During a particularly dark period of my life a couple years ago, I started listening to internet radio. As is characteristic of dark times, I was working temp jobs — and actually became employee of the month one particularly bleak January, complete with an on-site visit from the agency involving balloons and a gift bag, which was right around when I decided maybe it was time to go back to school. Anyway, during that period, planted on my ass and staring at a screen all day, I discovered BBC4. It was perfect: a little window to a faraway place of a different time — and I mean that literally: it was 5 hours ahead. When I arrived at 9am in the morning, it was 2pm GMT and all of Great Britain had long finished tea-time. By the time I clocked out at 5pm, Big Ben was striking midnight above the palace at Westminster.
BBC4 is the British Broadcasting Company‘s talk station, or “intelligent speech radio” as they described it on the internet radio tuner, and it lived up to the tag: everything from documentaries on 70s two-tone ska to live sketch comedy to “Gardner’s Question Time.” This became a favorite of mine because, although I’ve never grown anything in my life, I found its format so quaint and odd: a live call-in gardening show featuring a panel of expert horticulturalists and a live studio audience. There was, of course, news on the hour, but also that strange and rare bird of the airwaves: radio drama. I definitely resisted it at first, some of it being either too kitchy or horrible but, so desperate to escape the data I was compiling for a study on stock trades, I inevitably was swept away by the stories.
One groggy morning, uncharacteristically punctual, I tuned in at 9am on the dot just in time to hear a jaunty little orchestral theme that kicked off a radio play about a country village in which nothing much seemed to happen all that much from scene to scene, apart from the loss and eventual recovery of a cell phone in a dairy grazing field. Then, at 2pm (1900 GMT) another 15-minute installment. This time I caught the name which, due to the accent of the presenter, I mistakenly took to be “The Arches.” Again, the drama went from scene to scene without much event, but caught my ear. There was no narration but like a fly on the wall, you could hear characters talking and subjects discussed, and you could tell something was happening, just maybe not at the moment.
I listened again the next day, and then next, mostly because I had nothing else to do, but also because I got a strange thrill of achievement every time I recognized a character’s voice or understood what they were talking about. Somehow the bouncy little theme song got stuck in my head and I began to get excited when I got back from lunch in time to hear it as it launched a new episode. Little by little, it began to take huge importance in my bleak existence and I began running back from lunch when I realized I was late for it, and got inordinately pissed off when I was. As the weeks went by, I slowly began to recognize more and more of the characters’ voices and got deeper and deeper into the stories, started wondering about and researching their histories.
That was two years ago now. A lot in my life has changed, but I haven’t missed an episode since. I started listening live on BBC4’s streaming player, then discovered the streaming on demand at the show’s website, but these days I mostly take it in true junkie fashion: podcast. Fifteen minutes, every day for two years. I don’t think I’ve ever done anything as religiously.
Come to find out it’s got an amazingly rich history: it’s the world’s longest running radio drama (I consider “soap opera” a pejorative term) and was originally a co-production of the British Ministry Of Agriculture as a means of disseminating farming information during World War II rationing and food shortages. They still do discuss farming topics an awful lot (mostly sustainable & organic agriculture issues) but over the time that I’ve been listening, they’ve touched on a number of controversial and thorny personal topics with amazing sensitivity and depth: homophobia, sexual assault, racial & religious intolerance, dealing with Alzheimer’s, and the effects of the economic downturn — not to mention what it’s like to co-parent your son with your own brother as your ex-wife’s new husband. Long story.
Anyway, I encourage you to give it a listen. And hang in there: there’s an amazing web of characters, relationships and backstories that takes time, but is worth getting used to. And if you do, please be in touch with me! I need Archers buddies (I can also provide much-needed plot background if you get lost). I’ve been coaxing friends to listen for years and though some have made a valiant attempt (thanks, Brooke!), no one’s really become as fully hooked as me. I even got blank looks from my English friends the last time I was over, many who can’t stand it, most saying they think their mum listens to it. But still it soldiers on, and I’m beginning to think I will grow old with it.