Review of 2013: Radio

20 December 2013

EVEN if you hadn't already guessed it, the following confession should not come as a great surprise.

Your devoted reviewer does not, at the start of the year, meticulously plan his listening so as to gain an appropriate balance of genre and wavelength. There's no formula to calculate the correct proportion of religion to comedy, documentary to music. One episode of Belief is worth three Friday-night comedies; one Analysis equal to 500 hours of Wagner.

So, a look back over the year presents a picture of what took my fancy, what clamoured for attention in the schedules.

And what surprises me about the review this year is how little religious broadcasting figures in such a survey. Perhaps this can be taken as a comment on the way in which religion has made it back into mainstream public discourse. But it was disappointing to see, for example, Faith in the World Week, Radio 2's annual autumn season, so compromised by the apparent need to engage in wider social issues rather than core values and belief systems.

Instead - and if there is a connecting strand in my listening habits this year - the programmes that lured me, and in some cases forced me, to listen were ones that engaged with the important business of listening itself. It may not be a coincidence that in an age when visual stimuli are ever more distracting and absorbing, the art of sound has become invested with greater creative ambition.

There is no better example of this than Radio 3's Between the Ears strand, which celebrated 20 years of innovative programming this year. And looking back over the year, I could include at least four episodes in my highlights; though special mention should be reserved for Shadowplay (R3, October) a radio "symphony in four movements" in which quirky narratives were played out against a backdrop of carefully structured noise and utterance.

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That sound and silence have an architecture was one of the threads in Noise: A Human History (R4, March) in which Professor David Hendry took us from the caves of Southern France to the modern era.

And the deceptions our ears play upon us were the focus of the hugely entertaining Out of the Ordinary (Radio 4, April), in which we were invited to experience in the "white noise" of radio static the aural hallucination of Winston Churchill speaking lines from "Land of Hope and Glory". A sublime radio revelation.

The psychology of sound, and especially of music, is another area where radio can triumph over other media. The Science of Music (R4, May), The People's Songs (Radio 2, throughout the year), and The Sound of Cinema (across the BBC, October) all dealt in different ways with how sound can move us; and Stuart Maconie's long-running series for Radio 2 is of particular value for the social history by which these sounds are mediated.

And, of course, sounds can move us to indignation, shame, and pity - all emotions that I experienced listening to the Cardinal Archbishop of Durban in a Radio 5 Live interview last March. For sheer toe-curling embarrassment - the sound of a senior cleric digging his own grave on the paedophile-priest issue - this was my stand-out worst radio moment of the year. Still, that's one noteworthy religious programme, at least.

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