Listen: it's a brainstorm

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The Independent Culture
It is no longer news that Radio 4 is, as the dismal saying goes, "dumbing down". But last week's papers were once again full of gleeful attacks on the hapless controller, James Boyle, whose most important news programme, Today, had suffered a slump of 17 per cent in the latest quarterly audience figures. But this time there was an intriguing new twist to the saga. Word seeped out that at a Christmas party a group of pals - the writers Tariq Ali and Howard Brenton, the music critic Dominic Gill and the composer Michael Nyman - had hatched a plan to set up a rival station for the intellectually ambitious. It would be called Radio Einstein, and it would be "unashamedly" elitist. A "modern version of the old Third Programme", it would operate on the assumption that "kids are not stupid".

Naturally the BBC responded by insisting that Radio 3 was still "unashamedly" - that word again - serious (Look! Messiaen!). What else could it do? But it was a little dismaying to see that most critics were equally quick to scoff, satirising the idea as likely to appeal only to a small chattering corner of Hampstead. It seems a shame. On the face of it, Radio Einstein ought to be good news. Things truly have come to a pretty pass if our first response to an attempt to lift people's horizons, instead of lowering them, is to portray it as ridiculous.

More to the point, why should anyone mind? It would be one thing for the publicly funded BBC to aim for a small audience, but there is no reason why a private enterprise shouldn't feel free to target the scholarship set if it wants to. Apparently it is seeking an audience of only 100,000 - a small enough elite to count almost as a persecuted minority. Who should mind if a few determined culture-vultures want to listen to Stockhausen and elaborate debates about the European project? In the all-singing, all-dancing world of deregulated media, anything goes: it's just horses for courses, isn't it? And it is just as rude to jeer at people who want to listen to Stockhausen as it is to sneer at those who listen to Boyzone.

Some of the early hype about Radio Einstein was, to say the least, a little short on glamour. There was talk of live debates on "town planning" - a less than enticing prospect, even if he does sound like a Danish sculptor. And of course the name itself is dreadful: pretentious, exclusive, and "unashamedly" (Einstein being a byword for sheer abstract brain power) aimed as much at people who fancy themselves brainy as at those who truly are.

Presumably the name was born out of some ironic German pun on Radio 1 (Radio Ein). But Einstein is something more than a historical figure; he is a figure of speech. "Put it this way, he's no Einstein," we say, when we wish to damn with faint praise. The perfection of his work, in which one of the central mysteries of the universe could apparently be solved with a childish three-letter equation, makes him magical. But his achievement remains elusive since so few of us actually understand what code it was he cracked. He stands for something both simple and impossible to grasp. Is this a good formula for commercial success? Perhaps not.

It is quite possible, too, that the new station will make a classic mistake and confuse quality - the degree to which a work trembles with life - with mere taste. Do people go to Covent Garden because they love Mozart, or simply because they enjoy "the opera" (especially those marvellous intervals)? It is perfectly possible both to love music and to find Stockhausen an uphill slog. Difficulty is not a vice if it is the only way to achieve rare effects, but it is hardly a virtue in itself. A station that sets out merely to intimidate would clearly be doomed.

But there is no reason to think that this is what Einstein's founders have in mind. And the scoffing noises might well be the sound of people missing the point. Nyman ... Brenton ... Tariq Ali - these are not nitwits with nothing better to do than hug the radio all day. They are busy and ambitious people who do not live vicariously: they write plays and film scores and have their friends round for dinner. If anything, what they seek to establish is an outlet for their work, not something to beguile them on a rainy afternoon.

And if their eyes are fixed upwards, on a radio station that will stretch their listeners rather than merely try to please them, it is because they sniff a commercial opportunity in them there trills. Radio Einstein is a clear-sighted attempt to go after a tangible market niche - the high ground - and good luck to them. What a precedent it would set if it worked. Naturally, only in a deregulated media world would such a thing be even possible. It really would be ironic if the ferocious free market - Tariq Ali would probably call it "unfettered" - ended up inspiring precisely the kind of radio he thinks it has in its sights.