Over the last few months as Sorry State has gotten busier, I’ve developed a bad habit of working well into the evening. When I finally get into bed, my mind is often still racing and I find it difficult to sleep. When this happens, I like the soothing sounds of someone talking to me in a measured, monotonous way, and I like what they’re talking about to take me as far away as possible from the stressors of my world. I’ve been listening to an audiobook about the history of the ancient world, in which a very professorial (and apparently elderly) British man recites lengthy genealogies of the kings of ancient Egypt, China, the Middle East, and Europe. Another favorite is the History Extra Podcast, where the editors of BBC History Magazine interview history scholars about a wide range of historical topics, some familiar but many of them downright arcane. Another of my favorites is In Our Time, a BBC4 program hosted by Melvin Bragg. It’s a panel show where each week Bragg and three panelists (usually professors) discuss a single topic. Sometimes the topic is from ancient history, sometimes modern science, often the work of a literary writer or philosopher. In Our Time is the perfect sleep aid because it’s just interesting enough to take my mind away from whatever I was thinking about, but dry enough that I’m guaranteed to fall asleep within 15 minutes.
A few weeks ago I made it to the end of an episode of In Our Time (I must have been stressed) and they mentioned the podcast would move from their existing feed to the BBC Sounds app. I was annoyed at having to download a new app, but since I did, I’ve been spending a lot of time with it. The BBC Sounds app seems to round up virtually all the content from the BBC’s various radio stations, along with a bunch of exclusive podcasts. After subscribing to In Our Time, the first thing I did was look for similar “put me to sleep” content, of which there is a motherlode. BBC Radio 4 is all spoken-word programming, and as far as I can tell, most or all of it seems to be on the BBC Sounds app. Last night I listened to a 30-minute documentary about the history of staircases. What more could an insomniac ask for?
The next thing I noticed was that all the BBC’s radio stations stream live on the site. A few weeks ago I drove to Virginia to buy someone’s record collection, leaving around 8AM east coast US time, which is early afternoon in the UK. I can’t remember which channel I pulled up first, but it was a drive-time program with traffic reports from exotic-sounding places. While it wasn’t as dense with music as American radio, the songs they played were stylistically across the board and almost all things I liked. I heard the Modern Lovers’ “Roadrunner,” XTC’s “Making Plans for Nigel,” TLC’s “No Scrubs,” an 80s Madonna track, and a lovers rock-sounding reggae track from the early 80s, with a few newer-sounding artists sprinkled in whose music I didn’t find offensive. This is shit you would never hear on American terrestrial radio, which is so bad I never turn it on.
My next step deeper into the app, though, was where I found the interesting stuff. Once I realized the Sounds app archives so much radio programming, I started searching for the music specialty shows. I guess it didn’t occur to me to do this at first because I assumed licensing issues would prevent the most interesting content from being available to me. I remember trying to download the iPlayer app for BBC TV years ago only to find it doesn’t work from a US IP address. Similarly, I remember checking out the podcast feed of Desert Island Discs years ago, only to discover the podcast version expunges all the actual songs. However, all the programming in the Sounds app is there in full with the songs intact.
I immediately discovered a few programs I enjoy, which is already too much to keep up with. I’d heard for years that Marc Riley from the Fall was a radio personality and I was able to check out his show. While it’s probably considered middle of the road for punk types, it feels like comfort food to me, featuring lots of 70s punk and glam rock amongst a broad mix of music. He also has newer bands playing in session (like the Peel Sessions everyone knows) and replays classic BBC sessions. The first episode I listened to re-ran a classic Peel Session from Siouxsie and the Banshees. I also got to check out Iggy Pop’s show, another one I’ve been hearing about for years, and enjoyed that. Iggy’s music selections are a bit like Marc Riley’s—“cool” popular music from the last several decades with some more adventurous stuff sprinkled in—but his show is more focused on the music than Riley’s, where there is a lot of banter and DJ-type antics. There’s also a show by John Peel’s son, Tom Ravenscroft, that I’ve enjoyed, though it seems to be focused almost entirely on electronic music. Ravenscroft also has a program where he invites musicians over to browse his father’s legendary record collection and play tracks from it. I haven’t checked that out yet, but I will soon.
My favorite show I’ve discovered so far is Stuart Maconie’s Freak Zone, a weekly show featuring “two hours of experimental and avant-garde music.” That description will scare away many people, but the show is rarely abrasive. Actually, it’s quite exciting. He plays older tracks from under-the-radar genres like Canterbury folk, Krautrock, prog, modern classical, and free jazz, and new music by artists who push the limits of genre. I expected to like the older stuff more, but I’ve enjoyed the new music Maconie plays. I love that feeling of hearing something you’ve never heard before, and that’s the feeling this show seems to search for. They land on it more often than not.
So yeah, that’s what I’ve been listening to. I feel weird writing my staff pick about a government funded and managed media institution, but fuck it… I am enjoying it. Like many Americans, I gaze longingly across the pond at the UK’s social democracy (if you can call it that), marveling not only at the perks like socialized medicine and decent public radio and television, but the very idea that the government does things to make regular people’s lives a little better. I know the UK and other countries have more than their share of problems, but that mentality seems so foreign from my perspective in the every-person-for-themselves brutality of the United States. Maybe that’s why so much of the BBC’s programming works so well for carrying me off into a gentle, restful slumber.