Sunday 5 February 2012

Pick of the Week: future of radio

I've been in radioland this week picking slices of wireless programmes for the 45 minute show that is Pick of the Week (Radio 4 tonight 6.15).

Over on Comment is Free, there's a discussion going on about how come radio has survived the digital age. It's old tech, and 'technicist' interpretations of history usually come up with theories about technologies replacing each other. One way that radio has survived is that radio companies employ people who either have interesting things to say and/or people who think up interesting ways to use the medium. The big problem with that is that it requires radio bosses to accept that this requires them to give money, space and time to programme-makers. Like everywhere else, these radio producers and researchers are working longer and longer hours while spending less and less time to making each individual programme. Meanwhile, there's casualisation-creep with more and more parts of the business being done by people without pensions - and a lot else besides. Lean and hungry, get up and go, desperate to please - is one interpretation of that. Another is: insecure, worried, always aware of their own replace-ability.

As for the medium, one way to think of it from the production end is that what you're making is either noisy or silent. Noisy programmes are phone-ins which have settled into jousting matches between star presenters and callers.  Anyone seriously trying to understand what function these are serving would have to look at the general cultural and political bias of the star presenters. Perhaps that's in a book I haven't read.

Silent radio is the kind that I am mostly involved in, which makes programmes and simply sends them off, ship-in-bottles, helium balloons. Apart from a handful of listener-comments and newspaper radio reviews, no one really knows what happens to these. I say 'happens' - I mean in people's minds and in what might be called a 'social response'. A close look at these programmes would, I guess,come up with a model of broadcasting and listening that corresponds to corridors. That's to say, there is a cultural corridor in which producers and audience mingle. This is the theory of specialised audiences - in whatever terms these specialisms are defined. To take an example that doesn't exist - people interested in deep-sea diving make a programme for deep-sea divers. Or Greens make a programme for Greens. Or fans of Musical Theatre make programmes for Musical Theatre fans. The question that has sometimes interested the people who run Radio 4 is whether Musical Theatre fans will hang about listening to a programme about deep-sea diving.

Of course, the typification of people by their special interest might be a red herring. The listening demographies might be determined more or less by the amount of education people received.

One last observation about silent radio. I've often been curious about the fact that I've sat about in radio studios when someone or some people have said something that I thought was easily as important as anything you read in broadsheets or say on TV and yet such things seem to have slipped away into silence. I used to work on the World Service book review programme and each week we interviewed major international authors - Nobel prizewinners - the lot. Presumably there were people somewhere in the world who heard these but the programmes appeared to be silent. At the same time, a broadsheet newspaper with a catchment area, tiny in comparison to the World Service's, would carry an interview with the same writer and in my parish people were chatting about it, and in weeks to come references to it would crop up in other newspapers and in years to come these crop up in books. This is not a complaint. Just an observation.