The extreme optimism of Balinese radio

Radio in Bali is purely a pick-me-up.

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The peaks north of Beratan lake in Bali have different names depending on which village you approach from. There’s no simple answer to the question: “What’s that mountain called?” It could be “Galungan”, or “Lemukih”, the one road winding through thick, high forests of clove and misshapen durian fruit, resembling nail-studded tumours that you split open with a knife to reveal an immaculate whiteness and the smell of old French cheese. I don’t hear a single radio playing in any of the villages. No signal this side of the mountains. Only the afternoon sun casting fantastic shadows on scratching dogs and thin thatch.

Every time I ask my friend Bawa to stick the car radio on he says “not… yet” and taps it, peeved. He knows precisely the crest in the road towards Ubud where it will kick in – just beyond a stall selling eel fritters and sachets of shampoo. Suddenly: a concussion of 40 stations yelling dangdut music and selling herbal drinks for blood pressure.

Nothing can prepare you for the energy of the Balinese daytime radio host; the air of tyrannical melodrama. Egging on callers to greater confessions, mostly concerning unattainable lovers, sometimes conducting part of the conversation on WhatsApp and reading it out as though it was breaking news at the scene of some catastrophe. (“Report yourself to the police!” hoots a host. “You’re stealing that man’s soul!”) Most stations include something “for the lovelorn”, even Heartline 92.2 FM, which has evangelical Christian backing, and especially likes to remind listeners to be better drivers. Nobody mentions politics.

Radio in Bali is purely a pick-me-up. Occasionally an ad for an Australian gardening firm hints (somewhat ominously) at sponsors over the water, although there’s currently no predominantly English-speaking AM/FM station reliably broadcasting on the island. Nothing to cater to the now surely unstoppable cataclysm of young, white, hard-nosed Instagrammers and post-Airbnb hot-deskers cluttering the cafés. For now they seem happy to tune into stations such as Oz Radio Bali, where the hosts talk in Indonesian about skateboarding and innocently play George Harrison. And yet… everybody is waiting.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 05 April 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit wreckers