In praise of local radio

With the news that Global is closing more than 40 local breakfast shows, Antonia Quirke mourns the loss of small-town radio.

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“OUR RADICALS LIBRARY IS NOW OPEN. MARX, MACHIAVELLI AND THE RAGGED TROUSERED PHILANTHROPIST AMONGST OTHERS.” A handwritten sign in the window of a community radio station in Glasgow has always had me wondering. So I knocked on the glass the other day, and one of the volunteer presenters, Disco Dale, let me have a snoop. I found no Tressell, but walls studded with CDs for insulation and tiny studios padded with foam. Eventually Dale said “I’m interviewing an amputee footballer in, like, 40 seconds.” He was too. Rebecca Seller.

Where the commercial radio company Global (Capital, Heart, Smooth, etc) last week announced the closure of more than 40 local breakfast shows, community-run outfits such as Sunny G fight on. Those Global stations sound increasingly like the Debenhams of radio: corporate, cavernous, a vanishingly discernible USP. But on Oban FM, or Two Lochs Radio, or Sunny G (Scotland is particularly good at community output) you can hear, say, someone passionately mourning the death of their favourite saucepan, or two teenagers goading each other to play the most outrageously unbeautiful tunes while cans of lager are removed surreptitiously from a plastic bag.

Look, I’m not saying I listen to hours of this stuff, but I like checking in now and again, because sometimes it turns out to be the best radio on any station, anywhere. Take Friday’s episode of Roots with Shola. Shola’s baby wailed as she plucked it from among wires on the floor, and her mum Carol, also in the studio, began to talk about interminable family holidays in the unrecoverable 1960s, at a B&B in St Andrews, staying on the top floor, with no entertainment. She described pressing her head up against the wall to catch Thunderclap Newman’s “Something in the Air” playing on the TV next door, a sliver of life and fun. No scene in a $60m Cameron Crowe movie about youthful yearning could compare with the way Carol told it – unrehearsed, immediately visual, a whirligig of faded fragments. “I’ve been listening to that song for 50 years,” she concluded, as Shola stuck it on the turntable, and the baby sent up a drooling gurgle. “And I love it.”

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 08 March 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The next crash