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Wide Angle

Late-night radio: A window on intimacy


Night radio show host Macha Béranger in a studio at the Maison de la Radio, Paris, 1999.

With a freer and more intimate tone than daytime broadcasts, night-time radio  has long been the privileged place for confidences delivered in the anonymity of the night. At a time conducive to imagination and solitude, these broadcasts provide listeners with a reassuring voice that seems to speak only to them. But they are now giving way to less expensive programming.

Marine Beccarelli  

“Radio is in a way humanity that speaks to itself, that addresses itself day and night,” wrote Jean Tardieu in Grandeur et faiblesse de la radio (The grandeur and weakness of radio, UNESCO, Paris, p.22), in 1969. In fact, this humanity the French poet evoked only began to speak to itself at night quite recently.

In the early 1920s, when the first radio stations appeared, they were only on the air for a few hours daily. Programming schedules expanded gradually to fill most of the day, but broadcasts stopped when evening came. Until the late 1930s, only a few nights were exceptionally lively on the radio – Christmas and New Year's Eve, in particular, when festive and musical programmes  extended past the usual hours.

And yet, there may be no better moment to listen to the radio than during the  hours of the night – when the listener is more available, more alone, and less distracted by external demands. In the dark, the sound unfolds: “it is our hearing that we prefer to rely on”, wrote the French philosopher Michaël Foessel, in Quand la nuit s'éteint (When the night is over), in the French magazine  Esprit, No. 393 (March-April 2013, p.12).

Radio became an everyday consumer item in the 1950s, by when it was a permanent fixture in most homes and started to take over the evenings. In the United States, radio stations have been offering night-time programmes since the late 1940s – designed to make those who are still awake, dream. In Lonesome Gal, an anonymous actress whispered sweet nothings in her predominantly male listeners' ears.

A voice for night workers

In Europe, regular night-radio broadcasts were introduced in the 1950s. The first of its kind, Notturno dall'Italia, was created in Italy in 1952. It was essentially a music programme designed for people of the night – truck drivers and night watchmen, bakers and typographers, nurses and insomniacs.

In 1955, the French radio station, Paris Inter, launched the show Route de nuit. The very recent introduction of the car radio, coupled with the increase in motor traffic, made it possible to keep listeners company on the road, so that they did not fall asleep at the wheel. But very quickly, letters from the listeners testified to the success of these programmes. And their popularity soon spread beyond drivers and night workers. Insomniacs, night owls, students, artists and the elderly listened to these late-night shows. The transistor, which made it possible to individualize listening by taking one's own personal radio into the bedroom, also encouraged the development of more diversified programming.

The late programmes soon began to relay the noisy and festive sounds of the night – broadcasting from a bar, for instance. But they also created an intimate atmosphere of quiet discussion. Programmes based on true confessions from listeners began in the US in the 1960s, initiated by the influential radio talk show host Herb Jepko’s nationwide all-night show.

In France, while Ménie Grégoire's afternoon programme on the private radio station RTL gave women the chance to discuss intimate subjects starting in 1967, confessional radio shows took on a new dimension on the late-night airwaves. It began in 1975 with Ligne Ouverte (Open line), hosted by Gonzague Saint-Bris on the private radio Europe 1. Then, public radio France Inter started Allô Macha (Hello Macha) hosted by Macha Béranger, which ran from 1977 to 2006.

On these shows, listeners could call the radio station switchboard at the hour when loneliness became most pressing, and anxiety needed to be eased. This type of night programming  gradually spread throughout the world, to the point of representing the very essence of night radio – a place where people could communicate and be listened to. Where they still exist, it is these talk shows that have lasted the longest on the air.

End of late-night radio monopolies

Night-time also proved to be a playground for exploring the night in all its dimensions, and for radio creativity. Inventive and pioneering programmes were launched on the after-dark airwaves, with an almost complete freedom of tone and form, in contrast to the daytime broadcasts. An example of this is Nuits magnétiques (Magnetic nights), launched in 1978 on the public Radio France’s France Culture, which mixed the personal revelations of celebrities with those of ordinary people, in an experimental and musical, often psychedelic, sound atmosphere.

At the same time, French pirate radio stations also extensively used the night to go on the air, bypassing the state radio monopoly that had been established in 1945 – in the same way as the British or Italian pirate stations, such as Radio Alice in Bologna, had.

But the glorious hours of night-time radio seem to be long gone. The emergence of  twenty-four hour television in the late 1980s contributed to the reduction of the importance and excitement of night-radio programmes – which, until then, had a monopoly on nocturnal talk shows. Moreover, with the advent of the internet and the development of podcasts in the mid-2000s, it became possible to listen to radio on demand, disconnected from live real time.

Because of budget cuts, radio stations have chosen to replace their live broadcasts after midnight with automated music or repeats from the previous day. Yet, at night, radio voices offered listeners a presence, keeping them company in a way that has not been replaced by the communication possibilities offered by the internet and social networks.

The overabundance of images on television or online also contrasts with radio’s lack of images – which appeals to the imagination of listeners, triggering particularly strong sensations at night, and giving people the impression that the radio voices are speaking only to them.

Some radio stations still provide live late-night broadcasts. Spain’s public radio network  RNE’s Radio 3 invites listeners to explore night-related themes in Todos somos sospechosos. BBC Radio 5 Live offers Up all night, in which Rhod Sharp and other hosts present news, interviews and stories from around the world between one a.m. and five in the morning. A few web radios – and even an app, Call in the Night, an experimental radio show and telephone network which has listeners talking about their dreams – still occupy the night-time slot. After all, who says the night is just for sleeping?

Click here to read more about radio in the Courier. 

Marine Beccarelli

An expert on the history of radio, Marine Beccarelli is the author of a thesis on night radio in France and a contributor to the public radio station, France Culture.