Fifteen minute programmes have made a valuable contribution to the Radio 4 (R4) schedules over the decades, from Listen with mother to Letter from America.
But the number of fifteen minute programmes has now increased unfeasibly.
On Tuesdays there are currently ten of them: One to one, Book of the week, 15 minute drama, A history of ideas, Foreign bodies, The Archers, The Archers (again), 15 minute drama (again), In touch, and Book at bedtime.
It’s rather like the chef who discovered that a little salt improves the taste of a dish, so he added a whole lot more.
I think that most of these series are misguided.
There is something—something—to be said for fifteen minute readings from books.
But factual programmes don’t work because the resulting shows are either too superficial and/or too bitty.
And, like 15 minute drama serials, they risk the listener missing one or more episodes and then giving up on the whole thing.
It ends up like being taken to a restaurant by a BBC producer on Monday, only to be whipped out after the starter to be told you can’t have the main course until tomorrow, the dessert until the day after, the coffee and mints until the day after that.
A history of ideas
The Guardian reported the announcement of this series, and I commented on its website. I said “more dumbing down” and I was chided for knocking the idea of introductions to philosophy, which is not what I was saying.
An introduction doesn’t have to be patronising or dumbed down. But, I am afraid, my prediction has turned out to be true.
For me, In our time constitutes introductions to the ideas discussed, and provides the things A history of ideas doesn’t.
If you are saying that a substantial proportion of R4 listeners is too stupid to understand In our time and programmes of its quality, that’s sad. But I don’t believe it. The Radio 4 audience, like it or not, is not a cross section of the population.
But, any one who wants to find out about JS Mill, say, will buy a book. It is a fantasy to imagine that Radio 4 is going to provide a detailed, in depth analysis of any aspect of philosophy, or, indeed, of anything. That is not its self-proclaimed function, from my observation of many decades.
However, if R4 still insisted on running eleven minute programmes, each addressing one philosopher’s ideas about one subject, it would still be possible to do it in a way that did not treat its audience as if they were stupid children (Angie Hobbs was by far the worst here).
It’s the difference between a packet of crisps and visiting Le manoir aux quat’ saisons (other top restaurants are available) and sampling a few of their amuse-bouches.
It’s telling that there isn’t a reading list on each programme’s webpage. I don’t think R4 is committed to helping its listeners understand more about philosophy. It just needs to be seen to be doing something which fills some planning mandate and, on the quiet, believes it need do no more than fill this slot opened up by Home front with some cheap content. (Cheap because (a) part funded by the Open University (OU), (b) marketable to the US and other English speaking countries and (c), let’s face it, fifteen minutes of You and yours never broke the bank.)
The main problems with all these programmes this week:
1 The programmes sounds like what they are: OU content, not R4 content. I feel as if I am back at university.
2 The statements made by the presenters aren’t challenged. Philosophy is not a lecture (even with examples), it’s a conversation. Here, the presenters question their witnesses, but that doesn’t make the opinions stated of greater value or interest.
3 Why not just have a Fourthought style presentation: a person reads out eleven minutes of text?
The producer is too keen to add distracting features in an attempt, presumably, to make the content more palatable, or understandable, or interesting, or something else, when, in fact, the ultra-bittiness of these tiny programmes makes them less comprehensible and less acceptable. For example:
- recording Harry Potter in a café
- having Paul Broks the subject of a card trick
- the woman reading out the biographies of philosophers
- the phone call in Tuesday’s programme.
On the assumption that the contributors can write a good script, if the problem is that they are not naturally good as radio presenters, give them some coaching.
4 I assume the cartoons are not intended for a Radio 4 audience. As Youtube content, I am sure they will find an amused audience.
© Jeremy Marchant 2014 . corrected 31 may 2016 . image: Free images