Almost forty years ago The Buggles topped the music charts with their smash hit, “Video Killed the Radio Star”. A nostalgic hark back to a lost era, the single epitomised a wider anxiety towards impending technological change. Just two years after the single was released MTV, the American music television channel, was launched and the song’s lyrical prophecy appeared to have come true – pictures had come and broken radio’s heart.
Fast forward to 2017 and we are instead “enjoying a ‘Golden Age’ for UK radio” according to the Financial Times, a publication not known for its hyperbole. BBC Test Match Special, the BBC’s flagship cricket broadcasting programme, also revealed that over a million people listened to the opening round of the 2017 County Championship season online, not counting many more through local radio. Most listeners now do so either digitally or online and this is the primary reason why radio has not just withstood, but thrived as the internet has evolved. Print journalism, on the other hand, has proven increasingly vulnerable against a tsunami of social media.
Cricket, like radio, is another facet of life that appears constantly under threat of extinction. This is certainly the case for the game’s longer form as shorter, more exciting and flashier formats of the game infringe upon its territory. While neither Test nor County Championship cricket has its future assured, they have remained more robust than many at first imagined. Combine the two, radio and cricket, and a resilient, if unlikely, partnership is formed.
Long-form cricket is a sport perhaps unique in its suitability to audio over anything visual. Its long days filled with tedium, interspersed with fleeting moments of great drama lend itself to being constantly on, but only ‘on’ in the sense of burbling away in the background. Humans are purported to possess attention spans shorter than goldfish; this is reinforced further through 24-hour communication and social media and it is arguable that we are never in fact fully paying attention to anything at all. Therefore the idea of the radio, playing somewhere in the ether while we busy ourselves with ‘other things’, rather appeals; it never requires our full attention yet provides an encouraging reminder that competition, between someone, somewhere, is taking place, and we are part of the party. We pay attention when it suits, and don’t at all other times – the perfect accompaniment to modern-day living.
Listening statistics reflect the hold that cricket has on the radio market. While listening figures have been consistently improving across all radio, exciting summer Test series consistently produce a pronounced spike in the BBC 5 Live Sports Extra figures, whose coverage, lest we forget, extends far beyond just cricket.
Listeners of Test Match Special have long considered themselves one big family – one of like-minded individuals assembled to a common cause while going about the mundanities of day-to-day life – at work, or school, in the kitchen, the garden, while commuting etc. Social media has not damaged that bond, in fact the reverse – it has strengthened it. Through hashtags and rolling updates, listeners now can contact, communicate and commiserate with other members of this ‘family’ in ways that had not previously been possible. While once upon a time we might have imagined that others, like ourselves, were also trying to evade their unsympathetic boss in order to listen to a particularly compelling passage of play deep into the working day, we can now confirm it through the influx of tweets, emails and texts into BBC HQ, relaying the various locations and predicaments that listeners around the world find themselves in.
Cricket too is a sport of which the best coverage is that where less is in fact more. With television coverage there is a demand for analysis of every moment, as the viewer sees what the pundit does, and there is no room nor need for imagination – the hard work is already done. In radio, imagination plays a much larger role; it is at the mercy of the radio commentator to set that scene and to allow the listener’s own mind to paint the picture. One of the greatest pieces of commentary remains thirty seconds of nothing, as John Arlott let the listeners hear the crowd rise to its feet and clap Don Bradman off following his last ever innings in 1948.
There are issues still to overcome of course – according to the Financial Times just over half of people between the ages of 15 and 24 listen to live radio as a whole, compared with 88 per cent of over-55s. Should the same test be applied to those listeners of the County Championship, many more would undoubtedly slot into the latter bracket. The future poses many questions, but as Test Match Special reaches its 60th anniversary, and the BBC continues to ring-fence its County Cricket coverage, delivering every ball to households around the globe, cricket’s radio coverage – or of English cricket at least – finds itself in rude health.
• A version of this article was originally published in The Cricketer in its August 2017 issue.