Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Not any answers (1996)

The A Word in Your Ear column from the June 1996 issue of the Socialist Standard

Knob-twiddling, the perennial pastime of the compulsive radio listener, has been greatly stimulated by the growth of deregulated airwaves, allowing for new stations of aural passion to be visited by the rover in search of a casual broadcasting relationship. Like trainspotters, the lowest of the lonely in the world of atomised leisure pursuits, the wireless addict delights in finding new programme timetables to collect and tune in to. While the rest of humanity lives its life (or pretends to), the radio junkie listens in to the one-way conversations of radio which serve as cultural life-support machines to the alienated, uncertain aural consumers who want reality sorted out for them on the hour every hour.

I grew up in a world which had just stopped listening to wireless, but in which some of us still listened to radio: the poor cousin of the telly. We laughed at The Clitheroe Kid, worried along with Mrs Dale, squirmed at the pompous smugness of Any Questions (still there; still smug) and went to sleep with the pips from The Shipping Forecast. As infancy' turned to adulthood the Home Service became Radio Four (arguably one of the greatest quality services still relatively undamaged in Britain), the Light Programme became Radio Two (the home of the terminally middle-aged) and the pirates, having been destroyed by the authoritarianism of the then Postmaster General, Tony Benn, gave way to the vacuous ramblings of Tory Tony Blackburn and Radio One.

Deregulation of the airwaves has been a gradual business (and business it is), starting in the early Seventies and culminating in the effective auction of the airwaves which has flogged off licences to whoever thinks they can make a fast buck out of grabbing listeners’ attention. Most people who still listen to radio are fairly fixed in their dial location (with occasional moves within one format, such from Radio One to Virgin or from Radio Three to Classic FM), but for some (the hard-core addicts) the urge has been to roam into hitherto unknown territories.

All of which is to explain how and why it was that a terrible thing happened to me on the way to the phone-in. There I was twiddling merrily in search of the latest from Harry of Hatfield or some other undiscovered philosopher (for, had he been alive today, Socrates would surely have been a regular caller to any phone-in going) and suddenly this lunatic is screaming at me in a fashion reminiscent of an out-of-work evangelist. Now, many a time I have sat transfixed and mortified before my TV set when travelling in the USA, where Coming To Jesus is a big industry. Listening to this previously undiscovered radio station was no different, just more amateurish and more embarrassing for being on the same dial as Radio Four.

Premier Radio is London’s Christian station and, at least at the time of writing, its awfulness has become compulsive. Its presenters, who mainly recite passages from the bible and play songs about clapping your hands for god, do their best to appeal both to the blue-rinsed ladies of Surrey who believe that wireless went downhill the day they allowed an unmarried mother on the The Archers and the fully-certifiable God Squad whose permanent stupor of gullible belief is know by them as being saved. So, the station balances precariously between phone-ins peppered with dull hymns on which old ladies call into to pray that Jesus will come to shoplifters and bad sorts and occasional touches of raving barminess.

An example of the latter was a twenty-minute talk by a born-again vicar whose justification for the laying on of hands so that “Jesus will come all over the sick and cure them” was in no need of Freud to decipher it.

Quite why Premier Radio should exist when socialists are not even allowed to buy advertising space on the airwaves is one question; another is why anyone can still be satisfied by this unadulterated crap. And then yesterday evening, in self-torturing pursuit of the clues, a mock-sincere voice came on and explained how this station was different, for it was there to appeal to those with nobody in the world to care about them: the lonely, the poor, the distressed and lost. God, they were informed, cares about them—as he will carefully explain once they snuff it. And then, instead of turning to Luke or John, as the presenter urged us to, I took another look at that brilliantly descriptive passage by Marx: “the heart of a heartless world . . . the sigh of the oppressed”. Be it from pulpit or high-tech studio, where there is religion there is misery and where religion meets misery its job is to tell the miserable to wait for hope in the next life. The experiment is over; I have heard the voice of salvation and twiddled the knob on my radio until it went away. Of pseudo-saviours the world has had more than its share; and at least everyone knows that The Archers made it up.
Steve Coleman

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