The new wave

Radio 2005 - Rachel Cooke explains why, when it comes to rolling news, it's better to listen than wa

When, three years ago, I began telling people that my strange-looking beech-and-chrome Evoke DAB radio had changed my life - that crackle and fuzz and pirate rap stations were gone from my life for ever - their eyes would glaze over until I shut up. Not any more. These days, there is a DAB radio nerd around virtually every corner. In many ways, this has been the year of the digital radio. There are now 2.5 million DAB radios in the UK, and this has had a significant impact on listening figures. Those who own a digital set spend 20 per cent longer listening each week compared to those in non-DAB homes; 16 per cent listen to at least one new digital station a week. No wonder that audience figures in general are up. The better radio sounds, the more you want to listen.

But perhaps the figures are up for other reasons, too. It has been a horribly nervy year, and we have found ourselves genuinely in need of news (as opposed to merely consuming it). In this, radio has been a huge help. Rolling news on TV is tiresome and dumb. Its presenters ordinarily have nothing to reveal but their hairstyles, yet when real news breaks, they await pictures and pundits while their audience goes quietly mad. With radio, it's different. The technicalities are simpler: reaction time is far swifter, information more immediately disseminated (and corrected, if necessary). The audience can be in motion as it listens, rather than having to give itself over to the anxious glow of those graphics. Above all, radio has a dignity that live television lacks. Television is hungry for drama, radio for description. When people are hurt and dying, I would rather have the latter - not to spare my feelings, but theirs.

It was Matthew Bannister, on the BBC's 5 Live, who I listened to on the morning of 7 July. Bannister, caught unexpectedly in the biggest story of the year (he was sitting in for Victoria Derbyshire), was clearly determined to avoid anything even approaching the histrionics so beloved of most news hams. He just got on with feeding us the information he had. Radio 5 Live is now more listened to in London than Capital, and when the right person is behind the microphone, you know why. Bannister is one of several BBC names I would like to hear more often.

Luckily, elsewhere, the BBC has finally recognised the quiet talent of one of its more long-standing reporters. This year, Shaun Ley replaced James Cox as presenter of Radio 4's The World This Weekend. Ley is excellent: a deft interviewer, but one who knows better than to put himself centre stage.

This year has also brought the return of Chris Evans to the airwaves, presenting an afternoon show on Radio 2; the triumphant demolition of the competition by Chris Moyles and his Radio 1 breakfast show, which won a record audience of 6.5 million listeners weekly; and, in London, the disappearance of Jazz FM, to be replaced by Smooth FM. I cannot understand Moyles's success - he gives me a headache - and the word "smooth" makes me picture a moustachioed spiv in a cloud of aftershave. (I also live in fear that someone will play Kenny G, the artist of choice on American "smooth" stations.)

But Chris Evans is a total joy. I heard him the other afternoon talking to Charlotte Church and playing Elvis Costello, and all I could think was: he's so much better at this kind of thing than anyone else. Lesley Douglas, the controller of Radio 2, was absolutely right to woo him, and I was quite wrong to imagine that he might have lost his touch.

But most of all, 2005 will go down as a great year for The Archers - perhaps the great year - with record numbers tuning in to listen to the implosion of the Grundy family. Eddie and Clarrie, with their strange yokel accents (The Wurzels by way of Birmingham), used to be among my least favourite characters. No longer. Listening to them as they watch their two sons become mortal enemies has been surprisingly touching, though Emma, their daughter-in-law and the cause of all this trouble, still makes me grind my teeth. I wish she would disappear to France - though, admittedly, not half as much as I wish that Tom Archer's sausage business would go belly up again.

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