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Radio silence?

Thursday, March 20, 2014
London Calling

On Sunday morning I was ready to appear on a radio talk show on a government-owned station. I was nervous. I’m not an expert on the show’s topic and I don’t like the sound of my own voice. Who does, except talk show hosts and politicians?


But the producer assured me my voice was half the reason they wanted me to appear. Apparently my English accent exudes intelligence. “Blimey,” I thought to myself. “Little do they know how frequently I’m mocked by my peers for resembling the monotone, nasal drawl of the cartoon character Henry’s Cat.”


I wrote copious notes, got to bed by 9 pm and was up at 6 am. At 8 am, an hour before the show, I was told that a front-page story about government corruption had forced the Ministry of Communications to intervene and instruct the presenter to change the show, cancel the guests and address this political hot potato instead.


The following day, in a taxi going round the Savannah, the driver tuned into Rachel Price’s drive-time show just in time to hear an epic rant in which she named all the presenters on the government-owned radio station and told them that in 2015, when the PNM came into power they would all be out of a job, and the station would return to being the voice of the people. On and on she went, inviting callers or rather “my PNM soldiers” to call in voicing support for the balisier brigade. “Kamla’s cabal,” she said, would be “thrown in jail.”


I was amazed and found myself wondering whether she might be out of a job herself come the morning.


Price is controversial and slightly mad, but you have to admit she’s exciting.


Far more exciting than the drivel served up on Britain’s radio stations these days. Gone are the glory years, the romance, the thrill, the analogue transmitters, replaced by a digital signal but little of value on the airwaves.


The golden age of British radio began in the mid-1960s. Yes, the World Service began in 1932, broadcasting to far-flung corners of the British Empire and it’s still a fantastic global service listened to by many friends here in Trinidad. But in 1964, Radio Caroline became the first pirate radio station, ie illegal station, on air. And it shook up the system.


Anchored in the North Sea (in an attempt to avoid detection and taxation by HM Customs and Excise), the station began spinning alternative music and quickly built up an audience of millions. This forced the BBC and competitors to become more relevant to the youth of the day.


In 1967 the BBC launched Radio 1 and 2, both of which have enjoyed decades of success playing popular music alongside the more cultured Radio 3 (classical music) and Radio 4 (news, current affairs and culture.)


But radio is now irrelevant, once again, to today’s youth. Pirate radio is a thing of the past and that is a tragedy. Through the 1990s you could scan the dial in places like North London, where I grew up, and on countless frequencies you’d hear drum’n’bass, house and garage music blaring out. Quite often the signal would override legitimate tax-paying stations, but that didn’t stop Kool FM 94.5 or Mission FM 90.6.


They placed their base transmitters on the top of tower blocks where police struggled to trace them and the soundtrack to every summer was souped-up cars with windows rolled down pumping out that year’s dance anthems. Heady days indeed.


Then the analogue shutdown happened and radio went digital, making pirate radio impossible. A slice of subculture (the launchpad for many DJs, producers and MCs glittering careers) was confined to the history books.


Radio was crucial for me growing up. Just like Freddie Mercury, it was “my only friend through teenage nights”—the first place I heard the bands (Nirvana, Oasis, Suede and Blur) who shaped my adolescence. TV was banned in our house, so homework was done to the sound of John Peel’s soothing voice.


Even as a child I would take my wireless to bed and listen to Capital Gold, an oldies station playing 50s rock’n’roll and doo-wop.


During Arsenal’s 1988/89 title-winning campaign I listened to every game at 3 o’clock on Saturdays. In summer term, walking to the bus stop after school, I’d tune my walkman to Test Match Special to hear Atherton get a century.


Radio 4 longwave will soon cease to exist. The glass valves which transmit at 198 khz are no longer manufactured. Sometimes I wonder if radio as a medium will be phased out. 


At least in T&T, although a lot of hot air is spouted in the name of entertainment, radio remains a part of daily lives and routines. It’s diverse and vibrant. From soca to politics to comedy and phone-ins, the volume remains high, the dial keeps flashing. It connects older generations to the youth, musicians to their fans and taxi drivers to their sanity. 


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