In my parents’ house, the radio is always tuned to one of two stations: Magic FM and LBC. When Magic is playing, it wafts through the kitchen like an over-scented camomile candle. LBC, by contrast, hits you like a strong gust of Novichok: it is undiluted poison, carefully synthesised from the DNA of hysterical US shock jocks. At times, they feel like the two paths for modern radio: a draught of herbal tea or a fit of apoplexy; James O’Brien having kittens or ‘Broken Strings’ playing constantly, for ever.
Where does that leave the chatty host, the one who natters cheerfully while you potter aimlessly, who rabbits on while you faff about doing nothing? Listening to Graham Norton’s new show on Virgin Radio, I often felt as though I were listening to something from a slightly earlier time, before all media had been optimised to either soothe or infuriate the consumer. You wouldn’t know we were living through the biggest crisis since the second world war, listening to Norton. On weekend mornings for three hours, he broadcasts from an imaginary normal world, where the viral pandemic is just something nagging away in the background rather than pinning you down while it coughs in your face. In this sense, he joins an ever-expanding list of movies, films and even novels that take place in a parallel universe, where none of ‘this’ is happening. As it happens, I rather like it there.
As radio, it’s fairly standard stuff: an advice segment, an interview, a competition that no one wins. But in present circumstances, a dose of something cheerful is not to be sniffed at. Norton has always seemed like one of the sharpest knives in the box, even when he was squirting salad cream on to Denise Van Outen’s cleavage (this is not a euphemism). Like any good TV interviewer, he was able to combine a reactive intelligence with a strategic one; the way he manoeuvred his guests around the conversation reminded me of how great tennis players set up a winner four strokes in advance. On his own, he’s a more divided, Robin Williams-esque presence: you can measure the speed of his thinking by the frequency with which he interrupts himself. It’s like spending time with a fey, quick-witted uncle, one who has a mug of brew in his hand, a pedant on his shoulder and a creaky joke in his back pocket. In short, it’s like spending time with Graham Norton: pleasant, cheerful and, after three hours, a little exhausting.
In stark contrast to Norton’s cheery offering, the New York Times Modern Lovepodcast has returned for a third season. ‘Modern Love’, if you haven’t encountered it, is a regular New York Times feature, one that became so popular it spawned both a podcast and, more recently, a Netflix show. The format is a classic: someone writes a long, earnest, self-deceived essay about what they learned from a relationship. This is then breathily read out and posted on Spotify, sparking cries of recognition from a large audience of equally earnest and self-deceived listeners. If the essay is about a failed relationship, the tone is one of hard-won wisdom, full of bitter, knowing half-jokes; if it is about a successful relationship, the writer adopts a posture of childlike wonder. The prevailing mood is that of a long and deeply serious conversation taking place in an airless room, one that is positively begging you to open your phone and stop paying attention.
As I listened, I began to develop a creeping suspicion that there is something about this way of talking that nudges people towards deception. ‘You only cry in public in New York City,’ says someone who somehow believes this to be the case. ‘Honesty is linear,’ says someone else. The actors do their best to stifle any humour that might have slipped through a crack. This is polished, expensive fare, but there is a lingering aftertaste of dishonesty: not the sense that the writer is lying, but that they are telling the truth without being truthful, reaching for a moral where there is none.
The Modern Love podcast has one trick up its sleeve. After the essay is read out, the presenters call up the author to ask them what happened after the essay’s publication. Responses vary: some seemed to have resolved their issues; others were still facing the same problems. My personal favourite was the woman whose essay concluded with the lesson: ‘desire is never the mistake’. She told the producers that she has since taken a vow of celibacy. Otherwise, everyone agreed on one point: having a write-up of your relationship published in the New York Times is great for your career. Perhaps there’s a moral in that.
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