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On the soothing power of radio

This column first appeared in the Western Mail in March 2021

A few weeks ago, we set off on “yet another bloody walk” (TM – me), forgot to stop walking and ended up at Lavernock Point in the Vale of Glamorgan, looking out to the island of Flatholm. Spotting a stone tower and a plaque on the coastal path, I wondered about the location’s historical significance. Half interested and half desperate for any excuse for an extended sit-down, I whipped out my phone and got lost in a Googlehole.

It turns out that on 13th May 1897, Wales became part of telecommunications history when an Italian visionary called Guglielmo Marconi successfully transmitted a radio signal across the open sea for the first time. Marconi, aged only 22 at the time, chose Lavernock Point as the location for his big experiment, on the advice of a Cardiff-based Post Office engineer called George Kemp. 

I imagine Marconi wondered why he’d bothered listening to this Kemp chancer. After several days of tramping across clifftop fields and hauling equipment, Marconi, Kemp and a random nephew enlisted to help had erected two 100ft masts – one on the shoreline and one three miles away on Flatholm. But at first, the experiment failed, and the fate of Marconi’s carefully designed new system trembled in the balance. Yet, he persevered, confirming my long-held suspicion that chicken wire and blind determination can rescue almost any DIY project. Kemp’s diary records what happened next:

“An inspiration saved it. On the 13th May, the apparatus was carried down to the beach at the foot of the cliff, and connected by another 20 yards of wire to the pole above, thus making an aerial height of 50 yards in all. Result – the instruments which for two days failed to record anything intelligible, now rang out the signals clear and unmistakable, and all by the addition of a few yards of wire!”

It was a very early example of a hashtag-life-hack. 

And what were the first fateful words transmitted by Marconi’s new-fangled radio technology? 

Using Morse code, he carefully tapped out the immortal line “CAN YOU HEAR ME”, presumably not arsed with the question mark after all his exertions. He shortly received a reply from Kemp: “YES LOUD AND CLEAR”. In many ways, this exchange set the script for millions of Zoom and Teams calls to come, over a century later. The only thing missing was an all-caps “YOU’RE ON MUTE”, but I imagine by this point Marconi was tired of faffing around and just wanted to get back to his hotel for a well-deserved pint.

I became slightly obsessed with the tale of this young Italian inventor who rocked up in Wales on the whim of a colleague, determined to prove his radio technology was more than just the cheese dream of a deluded heretic.

There are so many reasons to be thankful to the ghost of Marconi. Without his endeavours, there would be no Popmaster, no Desert Island Discs, and no Craig Charles Funk and Soul show. And god knows life would feel poorer without them. 

Since I was a teenager, when I’d snuggle under the duvet with Mark and Lard’s late-night Radio 1 show on my Walkman, I’ve cherished the connection that radio provides to the outside world. I’ve marvelled at how it can create new worlds, too – introducing new music, new narratives and new ways of thinking. I’m not alone in this conviction; radio and podcast listening has soared as we’ve turned to audio to provide an existential balm during these strange times. 

During the past year, radio has cemented its position as my go-to medium of choice. Sure, I’ve watched a lot of Netflix, but for most of those long lockdown hours, radio has been the soundtrack. There’s something magical about the intimacy and human connection of radio that simply can’t be replicated by big-budget telly. 

Whether you’re a Melvyn Bragg’s ‘In Our Time’ fan or more of a pirate radio enthusiast, it’s a medium that has held its own admirably, despite (or perhaps because of) its limitations. I never stop being impressed at the magical way good broadcasters can make you feel as if they’re talking to you and you alone, even as they’re being beamed into millions of ears worldwide. 

I’ve become convinced that Lauren Laverne (who presents the BBC 6 Music breakfast show and Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs) deserves the highest honour we can bestow upon her for her services to the nation’s mood this past year. Her shows have felt like a soul-soothing medicine and carried me through those early, terrifying days when nobody had a clue what was happening. 

I’ve also discovered the novelty of using the radio as a passport to other places while stuck at home. I can heartily recommend the ‘Drive & Listen’ app, which allows you to take a virtual drive around 38 cities, taking in the street sights and sounds while tuned into local radio stations. It’s as addictive as it sounds. I’ve spent many an hour wistfully watching the streets of NYC and Paris through my computer screen, pretending I’m a cab driver while enjoying the patter of local DJs. Hey, it’s been a long old year. Don’t judge. 

More recently, I stumbled across the joy of ‘Radio Garden’, a digital tool that allows you to surf 30,000 of the world’s most popular radio stations. With the power to spirit you away from a dreary Monday afternoon in (*insert home location*) to a global destination of your choice, it’s the ultimate in lockdown liberation. 

The app’s founders say they want users to channel the spirit of the French situationists, who cherished the idea of le dérive – a kind of unplanned journey in which the aim was to get hopelessly, gloriously, lost. 

It is in this spirit that I discovered my new favourite radio station while spinning a pixelated globe looking for little glowing dots that denote an available station. It’s called Arctic Outpost, and operates from a little portacabin in Svalbard, where a man named Cal Lockwood plays jaunty jazz, swing and big band records around the clock. 

The crackle and hiss as he lowers the needle onto his records is a genuinely mesmeric sound. Listening to Arctic Outpost is like a hug from your nan in a box, transporting you to simpler times when the word Corona meant nothing more than refillable fizzy pop. Brought to you from somewhere in the middle of nowhere, by the magic of the internet. 

I like to think that 124 years on from his clifftop escapades in the Vale, Guglielmo Marconi is looking down, feeling all smug. “I told you it was worth packing the extra wire” he smiles at Kemp, as they raise a Peroni to the legacy they left for us all to enjoy, and escape into.

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