published September 7, 2018

Slow Radio?

BBC Radio 3 parties with ASMR.

As Nick highlighted in yesterday’s Insider, BBC Radio 3 has launched a “slow radio” strand for the autumn, with monthly programmes featuring ASMR-esque sounds from “night time at the zoo to the sounds of Durham Cathedral.” Which is good news for all of us who like using random background sounds to tune out the noise in our own heads.

Radio 3 controller Alan Davey explained the move thus: “We feel strongly about offering the public a mindful experience, a place, a haven, where they can lose themselves in audio and sonic experiences.”

However, this isn’t Radio 3’s first foray into slow radio: past efforts have include a real-time broadcast of a walk along Offa’s Dyke (a historic earthwork on the English-Welsh border) and the sound of silence inside a monastery. It could also be argued that much of Radio 3’s programming can be described as slower, if not slow — the regular slot Words and Music being one such example, in which selections of classical music and literary readings on weekly themes such as “Sunday” and “nostalgia” are woven together for 75 minutes.

There’s been a similar move in BBC TV commissions in the last few years, too, with the highbrow factual channel BBC Four broadcasting an occasional series called BBC Four Goes Slow, with subjects including glass blowing and birdsong. I also have fond memories of the All Aboard! strand, which featured real-time, hours-long near-silent footage of journeys through different landscapes. There was a snow-covered Sami postal route shot from the viewpoint of a traditional sleigh, a trip on a British canal boat, and a ride through the countryside on a bus. (All of which pales in comparison for length and scope to this extraordinary programme made by the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK — they filmed 1,000 reindeer for 168 hours and live-streamed the whole thing.)

But does anybody actually want slow radio, or is it just a stunt that broadcasters like to pull because it grabs headlines? I think they do, and the evidence seems to back that up — there are entire YouTube channels dedicated to ASMR content with millions of views, and over a million people tuned into watch a bus trundling around the Yorkshire Dales on BBC Four in 2015 (for context, that channel’s audience is more often in the thousands than the millions). And given the state of the world, both then and now, who can blame them?

As a side note, it was interesting to see how different UK outlets reported the news of Radio 3’s new slow radio series, according to their own agenda and bias: the left of centre Guardian led with “the sounds of Irish cattle being blessed by a priest”, while the right-wing Daily Telegraph preferred to tell its readers about “recordings made from battlefields decades or centuries after the fighting stopped.” It has something for everyone, I suppose.

[Editor’s note: I fuckin’ love ASMR media. Long live scratchy sounds.]