by Emily Best
Barring climate change or maybe globalisation, the pandemic crisis of 2020 is arguably the widest-ranging event in terms of human impact since the Second World War. It drops individual instances – statistics, directives, shock photographs of packed roads on sunny days and videos of grandchildren getting hugged through cellophane – into the inertia of waiting. Those staying inside whether through furlough, home working or isolation experience the changes both fast and slow, immediate and projected, via the same screens, on the same sofas and through the same windows as they have and will continue to for months.
Modern media and technology allow the documentation and review of every moment – a fact itself observed and commented upon far and wide. Despite isolation, it’s almost impossible for us to insulate. Radio is one of the oldest methods of communication we have, and in wartime it was indispensable both as a weapon of war and a domestic comfort. But when news is so ubiquitous, even inescapable, do people still find it comforting? I asked Leslie McMurtry, author of Revolution in the Echo Chamber: Audio Drama’s Past, Present and Future (2019), about this. She suggested that the ‘liveness’ of radio is what gives it its edge. Perhaps being tuned into a radio is the closest real-time access we can have to the world outside? McMurtry also told me that in the 1920s and 1930s, radio’s advantage worried newspaper publishers. This may go some way to explaining the way the panic caused by Orson Welles' infamous 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast was in fact, thanks to newspapers, blown out of all proportion.
Of course, smart notifications and curated echo-chamber style feeds mean that many can get the news they want via alerts on their phones at least as quickly as on the radio. I did a quick poll on social media of my friends’ listening habits during lockdown, and the overwhelming response to live radio was avoidance: ‘sick of hearing bad news’ was the phrase that came up most often. For others, though, radio can still offer companionship, just as early radio did for those in isolated locations outside big cities. One person said that a particular breakfast show DJ knew their musical taste better than another, while others spoke of having it on for the background noise while at home.
I fall into this category: working from home I may have a couple of Zoom meetings each day and the odd telephone call, but I don’t have the background hum of voices that fills an office. While intuition might suggest that a quiet workspace would be less distracting, in fact too much quiet can be counterproductive, as the BBC accounts department discovered in 1999. There is a companionship of shared space, of course, that many of us office-dwellers miss, but there is also the companionship of locality that for many has migrated onto the airwaves, as we’ve seen a boom in hobbyist and local radio. There is also a utilitarian angle here. Just as the ham radio operatives during hurricane Katrina were the only signals able to communicate those in the most need or distress (a phenomenon explored in Holly Pester’s poem Katrina Sequence), the NHS amateur radio station GB1NHS has been working with the Radio Society of Great Britain as part of their ’get on the air to care’ campaign. During this time, the number of amateur radio licenses as gone to 75,000 with applications tripling since lockdown began. These enthusiasts are repurposing the domestic when the domestic is all we have.
In my poll, escapism came up a lot, whether in the form of audio drama, audiobook or podcast. My own PhD thesis is on radio drama: I am interested in what happens when you take bodies away from characters, or disallow them to begin with, and place the theatrical stage in the imagination of the listener. It is interesting to think of this as escapism: a form of distraction that in fact turns the consumer in on themselves. In the early days of lockdown, some statistics suggested a drop in listenership, particularly where audiobook and podcasts were the preserve of the commute – in late March, podcast consumption was down by about 20% while some early reports cautiously predicted a boost for audiobooks and e-books, perhaps reflecting the traditional (though of course, not exclusive) distinction that podcasts are more for non-fiction. More recently, though, behaviour has shifted again: Marco Bertozzi from Spotify has commented that users are moving more to comfort listening, whether music or comedy, as opposed to the COVID-related content of the early days. And as with amateur radio, people want to join the conversation, as podcast producer Acast has reported a 49% month-on-month increase in people wanting to create their own podcasts.
While for some this sense of escapism is quite literal as people seek out imagined breaks from isolation, others are chasing imaginary apocalypses to divert us from whatever summer 2020 might bring. McMurtry suggested to me that this is because ‘these fictional examples have the added benefit that we can turn them off: we are in charge of the chaos and can stop it whenever we wish, which is perhaps why they are enjoyable.’ Whether it’s to another world or another bit of our own world, escaping by staying still can be the most effective form of escape – see Radio 4’s latest recommendation of plays to divert you, and check out the amazing Wireless Theatre Company who are now offering free subscriptions.
My radio just told me that this is week 8 of lockdown. Of how many weeks we cannot know, but the voices in the wires and the waves can keep us connected to each other and to ourselves for as long as the streets are the property of ghosts. It will be interesting to see how the world will sound when all this is over.
Emily Best is working on a doctoral thesis on Samuel Beckett & Radio Drama, in the School of Arts at Birkbeck.