A few months a list written by an American visitor to England, detailing everything he found charming and/ or mysterious about his trip, went viral online. This week, when I stumbled on it again, it had the unexpected effect of causing me to think back to how I have enjoyed 30 years of Atlantic 252, John Peel, John Kelly, Radio Five, Gerry Anderson and, more recently, William Crawley as a near-constant background to everyday life.
Why? Because one entry about the visit to England really stood out: “Radio is still a big deal”.
It made me wonder if our own love of radio in Northern Ireland – for it is as present in many of our lives as books and movies – could ever be spoken of in the past tense in the same way the American visitor implied about his own habits back home. Of course, Slugger’s own Brian Walker and others would be better qualified to comment on how time, quality, resources and the government approach to the BBC have changed or will be likely to change our radio habits locally for the worst.
In the meantime, have we lost sight of how fortunate we are to have quality radio on tap, what we would lose without it and, to skim past a another separate debate, what we might put at stake when we talk about abolishing the licence fee?
With thanks to the Atlantic 252 and John Peel of my youth along the way (the importance of the latter locally is still marked by a mural in Commercial Court), my first love of outstanding local radio came thanks to John Kelly during his Radio Ulster days. I would have been about 16 at the time when his rule-breaking antics – such as wandering out of the studio leaving dead-air behind and one-sided conversations with colleages – marked out something special about the medium. And thats not to mention his string of local in-jokes and callers as eccentric as his choice in music. As it happens, John’s exceptional first book The Little Hammer, a beautifully-written fiction, is a go-to and even an inspirational novel – in terms of his use of our local language – I’ve picked up roughly every year since it landed on my doorstep.
Falling asleep to the Shipping Forecast aside (let’s face it, if you manage to stay awake through the whole broadcast, sleep won’t be arriving any time soon), the ultimate special mention must go to the late Gerry Anderson. As we’ve recently discovered with Top Gear, you can’t put a price on banter and chemistry. And there were more than touches of the world-class Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo movie review show (Radio Five) in the sparks between Gerry and Sean Coyle. If it is now being suggested that hands-free phone conversations in a car are too dangerous, we can be thankful that a ban on Gerry’s show wasn’t suggested in time to prevent people driving and working machinery despite roars and tears of laughter.
Oh, and for radio fans and/ or fans of the Shipping Forecast, the Black Books episode The Big Lock-Out is very adult tribute. It is definitely ‘NSFW’ and is one to watch at your own discretion.
Another rule-breaker, Gerry’s curmudgeonly on-air manner hid a knack for drawing an even more wonderfully deranged group of local characters into his circle. It will probably never be bettered. That’s not to mention his set-pieces featuring the likes of Seamus Heaney, ‘Daniel’, Nadine Coyle and his staged spats with Sean, provider of a string of superb impressions, along the way. As it happens, a keen listener might have noticed that Sean seemed to do a good job of tempering Gerry’s freewheeling rants away from the deepest waters as well as provide a means for Gerry to push a two-way improvised set of impressions as far as they could go.
Gerry’s uncompromising memoir from his showband days, some of which he later jokingly described by saying “I wasn’t lying, it just isn’t true”, was published in 2008. A few podcasts, including a brilliant sketch featuring Seamus Heaney watching daytime TV and the Queen speaking Irish, are (thank you, Radio Ulster) still on the Radio Ulster website. Animations of some of the best calls to his show were broadcast by BBC NI and can be found in full YouTube listed under ‘On The Air’. You probably shouldn’t watch the chicken hypnosis episode anywhere your bursts of laughing wouldn’t be welcome.
A thanks, finally, to the local broadcaster who has locally, for me, continued the work of John and Gerry in terms of quality: William Crawley. Using a whisper rather than a shout, and brain rather than brawn, William’s skilled and balanced method of steering a conversation along reminds a little of Louis Theroux and manages to take us on a genuinely illuminating tour around a subject. Avoiding the prevailing habit of interviews which contain little information in favour of entertainment value, and phone-in coverage which derails to the easiest emotional detour and clickbait-esque headline at the first opportunity, a firm but crucially fair approach is used throughout.
My apologies, of course, for not including any current Dublin stations. They simply aren’t in my listening habit enough to include in a personal list.
A total of 30 years of great insight, conversation, comedy and local characters can easily, for me, underline the value of the quality radio we have permanently to hand.
How many of us can also take thankful stock of a lifetime of great local radio and, most of all, be very very glad that it is still a “big deal” here.
Conor Johnston – @CJohnstonNI – writes about subjects including culture (especially film/ cinemas), identity and media. He also blogs at www.freerangewords.net