Wearing my (radio) love like heaven

A slight re-edit here of something I first wrote in 2003, long before any dreams of becoming a Media lecturer had even crossed my mind. It’s a snapshot of a particular time in the digital radio space – BBC7 was precisely one year old when I typed this out. I suppose it gives an interesting context to the Beeb’s (justifiable IMHO) decision to move BBC Radio Four Extra online – that’s much less a niche platform than DAB was in those days.

I’ve focused on comedy here, but BBC7’s efforts to nudge a child audience into speech radio deserves a very honourable mention. I heard one of the producers of the Big Toe Radio Show and Little Toe Radio Show speak at our Cyfrwng media conference in about 2010. Her passion and belief that kids deserved meaningful radio lit up the room like a beacon. Pity there weren’t more like her. Anyway, it was nineteen and a bit years ago today when…

One of the current poster adverts for the BBC’s new radio stations reads “Make time for BBC digital radio. Fall ill.” That’s delightfully ambiguous as slogans go, isn’t it, but there’s more truth in that than even the BBC might realise.

Laid up in bed in the aftermath of having my appendix removed at the age of eleven, with no television and advice against lifting a book, I discovered radio, and started consuming it in vast quantities. I discovered the wit (and record collection) of Martin Kelner on Radio 2, making me aware of Cat Stevens’ back catalogue at a frighteningly young age. I discovered the hidden recesses of Radio Cymru, with Gareth Glyn opening new musical doors before my very ears.

More than anything else though, I discovered radio comedy. A particularly good time to do so, with imperial-phase Radio Active and Son of Cliche both being broadcast, and I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue as funny as it’s ever been, but curiously without the audience whooping and hollering at every single joke regardless of the level of humour.

A love of radio comedy has stayed with me ever since. So when the BBC announced that their ‘Network Z’ for digital radio would be devoted, amongst other things, to archive comedy and drama, my excitement was tempered with more than a little trepidation. Would they take the easy option and just broadcast wall-to-wall Dead Ringers and Goon Shows, or would they make an effort to trawl the BBC archives for the neglected, half-remembered and ultimately more interesting programming?

As it turns out, BBC7, having thankfully jettisoned its rubbish working title of BBC 4Word, chose the road less travelled by, and for me, that really has made all the difference. In the year (to the day) since its launch, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing my List Of Programmes I Wish They’d Repeat being slowly whittled down, through BBC7’s offerings of old Burkiss Ways, Radio Actives (by the truckload), Mary Whitehouses, On the Hours and even Lionel Nimrods. Only one programme remains still on my wish-list, in fact, and I guess I shouldn’t exactly hold my breath for a re-run of Elastic Planet.

And to my surprise, and relief in retrospect, it’s become my default radio station. John Shuttleworth was my companion during an arduous dissertation write-up earlier in the year, and Sean Lock has rather incongrously helped me put many a church magazine to bed. It remains my best excuse for buying a digital radio – even though (bizarrely, and through no direct fault of BBC7 themselves) the highest quality way of listening to it is through a television.

I love BBC7 to bits, and with it reaching nearly 300,000 people a week, I know I’m not the only one. I live in hope that it’ll flourish as digital radios become mainstream. The only possible cloud on the horizon is the BBC’s track record of completely ruining things that were liked by a significant minority (invariably including me). The first incarnation of BBC Choice beat BBC Three into a cocked hat, and I haven’t come across a radio station to which I could happily listen from morning till night since the original Radio Five closed down. BBC7 doesn’t count on the latter score, by the way – I can’t pick it up when I’m driving.

But all that aside, happy birthday BBC7. It’s far surpassed my expectations of it being nothing more than Dead Ringers 24, it’s opened my ears to half-forgotten and never-remembered comedy, and its message board shows that like no other radio station, it listens to its listeners.

Maybe I should email them about Elastic Planet after all.

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