Friday 21 October 2016

The Week in Radio: Is there anything worse than radio that seeks to improve listeners?

Mariah Carey came highly recommended on Monday's Arena
Mariah Carey came highly recommended on Monday's Arena

Is there anything worse than bossy radio that fancies it might ‘improve’ us? Is there anything worse than radio that keeps bloody asking us to do and/or imagine stuff?

Well...is there? Close your eyes. Carefully consider the questions. Do you have answers? No? Close those eyes again. Think harder. Do you suddenly feel the urge to vigorously kick me in the shins? Of course you do. I don’t blame you.

“Do you remember all the iconic sounds you heard 36 minutes ago in the opening sequence?” asked narrator Susan Hickey towards the end of Sound Matters, Saturday’s (repeated) Documentary on One.

“How many do you remember?” she continued, sounding amiable, but with undertones of mild reproach. And then, before I could reckon up the numbers, came a blunt and confrontational, “Were you listening?”

And I was. Listening. To a mash-up of “iconic sounds” that included John McEnroe’s “You cannot be serious!”, Fred Flintstone’s “Yabba dabba doo!” and, er, Gillette’s “The best a man can get.” OK, there may have been a few “iconic sounds” that slipped past me. But, y’know, I hadn’t expected to be quizzed.

I had, however, expected Sound Matters to be reasonably interesting. We were promised a “journey into sound” that would “reveal what an influential, yet often undervalued, role sound plays in our lives.” It was a promise that sounded promising, so what did we get?

Well, we heard much about the differing ways in which ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sounds (supposedly) impact upon the human body. The baddies — drills, sirens, traffic — can, said Hickey, “lead to hypertension and even cause physical ailments.” So who/what can save our hyper-tense selves from all this killer audio? Dolphins, apparently.

“Research is revealing,” suggested co-producer Peter Stone, “that dolphins appear to use their echo locators to stimulate production of serotonin in humans.”

Why do they bother? I’ve no idea. And if Stone had any idea, he wasn’t in the mood to share. Preferring to leave us shaking our heads in bewildered awe and wonder at the inscrutable queerness of dolphin altruism.

But it wasn’t all just fuzzy new-agey chatter about dolphin healing, amniotic fluid and “the pulse of existence” (though there was plenty of that). It wasn’t all just bossily insistent instruction on how we might listen more effectively (though there was plenty of that too).


We also learned that Stone had “been conducting research into how sound affects consumer purchasing decisions in supermarkets.” In other words, how sound might be used to subliminally brainwash punters into consuming in specific ways.

And was this carry-on presented as, in any way, sinister and cynical? Nope. It was celebrated as fascinating and “extremely important.” So what had billed itself as a “journey into sound” ended up feeling rather more like a tedious corporate seminar with huggy new-age vibes. And sounds don’t get much more terrible than that.

Or do they? How about the many warbly sounds of Mariah Carey, newly resident in glittering Las Vegas? Are those worse?

Not according to Carey super-fan David Turpin, whose radio essay on Sean Rock’s Arena last Monday was a rousing, witty and almost laudable defence of all things Mariah. He called her “knowingly...absurd.”

He called her a “genius” producer of “baroque miniature epics.” He called her “a composer with an orchestra of one.”

And damn it, he very nearly had me semi-convinced.

Documentary on One, RTE Radio 1, Saturday

Arena, RTE Radio1, Weekdays

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