Storytelling Through Music: Broadcast Radio’s Secret Weapon

What can broadcast radio do that internet radio can’t? Tell stories.

Earlier this month I found myself between tenants at a flat I let in London and took the opportunity to redecorate. Staring down the wrong end of several days’ toil in an empty property, I noticed I was more appalled by the prospect of living without wi-fi than without furniture. Radio to the rescue.

Cerys in Wonderland, in which BBC 6Music’s Cerys Matthews celebrates the 150th anniversary of Lewis Carroll’s most famous work, came on just as I began the grim task, perched on top of a tottering step ladder, of ‘cutting in’ under the intricate cornice of a high-ceilinged bedroom. The music, ranging from Villagers to Marvin Gaye, Bowie to boss reggae, was inspired by – and interspersed with readings from – Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Cerys P

It was three of the most absorbing hours of radio I have ever heard, impeccably programmed and transporting in a way that only broadcast radio can be. As I applied a second coat of Eau de Nil under the coving the following day, every brushstroke and indent teleported me back to Wonderland in the precise location I had been the previous day; Bobby Darin around the chimney breast, Horace Silver into an especially fiddly corner above the skirting board.

You must have experienced something like this. Perhaps you’ve made the same car journey twice in succession and found yourself retracing a radio show rather than a road. Or telling someone about a great programme you heard and being transported back to your precise location when it came on. Something about the narrative of broadcast radio, especially when accompanied by an actual journey (road or coving), offers the opportunity of losing yourself in it in a way that internet radio never could.

I find that it doesn’t happen with music alone, be that an album or a playlist, unless perhaps it’s a playlist specifically created for a specific journey. Is it the linearity of radio or the fact that it’s broadcast? Or presented? Or the fact that it’s a shared experience as well as a ‘live’ one? Whatever the reason, storytelling of this kind is hard to replicate online.

Slacker Radio’s exslackercellent jocked stations are probably leading the charge bringing some of broadcast radio’s intimacy to the web, offering US and Canadian listeners a taste of what Apple Music might be planning with the producers it poached from the BBC (and elsewhere in UK commercial radio, if the rumours are true).

But combining personalisation and on-demand with storytelling and narrative is tough. By offering audiences the opportunity to skip content, that content must by definition be packaged and atomised into units that invite you to lean forward, not back. Much as I loved Rob Tannenbaum and Craig Marks’ 66 Pretty Much Perfect Songs, I want to hear them uninterrupted by the silence that accompanies the loading of tracks and presenter links. And there’s a tension there: if you’re so sure they’re perfect, why let me skip them?

It seems to me that as broadcast radio increasingly finds its audiences – and its presenters – being targeted by tech giants with deep pockets, it would do well to remember that musical storytelling could well be its secret weapon.

At the time of writing there are 15 days left to listen to Cerys in Wonderland. Have a listen, and hit me up on Twitter if you have any thoughts.