The radio played a very important part in my growing-up years. Apart from the local radio stations, there was a world out there that could be explored just through this medium.
There was the Saturday Date programme on AIR Bombay, which was a lovely way to unwind over the weekend. And of course, many of you will remember Radio Ceylon. I used to love it when the powers-that-be at Don Bosco would play its music on the school intercom, usually as a prelude to the weekend. The weekend would literally start on a good note with it.
But my horizons expanded by casting the radio net even further. I had just two avenues at my disposal: an antiquated Pye radiogram that took a long time to ‘warm up’ before it got going with a curious descending whistle. It was also weaker at picking up radio signals, but when it did, it gave a good, deep gravelly gravitas to its sound.
The option was the lightweight, portable transistor Philips radio which seemed to have a far wider reach. I used to literally spend hours twiddling its dials, searching for new worlds to conquer, on medium or short-wave. When I made a fresh ‘conquest’, to make really sure I’d find it again, I’d actually draw the face of the dial on paper, marking the position of the red band with a coloured pencil.
I would tune in to BBC World Service, Voice of America, Radio Moscow, even Radio Peking on a good day, Radio Australia; these are the ones that stand out in the memory.
BBC World Service was particularly educational for me then. On Thursday evenings (I think 8 p.m. our time), they would broadcast a programme called ‘The Pleasure is Yours’, hosted by (if I remember the name right) Gordon Clyde, a request programme for classical music. I would be amazed at how far and wide the requests came in, from all over the world, back in the day when you’d have to rely on the postal service (today’s snail-mail) to send it in. I tried it a couple of times, but somehow, if they did play my request, I have no recollection of it. Perhaps the request didn’t get to them, or perhaps I didn’t tune in on the Thursday they decided to grant my request.
The show had a distinctive signature tune, the beginning of the last movement of Johann Sebastian Bach’s ‘Violin Concerto in E major BWV 1042’. It was my introduction to the tune, and even today, it evokes a Pavlovian memory of my ‘radio days’. I heard so many other classical music war-horses for the first time: the ‘Triumphal March’ from Verdi’s opera Aida, Amilcare Ponchielli’s ‘Dance of the Hours’, among many others. The radio signal reception would wax and wane, but I would ride it out despite sometimes machine-gun staccatostatic on a bad day. But on a good day, it would be crystal-clear as well, as if the music were being played right before me.
Sometime in the mid-1980s, it became more and more difficult to tune in the way I used to. Television became the new distraction, but it couldn’t nourish in quite the same way radio did. And then in 1998, I moved to England, where the radio again became a lifeline. For classical music, two radio channels stood out among the plethora available: BBC Radio 3 and Classic FM. I still listen to both online via internet radio from here.
When the idea for Classic FM took shape, few thought it would last long. A 24-hour radio channel devoted just to classical music, even in the UK, would never fly, the doubters felt. But ever since its launch on September 7, 1992, it has grown ever more popular, with around 5.7 million listeners tuning in each week, making it the biggest classical music radio station in the world.
I would tune in to it a lot while at the wheel, driving long distances in the UK. Admittedly it has a lot of advertisements and several works from the top hundred on the Classic FM Hall of Fame are repeated, but they would take the edge off being stuck at traffic gridlock or help one to detox after a hard day’s work. And despite being shunned by classical music purists, it can still throw up surprises every now and then. I recommend Classic FM to many parents who ask how their children can be introduced to classical music. A music CD has its advantages of course, but it has a finite segment of music on it, whereas a radio station can give you an inexhaustible trove to explore, and you learn some trivia as well along the way quite often. I leave it on at home frequently, for my own listening pleasure, and so that it percolates to my ten-year-old as well.
For the more serious listener, there are few places today better than BBC Radio 3. Especially during ‘Proms season’ every July to September, when the BBC Proms festival (“the world’s largest classical music festival”) is held mainly at London’s Royal Albert Hall, but increasingly at other locations in that city.I’m hooked daily. In the past I would stay up to hear live broadcasts, which would spill into the wee hours of the morning, but their ‘Listen Again’ feature allows much more a godly, civilised listening time, at a time of one’s own choosing. One can also listen in installments to a broadcast if one wishes. And the Proms Plus feature which plays during the interval of each concert provide a platform for so much interesting learning, on so many subjects directly or even tangentially connected to the concert programme, from music to history, art, folklore, literature, fashion, and so much more, with renowned experts in their fields weighing in. To give you an example, during the interval of a performance of Hector Berlioz’ ‘L’Enfance du Christ’ (The Childhood of Christ), the fact that the work germinated from a practical joke Berlioz played on his audience, claiming it the work of a fictitious long-dead composer triggered a most absorbing Proms Plus discussion on literary hoaxes and forgeries. I urge those interested to tune in; you won’t regret it.
There’s also NPR (National Public Radio) and a whole host of stations from the US and elsewhere, but BBC Radio 3 does the trick for me just fine right now.
Thanks to the FM function on my phone, I love to tune in to the radio stations whenever I visit a new place, be it in India or abroad. It’s an interesting form of auditory tourism, and one learns a lot, even if the language may be unintelligible. I found Bhutanese music very soothing, for example. I found interesting classical music radio stations in Singapore and Sweden.
And although Radio Ceylon may be a thing of the past, do check out their Gold FM channel on internet radio if you have a thing for golden oldies popular music going back decades. The Radio star is still shining bright. Nothing is likely to kill it any time soon.