Hannah Kate

poet, short story writer and editor based in Manchester

Tune In: A Selection of Radio-Inspired Fiction

On Saturday’s Hannah’s Bookshelf on North Manchester FM, I chose a theme that… well… I have no idea why I haven’t done before! I decided to take a look at some books about radio, radio presenters and podcasters from a range of different genres. I tried to stick to fiction (or at least narrative non-fiction) rather than non-fiction books about the history of radio – but there are a lot of interesting examples of those, so I might have to save that as a theme for another time.

If you missed the show, you can catch it again on the player at the bottom of this post. But, as promised on the show, here’s a list of the titles featured on this week’s episode…

Thunderstruck by Erik Larson (2006)

I thought we should start at the very beginning on today’s show. Although the rest of the books on today’s list are fiction, I began with some creative non-fiction. Larson’s book tells the story of Guglielmo Marconi’s experiments with radio transmission, and we couldn’t have a show about radio without a little bit of Marconi!

Thunderstruck isn’t just Marconi’s story. This is interspersed with the story of Dr Hawley Harvey Crippen, who murdered his wife Cora in 1910. The two strands of the story are told separately – as Marconi and Crippen never met – but the exciting thing about the book is the way that the two parallel narratives are brought together in a dramatic conclusion, as Dr Crippen attempts to flee across the Atlantic to evade arrest. My small criticism of the book would be that it is a bit too sympathetic towards Crippen (and worryingly unsympathetic towards his victim), but Thunderstruck is still an excellent book to kick off the list today. The Marconi sections of the story are genuinely fascinating, and the descriptions of his inventions and their implications really underline the excitement around radio’s potential to change the world.

Radio Silence by Alice Oseman (2016)

On to the fiction now, and jumping ahead to a story from a much later part of the story of radio. As I said at the beginning of the show, the books on today’s list aren’t just about radio presenters but about podcasters as well… I wonder if Marconi foresaw that when he first started experimenting with long-distance transmission?

I have two books featuring podcasters on today’s show. The first is Oseman’s (sort of) coming-of-age YA novel. Radio Silence‘s protagonist is Frances, who is on the verge of taking up a place at university that she has studied very hard to get. But there’s more to Frances than meets the eye, and she’s holding some secrets beneath her studious surface. When she meets Aled, the presenter of her favourite podcast, a friendship blossoms that allows both the characters to gain more confidence in their identities and confront some of their personal demons. The friendship between Frances and Aled is a big draw with this book – it’s a warm and endearing relationship that is very enjoyable to read. Radio Silence also gives a good depiction of the intimacy and immediacy of podcasts, and the characteristic sense of connection that can develop between presenters and their listeners. It’s a far cry from a ship-to-shore message across the Atlantic!

I, Partridge: We Need to Talk About Alan by Alan Partridge (2011)

What can I say about this next book? It wouldn’t be a radio show about fictional radio presenters without an offering from the legend that is Alan Partridge, would it? And given that his creator is a North Manchester lad himself (well, Middleton), it seems more than fitting to turn out attention to Mr Partridge now.

I don’t think I need to say much by way of introduction to the character of Alan Partridge. On the show, I did point out that I hadn’t realized how painfully accurate some of his mannerism are until I was presenting a radio show myself. Trust me, Accidental Partridge is a constant occupational hazard when you’re in the studio. I, Partridge is Alan’s autobiography (written with a little help from Steve Coogan, Armando Iannucci, Rob Gibbons and Neil Gibbons), and it does include a lot of material about Alan’s radio career. It’s a genuinely funny book (as you would expect!), and it has a lot of material fans will enjoy. I particularly enjoyed Alan reflecting back on his time at the Linton Travel Tavern, giving an additional perspective on the characters he (and we) met there, and some anecdotes that enhance a rewatch of I’m Alan Partridge. When it comes to fictional radio presenters, there’s no one who can match Alan.

Radio Boy by Christian O’Connell (2017)

From an autobiography written by a fictional radio presenter to a fiction written by a real radio presenter now. Christian O’Connell has worked as a radio DJ for years on a number of stations, and he’s now turned his hand to writing children’s books.

Radio Boy introduces us to Spike Hughes, an eleven-year-old boy with a passion for radio presenting. When Spike’s gig on hospital radio is cancelled, and he misses out on another opportunity, he decides to create his own radio station with a little help from his friends. Radio Boy is a lovely book, with plenty of hijinks (do not try this at home, kids) and friendship. Spike has to overcome a number of obstacles to achieve his dream – not least some tricky relationships with the adults in his life – but his passion and enthusiasm for radio presenting are pretty infectious.

Six Stories by Matt Wesolowski (2016)

We’re back to podcasters now, and returning to a series I’ve spoken about on the show before (very effusively!). The next book on today’s list is the first in Wesolowski’s Six Stories series, a horror/crime series that takes its inspiration from some real-life true crime podcasts.

Our fictional podcaster here is Scott King, a shadowy figure who presents the eponymous show. The fictional Six Stories podcast revisits cold cases and old crimes in an attempt to shed new light on them. The six episodes for each case take a different perspective on events, through interviews and narration from various people involved. At the end of the sixth episode, the listener (in the fictional world) is asked to make their own mind up about what really happened. Six Stories (the book) is told through the podcast itself. Although there are some small narrative additions that frame each chapter, the story is told through the transcript of the podcast. So the six chapters are, in fact, the six episodes. I love this format, and I also love the way the novels in the series bring together cold case crimes with the suggestion of paranormal horror and urban legends. In this first book in the series, the podcaster turns his attention to the case of Tom Jefferies, a teenager who died while on an outdoor pursuits weekend in the North East. Through interviews with friends and acquaintances of Tom’s, as well as witnesses to the events leading up to the boy’s death, the podcast pieces together an unsettling tale of teenage hierachies, imposing landscapes and the suggestion of something much more frightening. I am huge fan of this series, and for that reason Six Stories definitely belongs on today’s list!

Radio Girls by Sarah-Jane Stratford (2016)

The final book on today’s list takes us back in time – not quite as far as Marconi’s early transmission experiments, but pretty far from the edgy podcasts of Wesolowski’s Scott King! I ended the show this week by talking about some historical fiction, set in 1926 in the early days of the British Broadcasting Corporation.

Stratford’s book is the story of Maisie Musgrave, a young woman excited to have landed a job as a secretary at the BBC. Surrounded by the bustle and energy of the new broadcasting corporation, Maisie is fascinated by the world of radio and its brand-new breed of presenters. When she gains a mentor in Hilda Matheson, the director of the Talks programme, Maisie starts to see a future for herself in the wonderful world of radio. But – and there’s always a but, isn’t there? – there are murky things going on behind closed doors, and the more Maisie gets drawn into the world of broadcasting, the more she gets drawn into a rather dark conspiracy. Radio Girls is a real page-turner, and it’s filled with a sense of tangible excitement about the possibilities radio broadcasting has to offer, as well as some charming period detail. It was a great book to end today’s list, as it reminds of the all-important step that turned Marconi’s radio transmissions into a regular programme of radio broadcasts, without which we would never have known the joys of radio shows, podcasts, and Alan Partridge.

For more info about all of these books – and my reasons for choosing them – you can listen to the show again here:

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