Power of Sound: How radio can help combat loneliness

As we look for solutions to what some are calling a loneliness epidemic, it could be time to re-evaluate the importance of older technologies and how they make us feel

Feature by Becca Inglis | 01 Oct 2018

I was renting a one-bedroom flat when I bought my first clock radio. Having your own space is the dream, but beyond next door’s dog or the main door slamming, things get very quiet when you live by yourself. A combination of a break-up and staying in a city miles away from my family meant that I was spending more time on my own than I was used to and, in a period of transition with a compromised support network, I became textbook vulnerable to loneliness. I survived on a diet of broadcasts by Mary Anne Hobbs, Steve Lamacq and Gilles Peterson who helped me pass each week with regular programming on BBC Radio 6 Music.

On 1 October, BBC Radio 4 released their findings from the BBC Loneliness Experiment, one of the largest surveys of its kind looking at the causes of loneliness and ways to prevent it. Among its key focus areas was finding out what kind of relationship technology has with feeling lonely, if there is any at all. It asked its 55,000 participants which methods they found helpful for managing loneliness and, like myself, listening to the radio was crucial for many.

“Some said it was their lifeline,” says broadcaster Claudia Hammond who presents BBC Radio 4’s All in the Mind and worked on the BBC Loneliness Experiment. “They have it on night and day continuously in the bedroom and the kitchen, listening to speech to distract themselves and pass the time until the feeling has passed.”

It makes sense. A quiet house becomes deafening when you only have your internal voice for company, and the chatter of radio presenters makes it seem less empty by filling its rooms with sound. Having voices in the background might even give the illusion that you are not alone at all. “Some, I think, are using radio as the company itself, as the friendship if you like,” Hammond continues. “Because radio and podcasts are such an intimate medium it does feel like, if the person’s good at it, they’re just talking to you.”

Intimacy comes up as a major factor in more research being done by Dr Amanda Krause at The University of Melbourne, who is looking at the impact radio has on the wellbeing of elderly listeners. She's found that individuals develop strong bonds with the presenters they tune in to, to the point that they will maintain that relationship by following their hosts if they move to new stations or time slots. “I don’t think I was expecting how strongly people felt attached to a person who in real life they don’t necessarily know,” she says. “When I think of social isolation and loneliness, that to me is such a powerful idea to think of people having these relationships with people that they can hear on the radio.”

That relationship might seem one-sided, but it forms an important surrogate for social interaction when people feel isolated. There are those who actively join the conversation by phoning in, some becoming regular callers, but the act of listening can be enough to make you feel like you’re part of an exchange. “You’re still hearing that communication,” says Krause. “If it’s a talk back programme, or people are calling in, or even if you’re getting the weather report, you are participating in a dialogue whether or not you’re actually speaking.”

“These things are real stepping stones in people’s lives,” says Tim Leech, CEO of the charity Wavelength which distributes radios, televisions and smart devices to lonely people in vulnerable circumstances. In the past year they've given 250 individuals a device and also donated radios for communal areas in women’s refuges and homeless shelters, where radio’s ability to create a feeling of connectedness has helped people settle into their new surroundings.

“The people who have been living on the streets have particular paths that they seem to take – the same with domestic abuse,” says Leech. “They’re led off into accomodation and a lot of the time it isn’t the best located, so the people they’ve been living with, the support group that they’ve found, are then dissipated.

“The first thing that people do when they’ve got the money is buy a radio and a television. It allows them to have something else, some sound when they’re not feeling particularly well. It gives them some stability. It stops them giving up tenancies.”

Part of Wavelength’s mission is to challenge the idea that loneliness is caused by technology and show the myriad ways that it can be helpful. The advantage of broadcast media, Leech believes, is that it enables safe kinds of social interaction for those who need it. Being alone is not the same as being lonely, which is just as likely to stem from feeling unable to connect with others as from literal physical isolation. For those with a low self-esteem or fear of rejection, radio is an ideal non-judgemental outlet. “Every interaction, whether it’s in a coffee shop or on a mobile phone, leads to an element of personal risk,” Leech says. “What we find with radio technology is that actually these can be very safe environments to interact because you have control.”

How does radio compare with social media, which is so often made a scapegoat for modern loneliness? Leech suggests that it's too straightforward to blame the whole platform and that both have similar positives if used in a supportive way, which the BBC Loneliness Experiment’s findings could support. While people who described themselves as lonely do not use social media any more than their counterparts, they do use it much more for messaging and entertainment and their social groups online overlap their circles in everyday life much less. This suggests that some are using the internet to find friendships that they lack elsewhere.

Perhaps, then, social platforms could help enhance people’s experiences with other virtual media. One listener, Aiden K. Feltkamp, found that to be the case when they first moved to Brooklyn where they discovered podcasts while coming to grips with their gender identity and estrangement from their family. “They're having a conversation that you're privy to in a way that you're almost a part of it,” they say. “This experience is amplified with podcasts like My Brother, My Brother and Me. They encouraged interaction via Twitter, emailing and suggestions for content for their show. So I could participate directly if I wished.”

Feltkamp was also able to connect with other listeners, both on Twitter and in Facebook groups, in particular tapping into a creative community by meeting other like-minded artists. Like radio these platforms enabled a safer social interaction by making joining in optional. “It definitely helped to feel part of something that I didn't HAVE to engage with. There wasn't responsibility there and I think that takes the pressure off,” they say.

Podcasts like My Brother, My Brother and Me could become more valuable for the lonely in broadcast media’s future. Numbers of radio listeners overall are on the up in the UK but the loneliest demographic (16-24 year olds) are tuning in less in favour of streaming services. In response to this trend the BBC plans to replace iPlayer with the new BBC Sounds app which combines live and on-demand radio. Leech believes that this shift is in part down to what people can afford and that young people often rely on single-access devices to consume their media, leading them in turn to radio apps.

“I don’t think anything will replace that richness we get out of radio, the variability,” he says, “but I think podcasting starts to do that. It’s the same thing, but radio has a familiar face. It has a familiar box. It has a familiar timetable.” Just as podcasts make content more readily available to the web-savvy listener, older devices have been around for long enough that people of all ages find them accessible, including non-digital natives. It's this, as well as radio’s versatility, that makes its impact on loneliness worth studying for people like Leech and Krause. “This is a tool that’s been around, it’s a technology we understand, and it’s one that gives you the agency,” Krause says.

There is no one size fits all solution to loneliness but the power of sound is clear and radio’s standout benefit is that it easily caters to people’s complex needs. We can switch between stations to skip dialogue in favour of music or specifically look for talk radio, have it on as background noise or make a point of listening in. And now, with streaming gaining popularity, listen live or play programmes back. As we look for ways to minimise loneliness in our modern world it's worth considering how the digital tools already at our disposal can better our wellbeing when others can't be there.

All in the Mind reveal the results from The Loneliness Experiment on October 1 at 8pm, BBC Radio 4; The Anatomy of Loneliness, a three-part series, will broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 2, 9 and 16 Oct; Me Myself I, a three-part drama will broadcast on Friday 5 Oct