Radio of the year: Just don't mention digital

From migrating swans to Mexico, taking in Kathleen Ferrier on the way, it's been a good year

Searching for the plums in this year's radio orchard, it is themes and voices more than specific programmes that come to mind. The World Service, with its global network of intrepid local reporters, covered the daunting subjects of Aids, drought, disability and war with predictable efficiency.

Rarely has the divide between the haves and have-nots been more graphically illustrated than in its series The Politics of Water, when reporter Michael Embley described living conditions on either side of the Rio Grande. Singer Will Rogers called it the only river he knows in need of irrigation.

On the American side, residents have power showers, plunge pools and walk-in refrigerators. On the Mexican side, whole settlements share a single tap if they're lucky and walk 20 miles to the nearest water supply if they are not.

Water was also at the heart of the matter when playwrights from 12 countries collaborated in cyberspace to produce a haunting, peripatetic, hydrophonic soundscape called We Are Water that moved with the sun from East Africa to Peru, Iceland, Australia and Croatia. With cheap flights and hi-tech communications making the remotest corners of the world accessible, we sometimes forget that millions of years before Bell, Marconi, Gates and Ryanair, mother nature took global migration in her stride.

Radio 4's natural history department gave us a couple of unforgettable A Year in the Life documentaries about an Atlantic seal and a wildebeest, but it was probably Migration, the epic series tracking six swans from their summer feeding grounds in the Russian tundra to their winter quarters in East Anglia, that caught the public's imagination. It certainly caught mine, even though none of the swans made it to Norfolk.

Three of them never made it anywhere, the others settled in Sweden and Holland, but as always it was the travelling more than the arriving that mattered. Having first tagged the swans with radio transmitters, Brett Westwood followed their progress with daily updates on the Today programme which must have boosted its ratings no end. That's unfair. Every one who wants to stay au fait with the news, listens to Today. Only those with a piano tuner's ear can gauge how much it has changed since maverick editor Rod Liddle left and the innovative Kevin Marsh took over, but it says much for the programme's overall reputation that, despite the Andrew Gilligan debacle and the likelihood of cosmic reverberations when the Hutton report comes out, it is still essential listening.

As usual, Classic FM gets D-minus for playlist originality and A-plus for enterprise when it comes to initiatives such as the Masterprize competition for new music. It's a roadshow which had a quintet from the Guildhall School of Music introducing thousands of schoolchildren to serious music all over the country, and television's first 24/7 classical music show, which in a year has attracted 4.4 million viewers - half of them under 35. More people in London listen to Classic FM than to Kiss, Magic or Radio 1 but, despite its popularity (6.9 million nationwide), I cleave to Radio 3 as the true habitat of the serious music lover. Who else would give us a whole evening devoted to Kathleen Ferrier, a whole day to Hector Berlioz?

Then, of course, there were the Proms, better than ever this year, with war appropriately as one of the themes. Even by Radio 3 standards there was an embarras de richesses last year but, if forced to choose a single programme, I would opt for Discovering Music, in which Charles Hazlewood interpreted with passion and panache one of Mozart's last symphonies.

I said that it was voices I remembered most on radio. Hazlewood's was one, V. S. Ramachandran, this year's Reith lecturer, was another. With the timing of a stand-up, Rama, as he is called, deconstructed brain functions such as synaesthesia for us. Shakespeare, he said, was probably a synaesthete (people who see numbers as colours and vice versa) because only someone with irregularity synaptic connections would think of writing the Macbeth speech that begins 'Out, out brief candle'.

There were other voices too: veteran cricket commentator John Arlott describing his friendship with Dylan Thomas and their pub crawls round north London, ending up at a Camden undertaker's. And Alastair Cooke, 95 and still going strong, remembering his eighth birthday in Salford in 1916 when he was thinking about his cake and everyone else was talking about a battle in France by a river called the Somme.

As for drama, there was the Radio 4's Beyond the Canvas, where playwrights put stories to Old Masters, and, of the classic series, I relished Hard Times, Brideshead Revisited and The Remains of the Day.

I am not a sports lover but the sporty members of my family heap praise on Five Live coverage of every sporting event, especially the Rugby World Cup, whose commentaries they listened to as they watched the matches on TV.

I'd be lying if I said my favourite station was Radio 1 but I recognise a good broadcaster when I hear one. Chris Moyles is that broadcaster and his promotion from drive-time to breakfast show, jewel in the Radio 1 peak-listening crown, is not before time. Officially it's a straight swap with Sara Cox but if you read between the statistics, you'll appreciate why they've been switched.

Since Cox took over four years ago, the breakfast show has lost a million listeners. Since Moyles took over drive-time five years ago, he's gained a million. He's more than a likely lad, he's a grown-up lad, which is why he always bags the Loaded, FHM and Sun best broadcaster awards. Good luck to him.

I haven't mentioned any digital stations which, considering one opens almost every week, seems uncaring. It is. When any single digital station produces as much variety and excellence as a single day in the life of Radio 3 or 4 I shall think again.

Radio top 10

Discovering Music R3

From Our Own Correspondent World Service & R4

In Our Time R4

The Leeds International Piano Competition R3

Julian Warwicker's Phone-In Five Live

Chris Moyles R1

The Remains of the Day R4

Ferrier Night R3

Master Prize Classic FM

Migration R4

Turkey of the year

You and Yours R4


Sue Arnold

The GuardianTramp

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