Contrary to Buggles’ 1979 allegation, video did not kill the radio star. I have been reviewing my home entertainment habits recently and, as well as putting to rest that old canard, our set up raises a few interesting points.
Many of us vintage couch potatoes have adapted well to the computer age, but even some technophiles have thrown up their hands in surrender at the complexities of home entertainment systems incorporating a variety of boxes and remotes for Freeview, satellite, VHS, PVR, DVD and CD.
It seems to me that the TV set takes as long to come to life now as it ever did when it was a crate full of valves and a cathode-ray tube the size of a kitchen sink. First I have to hunt around for the remotes that my wife scatters around the room, then switch on the various boxes in the correct order, waiting for disk drives to come up to speed and software to boot up.
We have had a Humax PVR for a few years now. This digital recorder includes a Freeview twin receiver and it liberated our household from the dictates of the TV and radio schedules, transforming our viewing (and listening) habits. We rarely watch live TV, barring the occasional news, weather forecast or a major sporting event. Instead, we scour the guide in our newspaper, highlight anything that looks particularly good and set the PVR to record it. We trust reviewers’ recommendations, generally finding them reliable, one of the bonuses of reading a simpatico daily paper. This system allows us to skip TV commercials, which improves the programmes and lets us squeeze an hour’s TV (from a commercial station) into 50 minutes. The convenience and simplicity of recording on these devices makes you wonder what future there is for all those digital channels whose names end in “Plus One”. It also makes you wonder why some channels repeat so much content so frequently. We still have a (dusty) VHS recorder, which simply sits in the corner begging our attention, and a DVD player, which our sons use very occasionally to watch a movie with friends.
For years, I wanted an easy way to record radio programmes so I could catch the gems that were broadcast while I was out, but never found one until we got the PVR. Now I listen to more radio than ever before, particularly Late Junction (BBC R3), Stuart Maconie and Jarvis Cocker (both BBC6 Music). It is essential for me to have some way to discover new artists and their music as I would hate to listen to the same material over and again. Occasional experiments with more commercial radio have left me with the impression the DJs have a shoe-box containing about twenty singles, which they play repeatedly in a varied order, interspersed with occasional tabloid headlines and standard DJ drivel. Talking of which, even the mainly excellent BBC6 Music has some low points, notably in the early mornings.
My 200-odd vinyl records, which I seldom play, have been substituted, first by CDs, now by Spotify, whose commercials are not intrusive enough for me to pay £10 a month for the ad-free upgrade, and I don’t need it on my MP3 player as I don’t have one. I still have my old turntable and, although I cannot remember the last time I used it, find myself unable to part with it just yet; ditto the LPs, the value of which is largely sentimental. It would be great if I could listen to, and control, Spotify from anywhere in the house, but clearly not so great that I would fork out for the upgrade and an MP3 player, so I bought a pair of remote speakers that I could put in the lounge (the PC’s in the front room). Two problems: you have to plug the transmitter into the headphone socket at the PC end of the arrangement, which prevents music playing in both places at once; and the system does not have enough grunt to penetrate adequately the interior walls of my 1920’s semi-detached. As I write this, I wonder if I should claim my sons’ old MP3 players next time they replace them and get a docking station and a Spotify upgrade. I am sure the purists will tell me the sound quality will not match the old analogue LPs, but I am not a purist.
It would probably be some weeks before my grown-up sons noticed if we dumped the TV, the stereo system or the landline, but any interruption to the broadband or the wi-fi would be felt in fractions of a second and intolerable for more than a few hours. Their minimal TV viewing needs are met adequately by their PCs via the BBC iPlayer, Channel 4’s 4OD, and so on. This does not appeal to me as it is a bit of a busman’s holiday when you have been working on a computer most of the day. That is why I have been ambivalent about the prospects of a remote-controlled PC/TV combo in the lounge. I don’t want to interact with family and friends when I am watching a concert or movie but I can see two benefits that appeal: 1 – access to a wider range of content, including arthouse and foreign-language movies, concerts, documentaries, the option to watch sports events ad hoc, maybe on a pay-per-view basis rather than on a costly subscription and; 2 – the opportunity to research background information on your current viewing. How many times have you wondered where you recognise the supporting actress from in that movie? What is her name? Where was this movie shot? Who did the lighting and the music? I can see this becoming rather distracting, but I am afraid I would find it irresistible.
Since buying a Kindle at Christmas, unsurprisingly, I have found myself reading more. Book choices are mostly classics (not only because they are free) and I subscribe to a daily newspaper (despite all my criticism of the format here and elsewhere).
I can see now that I am harnessing digital technology to facilitate old habits of reading and listening to music and talk radio, contradicting the idea that the medium itself is the message. These new tools primarily give access to a greater range of music, literature and radio sources, in much more convenient ways than before. In fact, far from killing the radio star, new technology is giving him a new lease of life.