📻 Surfing radio waves

TL; DR – I listened to the radio in my late teens and early 20s, as much as I listen to podcasts today. They symbolise different things: both in my life, and how we think about technological progress.

It would come on with a crackle, the first thing I heard in the morning.

I brought it a few days before my 19th birthday, before going off to university and going to live on my own.

It was a £20 radio alarm clock. 

The crackles would puncture my sleep and chatter non-stop until I got out of bed and into the world. I loved music, and living away from my parents for the first time meant that I could have it on, as much as I wanted. 

On a typical day, the radio would come on every morning with the rock and indie tunes of Radio X. Around my third year of university, I tried my hardest to get into classical music and waking up early. The two came together with BBC Radio 3’s Bach before 7, playing a piece of music by JS Bach between 6:30 and 7:00am.

In the long stretches of time while I wrote essays (I was studying History), I discovered a taste for talk radio. BBC Radio 4, with its ridiculous game shows (like Just a Minute – where guests had to speak on a topic for a minute without stopping). Or Test Match Special, which narrates a game of cricket over nine hours (with plenty of digressions). These shows would come on without me noticing, filling the empty spaces in my life in dorm rooms and shared flats.

The radio was always on before we went out to party too. In my first year of university, when living in London was new and wild, it was always Capital FM. Tuning into the city, just before we ventured out to it. Later, as our taste became more hipster, it was Mary Ann Hobbs’ Recommends, a show about new music (now called New Music Fix).

Without realising it at the time, I slipped out of the habit of listening to the radio in my mid-20s. And took up listening to podcasts.

Looking back, it marked the convergence of a few trends in my life and the world. Smartphones and data had become ubiquitous. I had left the world of studying, and entered the world of work. Long mornings in bed and stretches of time at home were replaced by a morning routine and commute. 

And I grew hungrier for the kinds of ‘grown up’ information – on business, economics, politics, tech, and the good life – that podcasts could give in abundance. High quality, free of charge, on any topic imaginable. How I Built This. The Harvard Business Review podcast. Freakonomics. On Being. And – unlike my radio – I could take podcasts wherever I went. I could choose what to listen to and where, and what corner of the world I want to be transported to.

Where podcasts took me into my bubble, my radio thrummed with the rhythms of the world. Drifting in and out of radio shows, what I remember most is catching snippets of the unexpected. Aspects of the world that I’d never thought about if I didn’t have oodles of time and headspace to hang out in my room, with the radio on in the background.

And this was a time when my life was filled with new experiences. I had my first serious relationship. I learnt about philosophy, history, art, and politics. Not a week went by without me reading something, or speaking to someone, and being profoundly moved. I was full of a sense of wonder, a sense of the infinite possibilities that lay before me. My radio compounded this. There was so much out there in the world to stumble upon.

Podcasts are packaged-up stories. Radio is a vibe. One isn’t better than the other. But I do feel sentimental about my radio and the life it symbolised. I still have it, although there’s no display and the antenna has broken. It still—just barely—produces sound. It’s stored away, a relic of a previous life. 

Now I work in tech, and think a lot about how tech can make people’s lives better or worse. And I’ve noticed that much of the terrain being drawn between tech optimists and pessimists has this podcast-radio fault line. The podcast, like much of modern tech, can give you radical agency: what you want, when you want it. It can give you your own world.

But what of the joy of discovering something unexpected about the world you’re in? The joy of coming across or joining in something fun or interesting by accident? Expanding beyond your horizons? Of experiencing the wonder of boundless possibility, outside yoru bubble.

I’ve learnt a lot listening to podcasts. But what wisdom I’ve accrued, and what sense of romantic wonder I still have in the world, comes from the radio.

🎬 Thanks to Theresa Sam Houghton, Nicolas Forero, Zoe McDonald, and Jason Nguyen, for looking at a draft of this.

🤔 Got thoughts? Don’t keep them to yourself. Email me on asad@asadrahman.io. Let’s figure this out together.

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