Ten things Radio 4 should do better
BBC Radio 4 has a number of issues. One of them is that it seems it cannot see that it has these issues. And, while Feedback (Radio 4) is to be praised for getting BBC producers and managers to come onto the programme and defend their work (something which I suspect many of their listeners would be most reluctant to do), in return for their presence in front of the mic, Feedback clearly offers them not too hard a time. In this, Mr Roger Bolton, the presenter, demonstrates exemplary skills in knowing how far to go.
Focus of attention
1 UK news on Radio 4 is too London centric. Of course, the UK is structurally London centric: still much of the government happens there, many corporations are headquartered there. Nevertheless, one might be forgiven for thinking that nothing at all happens in large areas of the United Kingdom, such as Scotland and the north of England (except floods and referendums).
2 When not focussed inwards on the UK, most of Radio 4’s offshore focus in on the USA. Of course this starts with the news: international news on Radio 4 is too centred on the US. But plays, readings from books, documentaries and other programmes all focus mostly on the USA rather than examine similar topics in European countries, in particular, and the rest of the world, in general. Of course, there are financial reasons for this. Content taped in the States doesn’t need translating for UK consumption (in theory). Programmes made in English, whether or not about the US, have a market there because they don’t need translation. I am sure there is a public radio station in, say, Boston which relays In our time each week, and quite right too.
But, the British are more European than we are American. If this weren’t the case, why would so many British hate Europe so much? We always hate our family more than our neighbours. We need more news about the rest of the world, not just in bulletins, but in documentaries, features and magazine programmes. We need more plays, readings and documentaries from non-US countries and, if they need translating (which some will), so be it. Radio 4 is about quality, after all.
3 Radio 4 has far too much advertising. It seems to think that, by calling its advertisements for programmes ‘trailers’, it is not advertising. Well, calling a dog’s tail a leg doesn’t mean it has five legs. Trailers are advertisements whatever you call them. At some times of the day (particularly 5pm to 7pm on weekdays), one feels that the programming is interrupting the ads, not vice versa.
Consider Friday 13 may 2016:
Just before PM at 5pm, there was:
› an advertisement for the World on the move strand of programmes the following monday (0:39).
Then, within the PM programme itself, there were:
› an advertisement for Any questions (1:18)
› an advertisement for iPM (0:59)
› an advertisement for Broadcasting House (0:33).
The 6pm news followed immediately, followed by:
› an advertisement for the BBC music app (0:36).
The News quiz followed, then:
› three short advertisements for programmes (including a plot spoiler for The Archers) read out by the announcer (0:19)
› an advertisement for a programme about Florence Nightingale (0:38),
then news headlines at 7pm, followed by:
› an advertisement for Heresy (0:37).
Total duration of advertisements in around two hours five minutes of airtime, 5:39.
Excluding the continuity announcements, that’s seven advertisements in just over two hours on a channel which pretends it doesn’t carry advertising.
These ads come with a variety of problems:
- they are plot spoilers
- they are repetitive; they really only bear one hearing, if that
- they include content which is not in the programme (particularly music) which I feel is dishonest
- they put the listener off the programme because they give a poor impression of it
- and they are just annoying.
4 There are too many programmes in fifteen minute slots (which means, because of the advertising at either end, they run about thirteen and half minutes). I have written about one such series, A history of ideas, here. This programme had some production problems, too, which in my opinion which didn’t help. The basic point, though, is that there is no reason why the topics addressed in this series couldn’t and shouldn’t have been addressed in longer programmes.
My bête noire however is a show pretentiously called, The listening project. Occupying slots of just five minutes, in fact the one I have just sampled (13 may, 23:55) ran for 3:50, and the two contributors spoke for just 3:04. These were two sisters, one of whom had emigrated to Canada and the other had stayed in Scotland. The presenter, Miss Fi Glover, said, “they discuss the profound sense of loss that emigration has left them with”. Note those words: “profound”, “sense of loss”, “emigration”. And these major topics are all dealt with in 184 seconds!
Worse, there was no structured intervention in the dialogue between these two women, no questioner posing (short) pointed questions. It is presumably called The listening project because the BBC makes no effort to impose any professional standards on the show, relying instead on a faux mystical belief that just listening to people talk makes great radio. Well it may do if it were better done and if it were done at greater length. But in reality:
- either what these people are saying is worth listening to (and in this case I suspect is is), so it deserves more time (half an hour per show, minimum) and a competent interviewer; as it stands it’s an insult to the listener and the participants
- or it’s not worth hearing, in which case why broadcast it? After all, the BBC could have broadcast some advertisements—sorry, trailers—instead.
I mention this at length because it is a bellwether, I believe; an indication of the dumbing down and fragmentation that is still to come.
5 One of my main issues that I have with Radio 4 is the level of intelligence, knowledge and experience it appears to assume in its listeners. Maybe they are right in their assumptions. But much—the overwhelming majority—of the material would not trouble an averagely intelligent twelve year old, either in terms of language, ideas or content. Indeed I often wonder why Radio 4 doesn’t promote this material to that age group, it having been criticised for abandoning actual ‘children’’s broadcasting.
For example, on the 1pm news, 26 may, in a piece about migration into the UK, the newsreader felt it necessary to explain to us—yet again—that ‘net migration’ is “the difference between the number of people moving here and those leaving”. I think Miss Steel, the newsreader, should feel confident that, if she knows what the word ‘net’ means, then so do we. This definition is read out on every news bulletin in which that the term is mentioned, so most listeners will have heard it dozens of times. It turned up again at 5pm on PM. Talking down to the audience isn’t necessary.
This patronising tone extends to many magazine programmes and will be the subject of a longer blog soon. Meanwhile, this tiny, but much repeated example, will have to stand as a placeholder.
Another issue is the number of programmes in fifteen minute slots (usually of duration around 13½ minutes to cater for the advertising). Some of these are soaps, but a number dealt with subjects which seem to have been cut to ribbons to fit the slot. It’s not the existence of short programmes to which I object, it is their proliferation (and, indeed some shows are as short as five minutes).
6 Science. Let’s accept that most Radio 4 staff do not have an education in science, don’t have much knowledge of it, don’t understand much of it, aren’t interested in it, and don’t believe that what they were taught in ‘lit crit’ about assessing differing points of view has any defects when it comes to science.
In the past, we have had presenters in this area who have had real credibility (Dr Michael O’Donnell being but one). But I regret to say that people such as Adam Rutherford (Inside science) and Claudia Hammond (All in the mind), in their attempts to identify with the listener, I assume, wear their scientific credentials too lightly. Indeed, it was years before I realised that Hammond wasn’t just some hack.
So those presenters, like Rutherford and Hammond, who actually could be credible if they weren’t so shy, should ‘show up’. That includes Jim Al-Khalili (The life scientific), whose scripts sound über-controlled to me, however affably the man may come over. Mark Porter (Inside health) strikes the right balance and shows it can be done.
Otherwise, and this particularly applies to news bulletins and news magazines, if the editors and staff are scientifically illiterate could they please just ignore science stories rather than reveal their weaknesses. Most people interested in science will go to a reputable source anyway, such as New scientist, against which BBC Radio 4 does not compare well. Best to let go of the things you can’t do.
7 The arts. The arts are clearly seen by the BBC as the high end of entertainment. I address classical music below, but all the arts are treated with a wafer-thin shallowness, and a patronising attitude both to the artists and the radio audience. There is a magazine programme at 19:15 on Radio 4, Front row, which, though it would like to consider itself as an arts magazine (and, indeed, it is, extraordinarily, referred to as such by Tom Sutcliffe on his radio show, Saturday review), is nothing of the sort.
It has items about entertainment (mass market films, musicals, pop music and so) with the occasional piece about some serious art which is covered in the same way as all the other items, namely with an assumption that they, too must be all be treated with the same shallowness as the lightest weight material. As with science, I would rather that Radio 4 stop covering the arts if it cannot do so with any credibility and without the thin veneer of contempt which it overlays on so much its treatment. It does, after all, have a valid reason for abandoning this coverage; namely, that Britain is a nation of philistines and it is entirely appropriate that the BBC, as the national broadcaster, should reflect that. All I ask is that the BBC does not vandalise art in the way that Radio 4 currently does.
8 Radio 4 prides itself on its drama. In truth drama output is very varied—and variable.
I like and applaud original drama: stories invented by the writers. It’s not all first rate, but it is usually worth airing, because it is a brave attempt to do something different or interesting or compelling or whatever and, if it doesn’t come off, there’s no reason for the listener not to have given the time and attention it is worth.
I am very queasy about adaptations of “classic” books. Firstly, these books are usually by Dickens or Galsworthy and intrinsically second or third rate. We seem to get the same thing over and over; at the moment it is the Forsyte saga yet again. This should really stop.
As should those dramas which are nothing more than illustrated monologues. The dramatist, unable to actually to produce a drama, cuts and pastes portions of the text which someone reads out and, from time to time, some actors act out the dialogue bits. This should really be stopped, too.
Thirdly, we often get a “classic drama”. This consists of a substantial, and possible great, usually nineteenth century, work which is cut to ribbons, small bits of which are then either presented as drama, or as an illustrated monologue, thus ruining any sense of the grandeur of the original and reducing it to a sort of strip cartoon from which you have lost most of the strips.
The greater the source work, the more tempting it may be to those at Radio 4, but the more one can guarantee that a ‘dramatisation’ of it will be a flop.
Use of music
9 Let’s stop the widespread abuse of classical music.
Classical music does not represent an endless repository of nice noises with which producers can decorate their programmes. Music is art. A piece of music deserves to be heard in its entirety and in silence.
Any other use of this art, other than in programmes about pieces of music for which excerpts are entirely reasonable, represents contempt. Contempt for the composer; contempt for the performers (who are never credited); contempt for the listeners—or at least those listeners who are receptive to the music but also, I would argue, those listeners who could be receptive to it were the music presented properly and respectfully; and, of course, contempt for the music itself which producers gaily prostitute unknowing and uncaring that that is what they are doing.
As I have said, Britain is a philistine country and it is appropriate that the BBC is therefore a philistine organisation (though whether that was Reith’s intention is debatable). And it is in its abuse of art, and of classical music most of all, because that is a sound-only medium, that it shows its philistinism most clearly.
10 In fact, let’s stop the abuse of music generally on Radio 4. Documentary shows are increasingly presented with a background of music, usually banal, slow doodling on the piano. It might add atmosphere, but is it (I hardly dare use the word) respectful of the content which is being portrayed or discussed? No, it’s being done because this is an increasing trend on television and radio producers want to be like their big brothers and sisters in television. Stop it. It’s crass.
© Jeremy Marchant 2016 . subbed and extended slightly 4 june 2016 . 1 august 2017 . image: Free images
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Very well said. I agree 100% and it is refreshing to learn that someone else has a problem with the useless ‘The Listening Project’: a historical archive of non-historically relevant banality that I ditest.