In the course of a recent kitchen refit, my radio was mysteriously broken. This seemed the least of my worries, since the refurb had already taken hostage two months of my life, ransomed my patience, and ransacked the entire contents of my savings account. Then I tried to cook a meal and the sound of sausages spat mockingly at the MDF-muffled room. It turns out you can buy all the oak laminate and pewter‑effect handles you want, a kitchen won’t feel finished until you’re making stir-fry to the accompaniment of a full-throated roar from the stands, courtesy of a cheap DAB radio.
I can’t be the only one who frequently finds herself caught up in the drama of a midfield battle, or a pack of forwards surging for the tryline, and coming to, wooden spoon aloft, without a clue what I’m supposed to be stirring. Or whose pots boil merrily over as I’m rendered temporarily amnesiac by the all-consuming urgency of a free-kick, or a hair-raising set point. Audience figures suggest not: Radio 5 Live, which celebrates its 20th birthday this week, is enjoying a current peak of 6.28m listeners, and TalkSport achieved record figures of 3.2m towards the end of 2013. That’s a lot of burnt bacon.
Radio 5 Live’s popularity is, in itself, something of a marvel in the modern age, when cable and satellite TV, sport on iPlayer, and internet streams of varying legality make it easier than ever to watch one’s favourite games. With a techno-visual feast of sport serving up an infinite variety of courses, radio ought by rights to be an anachronism. And yet here we are, levering ourselves into the back seat of a taxi, leaning forward to ask the driver to turn up the volume on the game.
Clearly, the sports fan’s love of radio is largely situational. We look to it for reassurance on car journeys, channelling the commentary quietly into the front speaker on the driver’s side so the kids won’t moan, thumping the wheel in frustration as England lose another wicket. We sneak it into our ears at social functions, and the weddings of distant relatives, jiggling our knees with silent violence as a British sprinter chases down the leader on the home straight. We wake up to it when our heroes are on winter tours and it’s too cold to make it to the living room. And, most counterintuitively of all, we take it with us to the very game we’ve paid a small fortune to attend.
Radio audiences in general are buoyant – listening figures in the UK are at their highest in 15 years – and no doubt sports stations are benefiting additionally from increased competition in the television rights market. The fracturing of football and rugby across Sky and BT Sport might make the sports more widely available but it also means you’re less likely to have access to all the games you want. And there’s an extra appeal to radio for sports fans: it reflects a devotion that extends beyond the boundaries of the sane. Who but a true fan would choose to track the invisible progress of a ball through an imaginary space defined only by the theoretical laws of an inconsequential game?
For some listeners, the thrill is in weaving a richly imagined tapestry from the commentary, carefully recreating the ball’s flight in their mind’s eye – then checking up on the highlights later to see how close they were. For others, it’s the background wash of crowd noise that commands our attention, charting the game’s flow in pitch and volume as we attempt, at least, to multi-task, our brains tuning in and out under its subliminal control. That’s not counting the purists who obdurately rely on radio punditry to accompany images on their TV, as overstimulated as a synaesthesiac in a rainbow-coloured concert hall.
And yes, of course, some sports lend themselves particularly well to the airwaves – although why tradition dictates that cricket is the ultimate radio sport when cycling has similar longueurs and even more beautiful scenery, I don’t know. But, ice skating aside, it’s hard to think of a sport that can’t be enjoyed on the radio. Curling? Soothing. Tennis? Nothing funnier.
I’d even argue that some sports are even better on the radio than they are on the box. Think about it: radio’s the perfect place for squeamish boxing fans, who love the drama of the fight but are less keen on the blood and broken noses. It’s also ideal for fair‑weather racing fans, since we can never identify the silks, don’t know what’s going on until the final furlong and are only listening out for our nag’s name anyway. And then there’s Formula One. I challenge you to come up with a more visceral thrill than the sound of cars screaming around the track in stereo. There’s the added bonus that instead of following those ugly modern cars you can picture Sebastian Vettel in a vintage Lotus, or Lewis Hamilton in Penelope Pitstop’s Compact Pussycat.
A 2011 study claimed to have discovered that listening to the radio lifted happiness levels by 100%. And while this may not be true if you’re a Manchester United fan catching the Cup game against Swansea, it’s certainly true that sports fans maintain an affection for their radios that flies in the face of invention, technology, and, frankly, common sense.
Just look at the popularity of Sky TV’s afternoon show Soccer Saturday – essentially a radio show with added facial expressions. Whatever new camera angles, analytical gizmos or 3D interactive augmented realities the TV gurus come up with, we’ll never feel quite as warm towards those pictures as we do to the voices that talk to us while we’re doing the daily chores that keep us away from the game. The voices that talk to us while we’re cooking.