The late, late show

Alan Partridge-type naffness aside, night-time has great treats to offer

At 00.48am every day, night-time radio begins, ushered in by Viking, Cromarty and German Bight. It finishes at 5.20am, ushered out by the same. Between the twin poles of the Shipping Forecasts, I have always assumed that magic and madness occurs. Nightworkers' ears get warmed by the softness of the World Service, the minds of clubbers are melted by repetitive beats, and outsiders are spoken to by a trillion Alan Partridges. Still, has anyone ever tried to listen to all of them in one night? Time to fill up a tall pot of coffee, I wager, and let the lunacy begin.

We start at 1am, after Radio 4's ceremonial bleeps. Time to say hello to Janice Long (weekdays; midnight or 00.30am to 3am), Radio 2's very own cheeky mum. Straight away we're in gentle "and finally . . ." territory, a world of animal antics and easy laughs. An overweight cat falling through a restaurant roof prompts a headline competition, while we learn about the reaction of local creatures to the Market Rasen earthquake ("the birds woke up and carried on talking about it"). The musical variety warms the heart, too, with station staples like Duffy's number-one single, "Mercy", followed by calls for Joy Division and the quirky New York act Moldy Peaches. You are reminded of how great radio is without playlists, when it's truly at the beck and call of listeners' whims.

Next, on TalkSport, it's Ian Collins (Tuesdays to Fridays, 1am-5am), the presenter who watched Philip Davies MP crack Stephen Pound's rib in his studio in 2005. So far, so Partridge. Tonight, moody chill-out music adds to that patina of terminal naffness as Collins offers some flowery observations about the TV series Lost ("too much nonchalance in the face of multiple death!") and a young woman is told she's not married because "she's a rough bird". Instead, I retreat very happily into the comforting vowels of Patricia Hodge on BBC7, who delivers a one-woman play, The Captain's Wife. Unlike Radio 4's countless hammy productions, this one shimmers with subtlety.

It's time for more skipping. Passing Berlioz's Roméo et Juliette on Radio 3, we go to Radio 1's In New DJs We Trust (Fridays, 2am-4am) - the qualifying phrase "but not enough to play at noon" having apparently fallen off the listings. Sets by Kissy Sell Out and Kutski keep me captivated for much longer than Chris Moyles's many fart gags. Over on 5 Live, the genial Dotun Adebayo handles a phone-in about nutrition for nightworkers on Up All Night (nightly, times vary), while Radio 4 joins the World Service, which offers a workout routine based on the Beijing Olympics. "Jiggle your body to the sky like a flame!" squeals the excitable presenter, as I start to question whether this is the true path to insanity.

At 4.30am, I lose it completely: I can suddenly hear Alan Partridge himself. After five minutes of delirium, I realise it is him - I'm on BBC7 again, listening to a brilliant rerun of On the Hour. Longing for sleep, I turn over to the Asian Network's wonderful Devotional Sounds (weekdays, 5am-6am). Perhaps it is the meditative quality of that music, but the minutes pass quickly, and before I know it, 5.20am gently sails into shore. There are warnings of gales in all areas but Biscay, but no storms can disturb my descent into sleep.

Pick of the week

The Early Music Show
8 March, 1pm, Radio 3
Life and music of the 16th-century composer Jean Mouton.

I Am Woman
11 March, 10.30pm, Radio 2
A look back at Helen Reddy’s classic hit and its impact on feminism.

Gideon Coe
Mondays-Thursdays, 10pm, 6 Music
The former breakfast DJ continues to shine in his new evening slot.

This article first appeared in the 10 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How Hillary did it