The Sunday Times FEBRUARY 2, 2002 - by Brian Eno


I don't watch television. In fact, I no longer even own one, which I suppose makes me a rather unusual creature.

It isn't that I hate the medium; on the contrary, I am a potential addict. Television is so glossy, the programmes so glamorised, that it is too easy to be seduced.

After watching for a few hours I often find myself thinking:

'What do I remember of that? What was the point?' I am entranced by the medium, but not, apparently, deeply changed by it.

Figures last week showed that radio audiences are significantly up while television audiences are diminishing. Radio 2 has announced a 1.5 million increase in audience figures over the past year, while Radio 4 attracts nearly 10 million listeners a week.

Radio's popularity stems from the fact that it can offer much more variety than television. Making radio programmes is cheap, which means that stations can afford to be experimental.

The fact that there are so many channels also means that programmers can cater for niche audiences. When I refer to experimental radio I'm really talking about the BBC rather than the commercial stations.

Commercial radio seems increasingly to have the same problem as television, the need to attract huge mainstream audiences for all its output. Everybody thought that if you privatised the radio network there would be plenty of room for niche programming, but that hasn't happened. Everyone seems to be aiming for the same audience.

Last week's Radio 3 Awards for World Music were very successful; the reason was simple: the sheer quality of the music.

The daft thing about most award ceremonies is that they give prizes to people who are in the charts and have already been rewarded with plenty of money and attention.

The last thing they need is more adulation.

At the world music awards, however, the ceremony introduced several artists I had never heard of - it gave everybody present, including Johnny Depp and Damon Albarn, a chance to check out something new. There was a singer called Magic Malik, for example, whose voice was the closest thing to an angel. He had the highest voice I have ever heard - male or female.

The reason why radio uncovers these unusual artists and can give them national exposure is because the low cost of programming allows individuals themselves to make the decisions. DJs such as John Peel and Andy Kershaw are fascinated by music and go out and find new material on their own.

It is a far cry from television, where every decision has to be approved and budgeted, filtered and made unutterably bland through layers and layers of bureaucracy. Radio DJs, on the other hand, can make decisions off the cuff, which means that they are nimble-footed in spotting new acts.

I check out those programmes compulsively. I know Peel or Kershaw will always include something that I want to track down and hear again. I think of them as the contemporary equivalent of some of the great 19th-century eccentric explorers, such as Augustus Pitt Rivers. He was a soldier and archeologist who travelled the world bringing back bizarre, unimaginable objects for his collection, which ended up as the museum that bears his name in Oxford. Radio personalities are able to do the same - they go out exploring and offer up these wonderful finds.

A few years ago I put together some programmes for Radio 3 on the subject of exotic vocalisation. If I had been doing a programme like that for television it would have been shaped by visual demands. So rather than just playing and commenting on my record collection I would probably have had to fly to Peshawar and be filmed next to an old lady singing, or off to an Inuit igloo to track down an Eskimo artist.

That would have satisfied the visual side of the equation, but I think it would have added little to the experience of the music.

This need to be visual is often a crutch for television. Obviously there are some amazing uses of imagery, but by and large - and particularly with the news - the emphasis on visuals is often driven not by a desire to inform, but by the fear of being 'unentertaining'.

If you compare television news with World Service reports, the radio version is streets ahead in terms of communicating ideas. News cannot ever be glossy on the radio, it cannot have that sheen of light entertainment. Instead, the presenters have to rely on thought and speech. They have to communicate articulately.

This is because we engage much more with material to which we bring our own imagination. With television drama we can be passive because we are presented with a narrative and the visual images that illustrate it. Radio forces us to invest more, dramatising the action in our heads.

There will always be a place for television, but declining audiences suggest that people are becoming tired of it. Every medium has a period of obsession when it is so thrilling as an experience that people are happy to watch mediocre material - for instance, when Hollywood was in its heyday most people took it for granted that they would visit the cinema at least once a week. It wasn't that the films were much better - simply that the experience was fresh.

In its early days television had the same appeal, the same intrinsic excitement, but over the past decade it has started to wilt. Television has become commonplace.

No longer entranced by the experience, we have started to question the content. That is where radio comes in. As a highly evolved, deeply diverse medium, it has proved itself.

I am not writing television off. It needs time to evolve, to experiment. It needs smaller budgets, more amateurs, more Brass Eye Chris Morrises and BBC2 Stella Streets.

Meanwhile, I'm listening to the radio.