24 hours in radio

A radio
A radio

Radio is just about the best thing in the world. It’s free, it’s made brilliantly well on the cheap by people who love it, it’s the original social medium (we were doing phone-ins, requests and community events before the web existed), you can do it while cooking or running or commuting, and – even though some stations and presenters boast listeners in their millions – it’s still the most intimate and immediate medium of all.

With the advent of on-demand listening and the explosion in ways to get hold of audio content radio has more competition than ever, but it’s still doing what it does better than anyone else does it, and it is still uniquely placed to deliver an experience that your Spotifys and Last.fms can’t get anywhere near – a personally-curated listening experience hosted by a trusted, human, person; the opportunity to be introduced to music you might never have heard about otherwise, to become an active part of a community both virtual and real, to have a friendly voice accompanying you as you drive through the night or fight insomnia. Radio is just about the best thing in the world.

So in case you are not a radio listener, or in case you are one of those radio listeners who sticks devotedly to the same station at all times, I have put together a listening guide for a day’s worth of radio featuring some of my favourite programmes, as well as some ways to get more from radio than you do today. Even if you just try one of these shows, I think you’ll be glad you did.


I have listened to just about every London-based FM station first thing in the morning over the years; starting in the eighties with Capital, then moving on to KISS, XFM, Magic and Virgin Radio (now Absolute) before eventually settling down to Radio 4’s Today programme, which I endured for several years before deciding I didn’t need to be made that angry that early in the day. So these days, to keep my blood pressure down, I start the day with Chris Evans’ Radio 2 breakfast show (6.30-9.30am), which has enough news and sport to keep me interested, but is also funny and chatty and has songs. It’s the biggest breakfast show in the country, and in this case nine million people aren’t wrong.

Late morning

This is the one I’m most excited about sharing with you, because unless you are a cab driver you may never have spent much time listening to LBC, but James O’Brien (10am-1pm) is just simply the best broadcaster I have ever heard – thoughtful, interested, not afraid of silence or of awkward moments. He starts each show with a fifteen-minute monologue on the subject of the day, and listening to him talk on, seemingly unscripted, never gets old (he would, I am sure, do very well on Just A Minute). Then he goes on to host the only phone-in show I know in which people’s opinions are genuinely changed as the conversation develops. He is the very opposite of a shock jock, and he should be on twenty-four hours a day.


I know we haven’t had much music yet but bear with me, because for your grown-up Radio 4 shot of news World At One (1-1.45pm) is a far better and less hysterical bet than the Today programme.


Absolute, Virgin as was, competes with Magic as the station whose musical tastes most closely match my own, but Absolute is (it pains me to say) a little bit cooler, and Andy Bush (1pm-5pm) is a good and funny presenter. They promise no song repeats between 10am and 5pm, so you can while away the afternoon knowing you won’t be subjected to the same Taylor Swift song once an hour.


…but if Magic is more your bag, then the time to listen is 5pm to 8pm when Angie Greaves, one of the UKs only standalone woman presenters (we are mostly on the radio as sidekicks, sadly), presents a mixture of music and features through which her warm personality shimmers at all times.


We haven’t had any classical music yet, and if you’d like to add some to the mix then switch over to Radio 3 in the evenings for Live In Concert (times vary), which this week features live performances of works by Shostakovitch, Stravinsky, Britten, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and Dvorak, among others.

Late nights

I’m going to offer you a choice here, depending on your mood. On XFM John Kennedy’s Exposure (10am-1pm) is the station’s showcase for new music and the closest it gets to the XFM of old. Over on Planet Rock, though, the mighty Alice Cooper hosts three hours of rock classics interspersed with interviews and anecdotes. I’m not always a fan of celebrity radio presenters, but Alice is an inspired choice.


Should you be awake between 1am and breakfast time, the World Service is the place to be. The calm, unfrantic style of presentation – which I assume arises from the fact that many listeners don’t have English as a first language – is very soothing, and the station’s remit allows it to cover stories which you simply wouldn’t get anywhere else.

Honourable mentions

These are the shows which don’t fit into my prescribed day of radio listening, but which you should listen to anyway.

KISSTORY (11am-12pm) is KISS’s old-school hour. There’s nothing like hearing the dancefloor classics of your youth to liven up a dull morning.

The Archers (R4, 1pm and 7pm). You may be able to get into it: I still haven’t managed it, but I continue to try, because the people I know who love it love it SO MUCH. I have learned the names of at least four characters, so perhaps I’m getting there.

Radio 4’s comedy slot at 6.30pm is very much a mixed bag, but if you haven’t ever listened to Just A Minute or I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue then you must certainly remedy that very quickly.

Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review on 5Live (times vary) is a once-a week affair, and I’m never sure when it’s on, but that’s OK because instead of listening live I download the podcast, which has extra bits, and listen to it later in the week.

And, brilliantly, now more than ever you can listen at a different time from when something is broadcast, so you never need miss anything, and you can download podcasts and listen to them offline, and you can listen online or via mobile apps so that you no longer need to be in Glasgow to listen to Clyde 1 or in Manchester to listen to Key 103, or even in the US to listen to NPR: my favourite podcast, other than Kermode and Mayo, is Click and Clack’s Car Talk, which – being a US phone-in show about cars – doesn’t on paper sound like something I should enjoy, but actually I really, really do.

You can also listen online via aggregator services like TuneIn – which is a bit of a confusing mess, but gives you access to thousands of radio stations from all over the world – and UK Radioplayer – which works beautifully and gives you access to all UK radio stations from one place, so it’s the perfect starting point for your day of radio discovery. Now, get listening.

Bath rant

John Cleese in Clockwise
There is almost no situation in which this picture isn’t appropriate

I had a bath this morning, which is very unusual on a weekday but I was cold and aching from running in the rain a couple of evenings before, and – well, frankly, I wasn’t ready to be vertical.

Having a bath meant I listened to the Today programme, which most mornings I don’t any more, and listening to the Today programme reminded me why I don’t any more. I can’t have listened for more than 15 minutes but in that time it made me feel quite separately cross about three things, and I came out of the bath less relaxed than I’d gone in, which is all wrong. So to make me feel better, I’m going to make you cross about them too.

NUMBER ONE. John Humphrys exclaiming that nobody in authority had shouldered the blame for the child sex abuse gang uncovered in Rotherham last year. Nobody, that is, apart from the PERPETRATORS WHO WENT TO JAIL. I can’t bear the journalistic tendency to assume that when vulnerable people are harmed, it’s social services’ fault, as though the social care system isn’t full of desperately overworked and underfunded people trying as hard as they possibly can to stop people from coming to harm. Do the job yourself, Humphrys, and live on a social worker’s salary for a year, then start blaming them for organised criminal activity.

NUMBER TWO. David Cameron, on Letterman last night, was asked what “Magna Carta” meant, and apparently didn’t know the answer. Now, I didn’t know the answer either, but I know what Magna Carta is, and I speak English which means I can understand some Latin, so I was able to work it out. If I can do it, bloody David Cameron should be able to. I knew he was stupid, but I didn’t think he was stupid.

NUMBER THREE. A piece on Jamie Oliver’s new 15-minute dinners book, in which the nonsense argument was made for the sake of controversy where none existed (this technique will be  familiar to regular listeners) that the target audience for the book was owners of Jamie’s earlier 30-minute dinners book, and good grief, were we really so desperate for time that we needed to claw back another fifteen minutes in the evening, and what was wrong with spending an extra quarter of an hour doing something useful and enjoyable like cooking? Somebody (I have no idea who was being interviewed about it, except that none of them was Jamie Oliver) tried to make the OBVIOUS POINT that the book is aimed at people who don’t cook at all, and not at people who already enjoy cooking, but this was shouted down in the general frenzy.

I think tomorrow I shall return to comforting silence.


Sofa so good

I have been trying not to write about the Olympics, because I haven’t got anything to say that someone else hasn’t already said better, and because I am too busy watching to think about writing anything anyway. But having spent the last two evenings at live events (table tennis on Tuesday, football on Wednesday), I have realised that – whisper it – the Olympics are kind of better on TV. Of course, being there is super-exciting, and you get to be a part of the crowd and talk to people you’d never have talked to otherwise, and if you’re lucky get within sniffing distance of a superhuman. But you also get to spend a lot of time standing around, or queueing, or spending a lot of money on not-very-nice food, and I realised as I stood penned-in by police horses outside Wembley Stadium last night that I could have been spending all that time watching the fricking Olympics. It’s bad enough that I have to go to stupid work and be in stupid meetings while people are winning medals, but it’s worse when I’ve paid £80 to stand in a queue and miss out on it all.

So I have come to the conclusion that the best way to enjoy the games is by mostly watching them on TV, and just sticking your nose briefly into the action itself. After all, a single ticket to most of the sessions costs just about what the license fee does for a whole year, and with literally every event available via the BBC you will get more sport for your sterling by sitting at home, where the food is cheaper and the toilet queues much shorter, than by buying expensive seats which allow you to sit quite a long way away from everything that’s actually happening.

This is all good news. The Olympics are designed to be watched in person by tens of thousands of people, and on TV by actual billions. In this case, you lose nothing by being one of the ninety nine per cent. So use your Mastercard to buy a Pepsi, settle down in front of your Sony TV and enjoy the freedom and the luxury of watching from the best seat in the house.

Man interviewing fan in comedy glasses
Half-time entertainment at the table tennis. It doesn’t have to be this way.

(All of which said, please note that I will happily accept gifts of free tickets to anything you like.)



I like QI. I like Stephen Fry, and I like Alan Davies – or at least, I like the version of Alan Davies that appears in QI – and I like the format. I like most of the guests, with honourable exceptions for Jeremy Clarkson and Rory McGrath. I especially like Rich Hall. And I like it when they get slightly unexpected people in for a one-off. After all, the only qualifications for being on QI are that you are (a) fairly well-known and (b) not stupid. Right?

Well, sort of. The problem is that using those criteria you might expect to end up with a roughly equal gender split, and QI has never had that. I have just, because I am a serious and dedicated blogger, had a look at the complete guest list for every episode ever of QI, and I have discovered, to my disappointment but not to my surprise, that there has only ever been one episode broadcast which featured more than one female guest, and that that episode was one in series D whose subject matter was “Domesticity”. Ahem.

I know all the arguments about why there are more male than female comics. I even agree with some of them, like the one about the level of competitive blokery prevalent on the club circuit, which is where most comics start from. But QI isn’t limited to comedians. It has featured DJs:

danny baker


Howard Goodall


Gyles Brandreth

and writers:

Mark Gatiss

…as well as countless actors and presenters. You could describe these people as wits, but they’re not comedians. And there are plenty of bright, witty women around. Some of them are even comedians. I’m pleased to see Sandi Toksvig and Sue Perkins cropping up more frequently in recent series, and I would happily watch Jo Brand every week, but if Daniel Radcliffe can be invited on, where are Josie Long, Victoria Coren, Mariella Frostrup, Shappi Khorsandi, Miranda Hart, Sally Phillips, Lucy Porter, Sarah Millican, Julia Davis and Tamsin Greig? Where, for that matter (if you’re going to have John Sessions and Rory Bremner), are Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Joanna Lumley, Victoria Wood, Alison Steadman, Caroline Quentin and Patricia Routledge?

I can only assume that they’re scared that an all-female panel, or even a mostly-female panel, will be cleverer and funnier than the men-only shows. I have a sneaking suspicion that they’re right.

A question of terminology

The Today programme’s top news item this morning was the non-story that antenatal diagnoses of Down’s Syndrome are on the rise, partly because women are having babies later in life and partly because screening methods have improved over the last twenty years.

None of this seems very surprising, and I wasn’t sure why it was given top billing, unless the editors at Today are part of that humorous crowd who think that women are putting off parenthood because we’re selfish and (even worse) feminists, rather than because we think it’s important to have (a) careers which we can go back to now that one income cannot support a family and (b) relationships which are likely to last, our parents’ generation having been the first to see divorce as an acceptable alternative to unhappiness, and we as a result having seen more than our fair share of acromonious break-ups – and experienced at first-hand the effect they have on children. Or perhaps the Daily Mail would rather we get pregnant at the earliest opportunity and stay at home claiming benefits while we bring up our children single-handedly.

Sorry, where was I? Oh yes, Down’s Syndrome. It’s a sensitive subject because people’s responses to the idea of bringing up a child with Down’s vary wildly, and because it’s hard to know what one’s own response is likely to be until it happens. It’s probable, though, that there were people listening this morning who are wondering whether to have the test, or, having had it and received a Down’s diagnosis, are thinking about whether to continue with their pregnancy. That being the case, you would expect the programme to treat the subject with care.

In the segment I heard, John Humphrys interviewed Joan Morris, one of the researchers who had provided the latest statistics, and Jane Fisher of Antenatal Results and Choices (ARC), and I was struck by his repeated use of the word “abortion”, when both women used the less emotive alternative, “termination”. The two words have the same literal meaning, but “abortion” has developed a second metaphorical meaning of something ugly or awful, and in my mind it’s ready to be discontinued in its sense of ending a pregnancy. But a bit of googling reveals that that opinion is by no means universal, and I realise that just because a word has taken on a certain weight for me, it doesn’t mean it holds the same associations for other people.

There’s no guidance in the BBC’s style guide on the use of the word “abortion”; nor is there in the Guardian’s (my preferred source of arbitration, because it seems to have been written by real people who have spent time thinking about it). So I wonder: is my response to the word an unusual one, or is it genuinely dropping out of use? Is there a turning point at which we can say “this word is  no longer considered appropriate”? And how can that measurement be taken? It’s all interesting stuff, and I think I’ll take a bit of time to find out more about words which have fallen out of currency, and whether it’s possible to reconstruct the process by which it happens.

But back to this morning’s show, into which Humphreys still managed to inject a bit of his customary heavy-handedness. Joan Morris had explained that although the percentage of parents who choose to terminate a Down’s pregnancy has remained stable, the number of terminations has increased in line with the higher number of diagnoses.  Jane Fisher added that this was not new information, since we already know that more pregnancies are resulting in Down’s diagnoses, and that a certain proportion of those end in terminations. At this point Humphrys jumped in with “does that imply that you think too many women are having abortions?”, which apart from bearing no relationship to what either woman had said, was an extraordinarily crass attempt at creating controversy where there wasn’t any.

I always feel a little as though I’m watching Chris Morris starting a war between Australia and Hong Kong when I listen to John Humphrys on Today. It irritates me when I can’t hear what guests are saying because he’s drowning them out by arguing every point, however insignificant. But irritating your listeners is one thing. Attempting to scare up a controversy over a subject that is already difficult, and about which many listeners will have strong personal feelings, is pointless and unforgivable. I wish they’d retire him from the radio and leave him to present Mastermind, where I think he does an admirable job (unlike Paxman, whose feigned astonishment whenever a University Challenge team fails to answer a question he thinks they should know grows more wearisome every week).

Hamlet, and journalistic laziness

The BBC has the news that David Tennant held aloft a real human skull in the graveyard scene during his stint as a beanie-hatted Prince of Denmark in the recent RSC production of Hamlet.

Which is fine, and rather a nice story when you read the detail.  But what brought me up short as I read it was this line:

…it was not revealed that Tennant used a real skull in the play’s most famous scene.

Really?  Its most famous scene?  It’s an important scene, and key to the story, but I can’t think of a good argument for its being better known than the “To be or not to be” soliloquy.  I can only conclude that whoever wrote the piece has either forgotten about the soliloquy (and can’t know much about the play) or thinks that it’s delivered during the graveyard scene (and can’t know much about the play).

I don’t ask that BBC journalists know Shakespeare by heart, but it would have taken all of two minutes to do the necessary research.  It’s lazy efforts like this which are the reason I’d rather read an article by a thoughtful and well-informed blogger than one by a rushed and hard-of-thinking pro.  Those of us who don’t do it for a living have the time to say exactly what we mean, on precisely the subjects in which we have an interest.  And sometimes it shows in the quality of what’s produced.

Poo update #2

Enlightenment! It’s the fault of foreigners, naturally.

Edited so I don’t have to link to the Daily Mail, since the BBC now has the story too:

A foul smell hanging over southern England is being blamed on easterly winds bringing either farming or industrial smells across the Channel.

Labelled “Euro-whiff” by the Met Office, the source of the smell – alternately described as sulphur and manure – is under investigation.

Take another look at that:

Labelled “Euro-whiff” by the Met Office

The Met Office is the UK’s national weather service, responsible for processing and interpreting reams of information gathered from satellites and weather stations in order to warn us when we’re about to be flooded, or burned, or blown away. They even issue the Shipping Forecast, for heaven’s sake – these are serious people, people! So I am underwhelmed that their initial response is to call it a “Euro-whiff”. It doesn’t seem an appropriately businesslike reaction.