Radio: Deficient Definitions

Bemused by its ancient reputation, I used to think of Radio 3 as the twentieth-century equivalent of Renaissance Man, super-catholic in its interests, acquainted with every avenue of human knowledge and well-versed in most of them, questing, innovative as to matter and to form, discriminating, exemplary: ‘Although no intellectual vulture/What I don’t broadcast isn’t culture’. Of course I should have known better: no radio network could possibly live up to that, based as it is not only on an Arcadian memory of a Third Extenze Program that never was, but on a set of simple-minded expectations not very different from those of the average hero-worshipper or pop fan. But what I really did not appreciate until I had a closer look was the width of the gap dividing even my more reasonable expectations from the reality.

What has drawn my attention to the matter has been to hear the network praised by other people – ‘Oh but I think Radio 3’s absolutely marvellous’ – and to find myself nodding like one of those dogs in the rear window of a car while at the same time registering a certain absence of enthusiastic agreement. In fact I now realize that for some time I have not been getting a vast amount of pleasure or what I take to be profit from the output. So I have done a rough analysis of that output since the end of April to see if I can find out why.

A major reason is not hard to find: some 90 per cent of the material is music and, much as I enjoy the stuff, I am not a very frequent listener. Surely Radio 3 cannot be blamed for the priorities of my daily life. And, besides, it is carrying out a considered policy. On the other hand, if you stop to consider that our major cultural network appears to have defined culture as nine-tenths music, one tenth the rest, does that not sound a bit odd?

What of the remaining tenth? It is divided between plays, talks, conversations, discussions, documentaries, features, poetry, stories and other readings. This sounds rich enough and in some respects it is, but – and this is my point – the tendency of all this material is further to define culture as meaning arts and literature. I say tendency, but the inclination is so pronounced as to be very nearly horizontal.

Plays, poems, stories, readings: these are by definition art and literature – or they aspire to be – but again, if you take the subject-matter of all the rest, the talks, the documentaries, the discussions, it exhibits precisely the same bias. Overwhelmingly these types of programs talk to and about writers, musicians, artists in a broad sense. After this the second biggest category, but trailing the first by several laps, is what might in general terms be called political – the kind of thing currently exemplified by The Star Wars History or, even more recently, La Famille africaine. The third largest category is scientific, which on my count has entered six programs, including one repeat, in six months. The comparable figure for the arts/literature group is around thirty. I cannot help recalling here that, when a little while ago I spoke to Geoff Deehan, radio’s senior producer of scientific programs, he gave me to understand that he was well content with the Radio 3 uptake. In fairness the excellent Wolpert conversations had at that time just been repeated and they were something to be proud of. They can currently be found at the website

Anyway, what is wrong with this? Does it matter if our cultural network defines culture as 99 per cent arts and literature and most of that percentage music? Obviously I think it does; I think it is a woeful limitation. Huge areas of interest are simply excluded from Radio 3’s world. There is little or no talk of medicine, religion, psychology, education, anthropology, the social sciences, industry – even as artistico-literary a field as history does not get much of a look-in.

I realize that to make a better showing in cultural catholicity there would have to be less music and with BBC commitments to players, I am aware of the difficulties of achieving that. But it is a grotesque imbalance that virtually all of every day and sometimes even all of an evening too should be given over to a single art-form. In other contexts we should call it surfeit and indeed the question does arise: what are the effects? Now there is a program Radio 3, of all networks, ought to make and has not. To make a better showing also needs the realization that one is called for and the will to do it, to step up speech output and widen its range. Does the realization – does the will – exist? We have, many of us, been educated to believe that the arts are next to or even a bit ahead of godliness, and after them politics the most important of human activities, a pattern pretty much reflected in the Radio 3 output. So change is likely to be difficult. But, without it, what?

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