Listening In A Time Of White Noise


In times of global panic, it can almost seem that instead of news on the television and radio, all we hear is white noise. The uncertainty, the fear, the confusion. It all adds up and plays a role in causing anxiety. What makes it worse is that we have to listen, for the sake of ourselves, our families, and our communities. There is no tuning out of this crisis. Our senses are heightened, we are clutching to anything we can that will make us feel comfort- for some that could relief may come in the form of the radio.

At around 00:46 every day the same tune plays on BBC Radio 4 that has played for on the station since 1963 when it was first composed, the tune is ‘Sailing By’ composed by Ronald Binge and it precedes one of the BBC’s most vital broadcasts, The Shipping Forecast which airs four times a day on BBC Radio 4 for the aid of mariners. The late night Shipping Forecast which since 1861 has aired at exactly 00:48 every day, the only exception being during the two world wars.

In this time of world-wide panic and uncertainty I have found myself drawn back to the Shipping Forecast’s warm embrace, previously only a listener during periods of insomnia or anxiety as it was the only thing that could soothe my worries and make me fall asleep. The shipping forecast was so effective in lulling me to sleep that it took well over a year for me to realise that Radio 4 plays God save the Queen immediately after broadcast.

I don’t know why I’ve been drawn back, perhaps it’s the certainty of the programme, the broadcast will always begin at 00:48. There will always be the same number of words. It will always begin with, “And now the Shipping Forecast, issued by the Met Office on behalf of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency…” Perhaps it’s the feeling that comes with it, knowing that some listeners may also be listening for the same reason I am – peace at the end of a long day, but also the knowledge that this is broadcast for those who work on the waters surrounding the islands we call home – that for them, this programme is a life-line. It is a constant reminder of how everything in this world is ever-changing, nothing is guaranteed. Waters that were safe last night for sailors could now be treacherous, conditions will change, they may become difficult but they can be navigated when we listen to the information at hand.

Listening has become a life-line during this worldwide emergency. We listen to everything; the news, the ‘advice’ on Whatsapp, the sound of our loved ones on the phone as it begins to dawn on us that we will not see them in the near future, the depth of their breathes and melody of their voice as they tell us about their day.

I’ve found myself clinging to audio material and another familiar tune for Radio 4 listeners- Sleepy Lagoon, better known as the Desert Island Discs theme. With other 2000 different voices available on the archive it has brought me great comfort that whilst I sit in a room unsure of when I’ll see anyone outside of my household again, a new voice can enter our space.

The concept is simple; a presenter, a guest, eight recordings, a luxury item and a book. But the stories are rarely simple. Tales of joy, sadness, and longing. Many guests speak of unimaginable life experiences; Dr David Nott on his willingness to sacrifice his own life so the child he was operating on in war-torn Gaza would not die alone. Some are moved to tears as they tell their stories such as Ian Wright speaking of his late teacher’s pride at him playing for England. Marian Keyes on leaving rural Ireland for the freedom of London and her addiction to alcohol. There is something special about how for over 75 years, millions have listened to this programme and the stories of people’s lives despite everything the world has thrown them- perhaps it shows the empathy we as humans have, the empathy that will be needed by the tonne as we move through this crisis.

As the epidemic rises around us, I’ve found myself listening to something that I more often than not chose to neglect, my body. Its need to be outside for a walk, its need to be fed and watered, its need and desperate want to be able to just hug my family and friends- just for a moment and to feel their mass in my arms and to breathe their smell into deep into my lungs.

To begin more actively listening to my body I’ve found myself listening to a woman from Texas who lives on my laptop screen in a section of the internet called YouTube. She is always encouraging me to “find what feels good” and usually has a dog with her too. Her name is Adriene Mishler and her channel is called Yoga with Adriene. Scrolling through Twitter, I’ve found many others have been drawn to her warmth, the way she encourages us to breathe deep or to let the weight of the day fall to the floor, to let everything go. A task easier said than done when we don’t even know what we are letting go of at the end of the day because the way we live our lives has changed so rapidly.

It is hard to listen in a world where almost every hour there is a new breaking news story related to a virus that may or may not enter our homes. In a time that will undoubtedly change the course of history. In a time when perhaps it would be much easier to tune out and to stop listening, for our own sakes.

Moving forward, we need to keep listening as stressful as it may be. Listen to everything; the theme before the news begins, our bodies telling us that it is now time to go outside and feel the weather on our faces and the sounds found in our new normal the dial tone of the phone or the note that barely lasts a second when Facetime finally connects.

Victoria Johnston is a freelancer and a MA Journalism student at Ulster University. She is from Enniskillen and is a contributor to the Impartial Reporter. She tweets at @V_toriaJohnston.


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2020