A trip around the world through local radio stations

I’d missed the joke about the three-legged chicken. It was causing a stir.

“That one about the chicken with three legs you told yesterday,” said a presenter on Ireland’s Midwest Radio’s afternoon show, “apparently Ronald Reagan told it first.”

“Did he, now?” the co-host replied.

“Yes. You stole a joke from Ronald Reagan.”

“Jeez, I’m going as red as a tomato here.”

The conjunction of tripedal fowl, the 40th president of the United States and two men in a studio in Ballyhaunis, County Mayo, will never make a list of great radio moments but it was enough to coax me from between my four walls, even if it was via the imagination.

Radio has never been more popular: it’s seen off challenges, from television to the internet, to become stronger than ever. In 2017, according to industry ratings body Rajar, nine out of 10 people in the UK listened to the radio every week. Perhaps it succeeds because we have to conjure up our own pictures of events and places beyond our immediate surroundings. As a bored, lonely boy growing up in an anonymous south-east London suburb, I’d spend most evenings in my bedroom jamming a coathanger into the back of an old radio and scanning the airwaves, awestruck by the range of languages and music bursting out of the night through skirling static; each voice sending tantalising reassurance of a world beyond the dispiriting confines of my own.

Charlie Connelly travels the world, wirelessly.

Charlie Connelly travels the world, wirelessly. Photograph: Charlie Connelly

We’re living through a different kind of isolation these days but radio is again a valuable form of escape. If we can’t go to the world then it has to come to us and, thanks to its radio stations, is available at the touch of a screen. Streaming has made global radio local and I can eavesdrop on continents through their breakfast shows, travel bulletins and drive-time programmes on a range of devices.

A good way to navigate the crowded airwaves is through the Radio Garden app: a portal set up by Dutch national broadcaster NPO in which a tide of little green dots washes across the surface of the planet, each representing a different station. Alight on any of them and be transported somewhere different, somewhere exotically local.

Screenshot of the Radio Garden site

Screenshot of the Radio Garden interface. Photograph: Radio Garden

That’s how I reached Ballyhaunis, where the lads were now up for a dance.

“Let’s forget our troubles, roll back the sofa, push back the chest of drawers and have a jive to Sharon Shannon who’s Courtin’ in the Kitchen,” they suggested. Well, it made a change from Joe Wicks anyway.

From the west of Ireland, I crossed the Atlantic to the long-established New Orleans community station WWOZ, where the breakfast show was just underway.

“It’s a beauuuuuuuuutiful New Orleans morning out there,” came the laid-back basso profundo of DJ Ol’ Man River, coming out of Ray Charles’ Let’s Go Get Stoned. “Check out that sky filled with pinks and purples, people.”

His weather forecast predicted 80F combined with a sweaty 87% humidity for the Big Easy, but a slight breeze would, he chuckled, “be enough to blow the smoke away if you’re taking ol’ Ray Charles’ advice.”

WWOZ DJ Ol’ Man River and a poster for Jazzfest. With this year’s festival cancelled, WWOZ is broadcasting “ultra-rare performances from the Jazz & Heritage Foundation Archive” on the weekends of 23-26 April and 30 April-3 May

WWOZ DJ Ol’ Man River and a poster for JazzFest. With this year’s festival cancelled, WWOZ is broadcasting a virtual version with “ultra-rare” past performances on the weekends of 23-26 April and 30 April-3 May

On Falklands Radio in Port Stanley, Morning Show presenter Wendy Luxton was probably not taking ol’ Ray Charles’ advice.

“So many people are going back to crocheting and sewing these days,” she said. “I might try and take up crocheting again, actually. There must be tutorials on YouTube.”

After further South Atlantic musing – “Life here has changed somewhat; we look forward so much to cooking magazines now” – it was north-west to Bridgetown, Barbados, where, on 98.1 The One FM, Dave Smooth, “The Soca Bully”, was reading out a series of birthday messages, slipping seamlessly into a solemn intonation of the death notices then handing over to a colleague for a potted biography of pioneering Caribbean trade unionist Clement Payne, one of the 10 National Heroes of Barbados.

Heading south-east and crossing the Pacific, I alighted at Rox FM, a community station set up by volunteers to serve the 4,700 people living in the remote mining town of Roxby Downs, six hours into the outback north of Adelaide. Its output ranges from current affairs show Women on the Line to Man Cave (full schedule description: “your mates”) to the weekly Aboriginal Way, which was getting started as I arrived.

“I’d like to begin by acknowledging the elders of the land, past and present,” said the presenter ahead of a wide-ranging exploration of cultural and social issues aimed at Indigenous Australians.

Similarly remote, broadcasting from a tin shack in Gairloch on the west coast of the Scottish Highlands, is Two Lochs Radio (2LR), Britain’s smallest commercial station. Serving a geographical area the size of Glasgow with a population of just 2,600 scattered across a rugged landscape, 2LR represents the best of local radio: a reliable hub of information and entertainment tailored to its territory that’s also an invaluable bulwark against rural loneliness.

The village of Gairloch, Scottish Highlands, UK.

The village of Gairloch. Photograph: Peter Jolly/The Guardian

Breakfast presenter Stuart Smith gave us the news, from a stranded ship in the Minch (“now half empty of cargo, with a Dutch tug keeping guard throughout the salvage operation”) to “If you’ve got a book overdue from the community library, don’t panic, all fines are currently waived.”

The latter in particular, while outwardly trivial, demonstrates the lifeline radio can provide. These stations conjure up a sense of place and community that’s at once specifically local and globally recognisable – from the Highlands pensioner worried about the overdue Catherine Cookson on her kitchen table to the young Indigenous Australian woman in South Australia, tuning in to hear there are others out there who share hopes and concerns she thought were just her own.

All this and a three-legged chicken. What a radio world this is.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *