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Friday, 1 December, 2000, 12:14 GMT
Young imaginations get a shot of magic
Don't look here for pictures, they're in the mind
Shhh. Listen to this.

Imagine a world without cartoons, without videos, and without computer games.

It's a world where children don't stare at television screens, which splurge out thousands of images every minute.

Instead, it's a strange, magical place where children sit and listen, intrigued by the stories they are being told.

Pictures do still exist, but they're inside the children's heads. They are as vivid and colourful as anything a cathode ray tube has ever delivered.

Less dream, more magic

It sounds like a dream world, but on Boxing Day this year parents across the country may just catch a glimpse of it. For eight solid hours homes will be filled with the sounds of quidditch, muggles, Hagrid, and the rest of the world of Harry Potter.

Fry's talkish delight for Potter fans
Helen Boaden, the controller of Radio 4, has taken the bold decision to air Harry Potter and the Philospher's Stone in one uninterrupted session, read by Stephen Fry.

She took the decision with one thing in mind: "I felt that [Stephen Fry] reading Harry Potter on Radio 4 might be a way of bringing a new generation of children... to the magical experience of listening to speech radio and seeing the pictures in their heads."

Romantic notion

The question must be asked, however, if listening to the radio actually has any postive benefit on children, or whether it is simply a romantic notion of parents who are harking back to their own childhoods.

One argument used in favour of children's radio is that in today's world they are bombarded with photographs, drawings, animations, and computer characters. They have little need to use their imaginations, and many people fear that like anything else, if an imagination goes unused it will never develop.

Susan Stranks, a former presenter of ITV's Magpie and Paper Play, now runs a campaign arguing for the establishment of a national children's radio network.

It may be entertaining, but what good is it doing?
She has in the past been highly critical of the BBC for not providing any dedicated radio for young children, and warmly welcomes Helen Boaden's decision.

"Radio for children does encourage them to make their pictures in their heads. But it doesn't just stimulate their imagination, it encourages their concentration and their creativity too," she says.

One in five children suffers from delays in their learning of language, she says, a figure which rises to 40% for those who live in inner cities.

Central tool

Experts put this down largely to a lack of listening skills, something which radio can address. There is also some evidence, she says, that attention deficit disorder is a result of not being able to listen.

But instead of being something marginal, kept for special occasions like Christmas, she believes radio should be "the most important tool in learning".

There is also, she says, the simple issue of the 20% of the population who are under 15 not having any dedicated service.

Helen Boaden: "The magical experience of listening to speech radio"

Tina Bilbé, of the Society for Storytelling, agrees with the calls, saying you can see the difference in children when they have been listening to stories. It is like their imaginations are being unlocked.

"You're doing more than entertaining them," she says. Increasing attention span is just one benefit.

"I have very vivid memories as a small child sitting on the back lawn while my mother was shelling peas, listening to Larry the Lamb. It's such a very clear memory, that's something that happens when you listen without the pictures."

In creating Harry Potter, J K Rowling has done a lot to reveal the joy of reading to a new generation.

Time will tell if the young wizard will work the same magic on the joy of listening to the radio.

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