Everyone loves to get a prize. Not everyone likes to be passed over for one. I have seen heroes of national radio come to blows in London’s most renowned banqueting halls over who got what at that night’s awards shindig. I have also seen volcanic eruptions of total joy when the least expected name on a shortlist is announced the winner.
All awards matter. The best ones come with clear criteria, fair judging and serious purpose. Broadcasting awards, however, are different in that they also recognise achievement that reaches beyond the giver and receiver. The audience, without whom broadcasting cannot exist, must always be born in mind. As in, how does this programme speak in a special way, not just to the maker and a peer group, but to those who see or hear it?
Radio is such an intimate medium that every listener feels a personal connection, whether to a voice, a music style, a particular writer, a special mood. Aural memories last longer, stay fresher. A long ago Beach Boys or Beatles song, heard unexpectedly again, doesn’t just please the ear. It reminds the listener, vividly, of times and places between that first hearing and this minute.
Listeners keep radio going. Radio remains part of the lives of nine out ten adults in the UK, a massive audience shared almost equally between BBC and commercial radio. It’s a medium that keeps pace with social and cultural change and, far more immediately than tv, reaches into the digital age with ease and invention. So much for the prediction that radio would be dead and gone by the year 2000.
What do listeners want from radio? Programming that recognises their lives, that contributes to their happiness and sense of social connection, that makes them think a bit, laugh a lot, cry sometimes, understand what’s going on down the street and around the world. Radio in the UK does that. It’s why it deserves prizes.
What difference does a prize make? To presenters it’s an affirmation that what they do has value, recognized externally and objectively by people whose judgment is respected but may not previously have been their listeners. To stations, it’s a validation of their existence, often all the more joyful for being totally unexpected. I remember a Sony Awards long ago when almost the whole staff of a small Scottish station crowded onto the stage at the Grosvenor House after being named Station of the Year, the managing director remarking there were more microphones in that room than they had ever possessed. Such moments unite the radio tribe.
The judges who decided that station should win remain, as they should, a secret. Torments await any judge whose individual verdict in a particular category is made public. I speak from experience - BAFTAs, Royal Television Society awards, the Booker Prize (where we judges almost came to a fist fight), Radio Centre and Arqiva awards, the Nick Clarke awards, the Sonys, I’ve been a judge on them all. I even chaired the Sonys for four years. How well I recall the time I had to guarantee Jeremy Paxman a discreet, rapid, side door exit from the awards ceremony after a jury on which he’d served went public with a controversial decision.
And now here we are with the ARIAS. Three cheers! But about time too. It’s definitely time the two sides of radio got together again, not to squabble about who should have got what but to remember how good they are at doing what they do, what they can learn from each other, how much radio in this country still matters. Don’t listen to us judges moaning about all the listening we’re going to have to do. There will be winners at the end. And the really big winners? Gold all round, I’d say, to radio, its professionals and all their loyal, loving listeners.