competition putting a patronising heavy emphasis on the correct answer ("Where do Atomic Kitten come from? Glasgow? Birmingham? Or LIVERPOOL?"). When political prisoners say that the World Service kept them sane in their darkest moments, it is safe to assume that they found some other distraction while Wright was on air.
Radio 5 Live in the middle of the night would be recognisable to anybody who listens to it during the day. If it's unhinged people you're after, as a reassurance that you are not the only socially inadequate person awake at that time, phone-in stations are best. These are home to people who have opinions by the barrel, but who haven't really thought them through. A Mancunian friend swears blind that he once heard a caller on Piccadilly Radio in the late 1980s open with the line, "I'd like to talk about Rhodesia . . ."
Barking mad white supremacists make it on air less often nowadays, but there is still enough to be going on with. One caller to Ian Collins's show on TalkSport announced that "all drugs should be legalised", without any argument to back up this belief. "It sounds to me as though you are basing your philosophy on what you want for yourself," said the presenter. Which is another way of saying "get off the phone, you're obviously off your head on something".
Naturally, with the situation in Afghanistan, such stations are doing great business. A fairly sensible caller to the London station LBC suggested a campaign of civil disobedience. "When we wise up and say no, governments do listen," he said. The presenter asserted, tongue firmly in cheek, that "LBC is one of the most radical forums in the country . . . the hard issues need to be discussed" before cutting to another caller, curtailing any chance of a discussion.
Meanwhile, back on the mother ship, Radio 2, there is the rather more edifying prospect of Alex Lester, one of the hidden delights of broadcasting. Billing his 3am-6am slot as "the best time of the day", he does what his late, great predecessor Ray Moore did so well - he weaves a verbal web of absurdity and builds up the audience (none of whom really wants to be up and about at so ungodly an hour) as co-conspirators, creating a you-and-me-against-the-world mentality.
Also like Moore, John Dunn, Mark Radcliffe, Danny Baker and most of the other rare presenters who have offered an involving antidote to the Bruno Brookes/Dave Lee Travis school of DJing, Lester possesses a grasshopper mind hard-wired to his mouth. Recently, he closed his show with a word-perfect, high-speed oration of Danny Kaye's "vessel with the pestle" cross-talk from The Court Jester. That it was being done at all was a feat. That it was being done at 5.55am - the end of Lester's shift - is almost worth a Sony award in its own right. If and when the musical chairs begin at Radio 2, Lester has to be a certainty for promotion to daytime.
With a shadow hanging over Jimmy Young, I am happy to report that the aforementioned Rennells is still broadcasting, these days on the digital station for the over-60s, Saga Radio. Normally, microphone tests involve asking a guest to give "a blast for level" or some such. Rennells, however, has his own style. A friend who guested on the show recently was instructed to "come in on the mike like Buddy Greco". My friend obliged with as much showbiz magic as he could muster. A class act.
Louis Barfe's Round and Round: the rise and fall of the music business will be published by Atlantic Books