Why radio is still making waves after all these years

James Naughtie who has left the Today programme after 21 years.  (photo credit: Jeff Overs/BBC/PA).
James Naughtie who has left the Today programme after 21 years. (photo credit: Jeff Overs/BBC/PA).
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As James Naughtie steps down from the Today programme after 21 years, Chris Bond looks at the power of radio and asks does it still matter?

AS he signed off from the Today programme yesterday for the last time, the usually smooth, dulcet tones of James Naughtie momentarily quavered.

He bade farewell after 21 years on the flagship BBC Radio 4 show, saying it had been “one of the great privileges” to be in the presenter’s chair. He also paid tribute to the show’s listeners, telling them: “You are the programme.”

Some people might ask what all the fuss is about, no one has died and it’s not as if Naughtie, who is going off to become Radio 4’s special correspondent and the BBC’s books editor, is going to disappear from the airwaves.

But in many ways it encapsulates the unique relationship radio presenters have with their listeners. It was a similar story in 2009 when Sir Terry Wogan called time on his long-running breakfast radio show.

The veteran broadcaster built up a loyal following, known affectionately as TOGs (Terry’s Old Geezers or Gals), and by the time the show finished he had over eight million listeners - the kind of figures most TV shows can only dream of.

Amid all the white noise of modern life there is something reassuring about radio because as with a book, and unlike TV, film, or the internet, it appeals to the imagination.

Richard Jones, a journalism lecturer at the University of Huddersfield, says for the most part radio is flourishing right now. “People have been predicting the death of radio ever since the invention of television and it’s still here and alive and well,” he says.

“It’s not as central to people’s lives as it once was and the days of listening to the top 40 chart with your cassette player are over, but it still has that immediacy and intimacy that social media doesn’t quite match.”

He says there some interesting generational shifts. “For middle aged and older people radio is still very much a big part of their lives, but teenagers don’t listen to the radio in the same way now.”

What has changed, though, is the development of radio podcasts. “Young people are interested in audio and podcasts have become more popular. The quality of these has improved and they offer something completely different from conventional radio.”

It’s more than a century since Reginald Fessenden, using an alternator-transmitter in his embryonic station in Massachusetts, sent out the world’s first radio broadcast. By the end of the 1920s radio broadcasting had become a means of mass communication.

Radio also played a pivotal role in boosting morale Britain during the Second World War. It’s widely accepted that Winston Churchill’s famous speeches had far more impact on the radio than they would have done on TV because it was the power of the words that moved people.

It was radio that gave us The Goons a decade before the Monty Python team brought their own brand of silliness and surreal comedy to people’s TV screens. But it isn’t just about warm nostalgia. It was radio, in the days before 24-hour news channels, that broke the news in the UK of John Lennon’s murder, which was called in to the Today programme from a phone box near the Dakota Building where the musician was shot.

According to Jones, radio still has a vibrant role to play today. “It’s still a great medium and I can’t see it disappearing anytime soon, it has this unique mix where you’re broadcasting to millions of people but at the same time it feels like a one-on-one conversation. It has that unique intimacy.”

Which is why James Naughtie became emotional when he said ‘goodbye’ yesterday, because in becoming a familiar voice he has woven himself into the fabric of our everyday lives.