Sound and vision: what radio looks like in person

“The public need to see what they’re paying for,” says Huw Robinson during Radio 3's instillation at the Southbank Centre.

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Radio 3 continues to celebrate its 70th anniversary over the next week, broadcasting live from a pop-up Perspex studio at the entrance to the Royal Festival Hall in London. There are classical music performances, ­retro tea dances and poetry readings in front of a general audience of visitors to the Southbank, hundreds milling past in a purling stream, some flopping to watch proceedings for a while on sofas in the lobby.

When I went to take a look over the weekend, there were (admittedly) tens of producers coming and going, careful to not trip over the thick arteries of duct-taped wires and bouquets of plugs and talk-back units. And data trucks full of engineers debating the acceptable levels of ambient noise degradation, and mixing desks with over 176 sources, and servers pulling things across networks. But it struck me that everybody else was behaving . . . precisely as they do when the radio is on in their own home. Some were listening carefully, some staring out of the window and catching every third word, some reading the paper and hearing not a jot, some mopping up spilled drinks and striking deals with toddlers.

“It’s been to Stratford for Shakespeare,” said Huw Robinson, head of Radio 3 operations, “that box.” He nodded at the flat-packed unit (“a kind of Ikea studio”), which at that moment was filled with the presenter Sarah ­Mohr-Pietsch introducing the Treorchy Male Choir, singing the folk song “Counting the Goats”. I noted that SMP had perfectly sculpted eyebrows and wasn’t remotely how an enraptured friend once imagined her, in an email to me: Sarah More-Peach, poss freckly and highly improper. A vg example of why radio is more interesting than telly because it allows us to dream.

These sorts of super-visible broadcast events are on the increase. “The public need to see what they’re paying for,” says Robinson, unflummoxed by the challenge. So they come to see, absorbing how radio “looks” . . . and then almost immediately it seems they mentally rearrange that information into nothing but sound again, slipping into a radio trance, free from the one great tyranny of our epoch: the moving image.

Sound Frontiers runs until 7 October

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She presents The Film Programme on BBC Radio 4. She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories