We are living in a golden age of radio. Don’t take my word for it, Radio Joint Audience Research, or RAJAR, the industry body that collates audience figures, tells us that 90 per cent of the adult population of the United Kingdom listens to the radio every week. That’s just under 50 million of us tuning in, without fail, every week.
With more ways of listening available than ever before, from old battery-operated transistors to wifi, radio has never been more accessible: last year between us we tuned in to hear more than a billion hours of music, news, documentaries and blokes called Steve phoning in to have their say on Brexit.
Radio is, however, a notoriously self-effacing medium. Its most famous voices can walk unmolested down the street in a way their television counterparts can’t even dream of. It won’t shout about those startling figures, either – I’ve been to radio awards ceremonies and the winners practically have to be coaxed up to the stage and then apologise for intruding on the proceedings.
Yet radio is undoubtedly one of our greatest success stories and is overdue an appreciative high five from the nation it serves so well. From the earliest crackly days of the BBC to the crystal-clear specialist stations a click of a mouse away, radio has played a vital role in the development of modern Britain.
If radio won’t celebrate itself then it’s up to us, the listeners, to make it happen. To get the ball rolling here are some of my favourite pieces of radio gold, starting with the moment modern British radio was truly born.
British radio was stiflingly regulated in its first decades: the BBC had a monopoly on the airwaves, there was no commercial radio beyond the English language Radio Luxembourg, and the craggy old Edwardians in charge at Broadcasting House showed no interest in catering for the tastes of that revolutionary postwar invention the teenager.
Then Radio Caroline sailed an old Danish passenger ferry into the North Sea, dropped anchor outside British territorial waters, stuck a big transmitter mast on the deck and at noon on 28 March 1964 DJ Christopher Moore greeted listeners, wished them a happy Easter, announced “this is the first record programme on Radio Caroline” and dropped the needle on the Rolling Stones’ Not Fade Away.
It was a moment that changed everything. Within a year there were around a dozen similar offshore pirate stations serving an estimated audience of 15 million. Within three years the BBC had seen the writing on the wall and created Radio 1, headhunting many of the pirate DJs, and in 1973 its monopoly was finally broken and independent commercial radio was born. Not Fade Away, indeed.
Also born in 1973 was local radio, which five years later proved particularly helpful to a man living in Derbyshire Lane, Sheffield. Local radio phone-in shows can be a bit of a mixed bag, with the same tired old opinions poking the saggy carcasses of the same tired old topics. Sometimes, however, they can produce some genuinely memorable radio. On the afternoon of 31 January 1978, for example, BBC Radio Sheffield’s afternoon show presenter Chris Hughes cued a call from “a Mr Savage, who’s on the line”.
“Yes, yes, it’s Alfie Savage here,” said a brisk voice with a Glaswegian accent. “I’m wondering if any of your listeners in the area can help me – at the moment I am stuck under a wardrobe on the staircase.”
Sensing a wind-up, as Savage expanded on his predicament Hughes interrupted curtly: “And how did you get to the telephone?”
“We’ve a long extension,” came the earnest reply. “My wife handed it up to me.”
As it happened Alfie Savage really was stuck under a wardrobe on the staircase of his home in the Woodseats area of Sheffield. A pensioner living nearby heard the appeal but proved too frail to offer any useful assistance but within a few minutes the local chemist arrived, manoeuvred the wardrobe down the stairs and freed Savage from his predicament.
Bloopers often provide some of the most memorable radio moments – the list of national broadcasters who’ve made a Freudian hash of Jeremy Hunt’s name runs well into the fingers of both hands, for example – and one of my favourites came from long-serving Talksport breakfast presenter Alan Brazil, a former Scotland international footballer and renowned bon viveur who would be the first to admit that he’s sometimes not at his best first thing in the morning.
In February 2004 Brazil took a call from the show’s television correspondent Garry Bushell, who the previous evening had attended a BAFTA gala tribute commemorating Bob Monkhouse, who had died a few weeks earlier. After hearing Bushell describe the moving tributes paid to the late comic by some of the biggest names in show business Brazil decided it was time to chip in.
“Garry, I have to ask,” he said. “How’s Bob’s health?”
After a brief but tangibly stunned silence Bushell responded: “He, er, he… he died, Alan.”
Thinking on his feet Brazil came up with the perfect response.
“Ah yeah, of course,” he said. “You see, I’ve heard two versions.”
My all-time favourite piece of radio, however, went out in the medium’s early days and thankfully a recording survives. To close a week of celebrations marking the coronation of King George VI, on the evening of 20 May 1937 the entire British naval fleet gathered at Spithead to be festooned with lights ahead of a review by the new monarch. The BBC would carry it live and knew just the man to do it, Thomas Woodrooffe, a retired naval officer and one of the Corporation’s most reliable presenters.
It would be the last assignment of an exhausting broadcast week for Woodrooffe and he was delighted to learn that he would be broadcasting from his old ship HMS Nelson, giving him the chance to catch up with a few former comrades in the wardroom before the 10 o’clock broadcast.
And catch up he did. Then he caught up some more. And then a little bit more. By the time the clock had ticked round to ten o’clock and the studios in London handed over to him, Woodrooffe was absolutely stocious. Polluted. Hammered.
“At the present moment…” he slurred, “the whole fleet is lit up, and when I say lit up I mean lit up. With fairy lamps.”
And so began four minutes of some of the greatest radio Britain has ever heard. There was quite a lot of repetition that the fleet was lit up with fairy lamps, admittedly, and at one point a few seconds of silence were followed by Woodrooffe announcing “I’m sorry, I was telling some people to shut up talking”, but otherwise the broadcast was a spontaneous expression of almost childlike wonder.
“It’s fairyland,” he gasped at one point, sounding almost on the verge of tears, “the whole fleet is in fairyland”, before, as scheduled, all the lights on all the ships were turned off for a few seconds.
“It’s gone!” shouted Woodrooffe, rattling the speakers of radios across Britain. “The whole fleet’s gone! It’s not here!”
By this time Broadcasting House had twigged what was happening and with the nation agog its technicians prepared to fade Woodrooffe out and hand over to a waiting dance band. He’d grown wistful by this point anyway, but just before he was hooked from the airwaves he was able to deliver the most beautiful line of the night.
“There’s nothing between us and heaven,” he sighed. “Nothing at all.”
Last Train to Hilversum by Charlie Connelly is published by Bloomsbury (£20)