Audio slave: Nina Garthwaite. Photograph: In the Dark
Radio enthusiast: Nina Garthwaite. Photograph: In the Dark

Video never quite managed to kill the radio star. Instead, radio survived into the 21st century, evolving with the times rather than becoming outmoded. Its longevity might be down to how it moulds to our daily lives and routines: waking up, commuting, or hanging out the washing. But doesn’t treating radio as background noise dilute the listening experience?

A group of volunteer radio enthusiasts and producers have set out to challenge how we think about spoken word radio. Under the banner of In the Dark, they hold monthly themed listening events they describe as “celebrations of stories through sound”.

Group listening

I go along to one at bicycle-friendly cafe-bar Look Mum No Hands on Mare Street. Fittingly the theme is bicycles. For an hour I sit listening to clips from radio documentaries, learning about the lifestyle of a cycle courier (they apparently have 99 different words for rain), hearing the travails of a transgender teenager trying to choose a bike, and even listening to Frank Zappa using a bicycle to make music.

“It’s just a case of listening and listening and listening to loads of stuff and seeing what we find,” says Nina Garthwaite, In the Dark’s founder, explaining the curation process. Locations tend to match themes; so a selection of documentaries about water were set on a boat, while an event about death was held in a cemetery.
“What can be quite fun about group listening is that you can really take people on a journey,” Garthwaite tells me. “One of our all time favourites was the erotic audio event, which was quite explicit at times, and we just had a bunch of people squeezed into a room.

“It was a good example of one where we played with this thing where you’re trapped in a room, you can’t tune off or click away or distract yourself, and we’re going to make you feel really uncomfortable. But then we’re going to make it pay off, hopefully, by the end.”

Let there be dark

In the Dark started exactly five years ago, when Garthwaite was looking to switch career from television to radio. She found good audio more difficult to access than film or television, and as an industry radio seemed closed, celebrity focused and convinced of its own decline.

“A lot of the time it’s still the case that people think of radio as a bit of a disabled medium. That it’s constantly having to compensate for the lack of visuals. I think audio can tell as many stories as any other medium, only it tells them in a different way.”

Another motivation came from the feeling that the broadcaster was the ‘keeper of the keys’ to radio.

“At the time it felt like we were saying: watch this, we can get a bunch of people to not only listen to audio but get out of their house and go to a place to listen to stuff that a broadcaster might say was a bit too esoteric or strange.”

But what do people gain from listening to radio in this way, I ask. She responds: “Getting together and listening is such an antithesis to the way we consume things nowadays. It’s like the counterpoint of the internet age.

“But the reality, as opposed to the gimmick of it, is that it’s a really different way of listening. You hear the pieces so many times by yourself putting it together, but suddenly you’re in a room with other people and you hear it in a different way. People laugh or look sad, and suddenly it’s a different experience.”

But the irony of this down-home experience being the “counterpoint of the internet age” is that it is also fuelled by it. The five years since In the Dark was founded have seen a resurgence of interest in audio as a creative form, with American podcasts such as This American Life, 99% Invisible and Radiolab leading the way. Then there’s Serial, single-handedly credited with bringing podcasting into the mainstream.

Garthwaite talks of there being “wonderful momentum” in radio documentary making, but is wary of the increasing dominance of American podcasts and the growing tendency among UK broadcasters to look for ‘British versions’.

“I think there’s a danger of going ‘look this is great, now you go and make something as great’, which is immediately stifling, right? It’s like the ‘be funny’ thing, no one’s going to be funny if you do that.”

In the Dark’s fifth anniversary show on 19 January will feature the cream of pieces from past events, as well as a conversation about what the future holds.
“The grounds keep changing and that’s why it’s stayed interesting and why we’ve kept doing it for five years,” Garthwaite adds. “Constantly we’re trying to keep making these events something that keeps pushing a little further and keeps offering people something they wouldn’t hear otherwise.”

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