How many digital radios have you bought over the years? How many are still working? Of the four I used to have, only two are now working and those only in certain parts of the house. I wonder, if a nationwide audit were conducted, how many DAB sets would be found that are still up and running and in daily use? It’s far easier for me to take a laptop into the kitchen and listen online than to struggle to hear through the wheezes and pops emitted by the DAB radio. Why the signal never seems to improve, even in crowded urban areas, is a puzzle. Meanwhile the amount of audio content you can tune into online is booming, either created as single podcasts or streamed by thousands of new radio stations, such as Radio SouriaLi, set up by Syrian émigrés and currently broadcasting to the Middle East and online, as yet only in Arabic, a soap about refugee life modelled on The Archers.
Radio 4 Extra’s recent link-up with America’s equivalent of the BBC — National Public Radio or NPR — took a podcast sensation, Serial, and gave it a nationwide airing on the BBC’s digital network. Now it’s also bought into another NPR podcast, Ted Radio Hour, a weekly survey of the latest Ted talks. Ted (technology, education and design) has been around since 1984 when the first Ted conference was held, bringing together from across the world people with ideas and attitude. The talks are recorded and stored online for easy download afterwards and for evermore. Each talk lasts strictly no more than 18 minutes, the brevity ensuring a certain way with words, a focus, a kind of delivery that’s shaped and determined by its short span. They’re pithy, to the point, often punctuated by personal narratives; creating a kind of campfire philosophy.
On Sunday night Guy Raz brought together edited highlights from a number of talks on the subject of love and relationships, or rather the mystery of why and how they work, or don’t. It was a welcome respite from the overwhelming news of last week to hear Angela Patton talking with such healthy enthusiasm from Richmond, Virginia, about her work with Camp Diva. She set up this non-profit organisation to encourage teenage girls of Afro–American descent to reconnect with their often semi-absent dads. Each year she helps the girls to organise a full-scale Prom to which the dads are invited. One year, though, one of her girls admitted that the reason her dad could not come was that he was in jail. Undeterred, Patton took the Prom to the jail, complete with balloons, a red carpet, a podium and DJ. ‘Even the guards cried,’ Patton told her audience, to see the inmates dancing with their daughters.
No escape from violence in Radio 4’s current drama, The Last Days of Troy, adapted by Simon Armitage from The Iliad. I listened rather reluctantly on Sunday afternoon, not needing to hear Homer’s epic when the news provides us with such constant reminders of the randomness of fate. But I was soon drawn in by the blunt and powerful language and the dramatic power of Armitage’s scene-setting. No words wasted, yet everything so vivid. ‘We will ride the wave of fate,’ says Agamemnon, determined to launch his attack on the Trojans to retrieve the beautiful but flawed Helen (played rather self-consciously by Lily Cole, her voice not yet settled into being behind a microphone). When Menelaus begins his fight with Paris, we know how terrified Paris is because we hear that his eyes were ‘popping out like two white eggs’. The interplay between humans and gods was so tellingly done that it became entirely believable, the rivalry between the gods as petty and disastrous as that played out by the Greeks and Trojans. Colin Tierney and Gillian Bevan excelled as Odysseus and Hera.
The great Mark Tully was back on air early on Sunday morning for an edition of Something Understood devoted to BKS Iyengar, credited with introducing yoga to the UK. Tully knew Iyengar and gave us a portrait not just of the man but of his influence and of the yoga he taught. The use of music to enhance what’s being said is always so carefully done on this series — a rare skill in these days of booming background sound. But this week was given added impact as we heard the violinist Yehudi Menuhin as he played alongside Ravi Shankar in ‘Prabhati’; an extraordinary blend of East and West. Then we were given a section from Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 12 because in the pages of his diary the composer quoted words from the The Bhagavad Gita. He was apparently much influenced by Indian thought and the passage he quotes explains the meaning of yoga: ‘Abandon all thought of the consequence, and make the event equal, whether it terminate in good or evil; for such an equality is called yoga.’ As Ian McMillan enthused on Pick of the Week, you can always learn something from the radio, and might even ‘encounter illumination’.
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