Tuesday 16 October 2018

Radio: The screen dream is lulling us all into a nightmare

GRUMBLING: Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho. Photo: REUTERS
GRUMBLING: Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho. Photo: REUTERS
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

'Behind the screens of the devices we use every day, there are thousands and thousands of the smartest designers and engineers in the world - whose job it is to get us to click on the thing, to look at the thing."

The speaker is tech guru, and former Google employee, James Williams. The programme is Bringing Up Britain (BBC Radio 4). And the subject is how gadgets keep us glued to their screens.

According to research, the average millennial looks at their phone more than 150 times a day. And being brutally honest, are the rest of us really much better?

"Every time we pull out our device," Williams continues, "we're going up against (tech companies) in that persuasive battle. Technologies in general, across the industry, are being designed in this way, to capitalise on our abilities and our weaknesses."

He adds, rather chillingly: "It's a kind of power over our attention on an unprecedented scale. And it's more centralised than ever: one person has power over what two billion people think about and do on a daily basis."

Technology of a different type was causing a problem on Off the Ball (Newstalk, Mon-Fri 7pm, Sat 1pm, Sun 12noon). This was of an earlier generation, almost vintage: the telephone.

Joe Molloy was interviewing Roy Jones Jr, possibly the greatest boxer of all-time and an intelligent, multifaceted character with a fascinating backstory. Unfortunately, the listener could barely hear him tell it.

I'm not sure what kind of line had been set up to Jones' home in the US, but it sounded as though he was speaking from the moon, via an old rotary phone connection, sometime in the 1930s. There was more crackle and static than actual words at times.

To make matters worse, the interview was compelling stuff, with Jones a sometimes-prickly, always-interesting subject. It even ended with a bizarre row between the two men, as Jones (for God knows what reason) defended cock-fighting before abruptly hanging up. But we couldn't properly hear it.

This wasn't all Off the Ball's fault - Jones' strong accent and quick speech didn't help - but the bulk of it lies at the programme's door. It's a simple reality: radio doesn't work if we can't make out what's being said.

It's a recurring problem across radio, but particularly Newstalk. The same show also interviewed Andy Mitten, editor of a Manchester United fanzine, about José Mourinho's latest hissy-fit. He was speaking via Skype, with all the audio clarity (or lack of) that you'd expect. This seems a bit "First World problem", but in this day and age, I think it's reasonable to ask for reasonably sharp sound on the airwaves.

Anyway: the same station had no audio issues with Town of Kings (Sun 7am), a documentary on the history of Dún Laoghaire. I'm not the planet's biggest fan of history, but this was engaging and lively, full of noteworthy facts and a lot of charm.

BBC Radio 4's To the Ends of the Earth (Sun 3pm) series continued with 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the Jules Verne classic. Captain Nemo, the terrifying giant squid, that retro-futuristic steam-punk vibe: this stuff was made for adaptation, and Gregory Evans' script, plus some superlative production values, made for a corking hour of radio.

Finally, a well-deserved tip of the hat to Radio Kerry who are airing two of the most interesting music shows around. The Global Village (Tue 9pm), hosted by JJ O'Shea, focuses on world music; meanwhile Brian Priestley's That's Jazz (Wed 9pm) pays homage to "the great American art-form".

Both are excellent in their own right, and an especial treat to hear on local radio.

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