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12 October 2014

Pride in Radio

Last night my friend Hirsty did a remarkable, brave thing. 'He' walked in to Stephen Nolan's Five Live radio studio as Simon. She came out as Stephanie.

It was a powerful, compelling piece of radio and it was so appropriate that Hirsty chose to share a life changing moment in a live moment on the air. She's appeared so often more at ease, more comfortable, on the radio than off it. From today she should also be more comfortable in her own skin.

That's not, however, the reason for this piece. If I was surprised, yes, and captivated by the announcement I was overwhelmed by the reaction that followed.  The radio family spoke.

Hundreds, probably thousands, of tweets from professional colleagues, professional rivals, friends, listeners. I don't pretend to have read them all but in the many I did read I couldn't find a negative, transphobic comment.

Social media is of course an echo chamber in which we follow people like ourselves, and attract like-minded followers. The balance of opinion in our timeline can be misleading. But even delving into regions my circle doesn't normally touch, the parts where 'you are' becomes 'ur', the parts where 'you ok hun?' (all lower case) is not used ironically, the parts where emoticons breed to swamp the text they're annotating - still nothing negative.

This got me thinking about the radio family and what it means.

The profession, the medium we've chosen (or which chose us) is by its nature the realm of the obsessive. Some of the very best radio is made and shared at the most antisocial hours - breakfast and late night. Radio news teams have done their best work before the more gilded stars of TV news are out of bed, and for a fraction of the pay packet.

Late night wireless has always been the dimly lit confessional where the desk comes alive as a living, pulsating, glowing thing. The intimacy of radio comes into its own, a presenter talking one to one with listeners who often choose to share stories just as personal, just as captivating as the one Hirsty shared with Stephen on Saturday. Radio can sometimes be a literal life saver, but much more often it's a life changer.

Perhaps because of the shared adversity - the hours, the pay, the revolting kitchens, the fact we're routinely overlooked in an age entranced by expensive, profitable consumer gizmos that relay text and pictures - the radio family sticks together.

It's always been an accepting place. I don't think I was ever homophobic; as a shy, straight, spekky, non-sporty boy at a grammar school with public school pretensions I got enough homophobic abuse by proxy. I can only shudder at what that place must have been like for anyone actually struggling with their sexual identity. Any residual fear of otherness was dispelled quickly in the radio scene of the late seventies when, at times, it could feel like I was the token straight guy on the team.

I've never been more proud of the radio family than I was last night. It rallied around one of its own, and sent its love and support. Because for Stephanie there's no going back, and much though we might like to anticipate a reaction to such an announcement there's no way of knowing for sure until the words are out.

Wouldn't it be great if, going forward, radio could take the lead in building on this? Freddie Mercury identified radio as his "only friend through teenage nights", and as a friend to millions of other lonely teenagers right now our medium is in a unique position to offer warmth, respect and support for listeners wrestling with their own sexuality or gender identity.

A positive comment from a presenter leaves no search history. A hug at a party in the park is caught on a hundred smartphones. We have the role model, let's use that as a starting point.

Pride in radio. On the radio. Now that really would be something to be proud of.

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