Sleeping with John Peel

Bad memory and the passing of years has reduced the number of bands I can claim were introduced to me by listening to John Peel to just one – The Sundays. Over many years, though, I would go through the ritual of taking the kitchen radio from its home on top of the microwave, settling down to sleep with my ear close to the nutmeg-grater style speaker, for a night of tuning into various radio stations at low volume.

“Tuning in the radio” – there’s an anachronism if there ever was one. Moving an aerial across all manner of angles to avoid the bleeding of French or German voices into a favourite song, or finding obscure regional radio stations by accidentally tuning out of something you wanted to keep hearing. I recall an exchange between radio presenter and caller on Manx FM (“I have never liked the English, I’ve got a gun!”, that sort of thing).

But where has all that gone? I own a multi-band radio (including the scanning frequencies for police radio and CB enthusiasts, both gone the way of electronic glitches and whistles. By rights I should by now earn a living as a glitch-core DJ armed with hours of unique samples). By turning the dial only by the most tiny of fractions, multi-language commentary, unusual soundtracks, and regional accents, seep through the crackle and white-noise. The modern digital radio stations have none of this romance of discovery or research; channels are pre-programmed, labelled, categorised. There’s no accidental stumbling over a song or joke or sporting event.

I love iPlayer to bits but even late-night radio is stored so it can be listened again in the morning. Or during lunch. Or never again. I remember during the yesteryear midnight hours Radio Five in its pre-sport days used to have very funny comedy shows. Where is the romance of accidentally tuning into the BBC World Service when it can be found on Sky or Freeview?

Adults of a certain age will recall, too, the yearly or twice-yearly ritual of buying a new television only to spend most of that day shouting “Mum! What’s on three now? Channel 3, channel 3, ITV, is it adverts now?” while using an increasingly bruised thumb to tune-in the channels by hand. The sheer joy of stumbling over HTV Wales or S4C has been replaced by….Well, nothing. There’s not even the accidental channel-hopping of Italian adult movies as used to occur – not frequently enough! yells the 14-year old me – when Cable North West was in its infancy.

Maybe this is all very well and good, but there’s Zane Lowe now (well, okay, he was around in my youth too….) And iTunes coupled with Wikipedia as a kind of new-music “tag-team” means the liklihood of Steve Lamacq launching someone massive as once may have been true (Star 27, oh what could have been….) is diminished. Not killed entirely, but as with most parts of my memory of things the Internet Age as clearly altered entertainment and pastimes for good. Television has changed forever, in both technological terms and content. Radio has a new “sound with pictures” existence on-line, webcams and podcasts more common than “tune in again this time next week”.

I won’t forget those late nights, though. Muffled sound, Shipping Forecast, and the late great John Peel, as signposts to a time which will not return again. Some of the concentric circles of fashion have clearly be severed.

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