The Night Air: value-added radio

Kevin Murray

On the internet you can now listen to radio from anywhere in the world, anytime of the day. While this offers occasional treasures, such as a lost fragment of Glenn Gould, it does not have the same kind of mystery you find on radio that comes via the airwaves. It is sometimes reassuring to return to a familiar institution like Radio National and re-discover the pleasures of programming that goes beyond international and covers instead the weird expanse of Australia.
For those unable to live in the nation’s ‘centre’, Radio National connects us with its worst and best. On week nights, the arts chat-show The Night Club is inflated with that chummy Oxford Street bravura that reaches for the popular jugular, leaving the subtleties (and ratings) behind. But on Sunday evenings, The Night Air reflects a more Glebe-like way of engaging with history, surfing the archive for odd turns of meaning. For those who’d prefer to visit Gomorrah, rather that live in it, The Night Air is a weekly dose of the readerly Sydney sensibility.

As well giving us a Sydney fix, The Night Air has re-invented the medium in a bold and visionary way.

The Night Air is valued-added radio. It draws from primary sources such as Radio Eye and the The Listening Room, to produce themed programs such as “Going Bush”, “The Biff”, “For the Birds” and “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” The Night Air is broadcasting for the Google age: each of its themes is fed into the radio search engine like an encyclopaedic I Ching that creates mysterious combinations.

The Bastille Day episode illustrates the power of the program as an audio envelope. “Liberty” began with “Fugitive Promises” produced by John Jacobs and Cathy Peters. This segment was drawn from otherwise predictable sources, including a Martin Luther King speech, the Mabo decision, recordings of demonstrations. But these elements were deftly contextualised by music and cross-fades. Following this was a sermon by the Australian film maker Paul Cox on the importance of art. To younger ears, Cox can sound smug in his distaste for the mainstream. But with The Night Air treatment, a futuristic sound track was heard in the background, making his words seem more explorative and less Cox-centric. Similarly, an episode on the ‘Marsellaise’ by Kaye Mortley would have seemed quite breathy if isolated in a Radio Eye time slot. But linked with items like Robyn Ravlich’s East Timor recordings and other freedom songs, it added to a chorus-like political theme.

“Liberty” was a substantial achievement. Often in public media, we become so attuned to flippant ironies, that calls to action can seem embarrassingly naïve. The Night Air managed to present a serious message in a way that was palatable to sophisticated 21st century ears.

The Night Air can take occasional wrong turns. The choice of music can sometimes be too literal. A recent program “Poison” featured rather too obviously the Alice Cooper song of the same title. Whereas the Sunday morning Background Briefing producer Tom Morton shows how effective music can be as a subtext that adds a new dimension to the main theme, rather than a throwaway cliché.

One of the dangers of an archival program is that it settles for retro kitsch (Skippy soundtrack) rather than go all the way to the past ‘as another country’. In these cases, The Night Air is often saved by Brent Clough, whose mellow voice invites the listener into the mystery. Rather than beef the program up with a radio personality, The Night Air links items with ‘sound bridges’. Signature phrases like “breathe it in” help relieve the sometimes manic crossing of themes.

The ultimate The Night Air experience for me was during their “Going Bush” episode. After the 9 o’clock news break, the program re-commenced with a Gregorian chant. At the time, it seemed an ecstatic moment of programming genius. The idea of putting something medieval into the Australian bush had real imaginative daring. It was only when the next Gregorian track started that I realised they had begun playing Mary Nicholson’s excellent musical program Nocturne, which normally begins at 10 o’clock. It was a mistake. Naturally, I felt disappointed. But looking back now, it seems more a positive reflection of The Night Air’s power to charge otherwise familiar material with new possibility. Perhaps The Night Air could follow where chance has led them.

The Night Air reminds us that radio can be an art in itself. With time, I hope it will gain a little more confidence in that art and treat its themes a little more dialectically. There’s a lot of air left in the night.

RealTime issue #51 Oct-Nov 2002 pg. 45

© Kevin Murray; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 2002