Radio: Is the BBC at last learning to listen?

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The Independent Culture
Y ou notice them from time to time: little signs, like snowdrops, of a gradual thaw in the ice-age of Thatcherism. Esso stops charging customers for the use of its air pumps. A sort of Labour Party wins an election. And the BBC acts on a listener's suggestion sent to Feedback.

This one was about The Archers. (A few weeks ago I promised I wouldn't write about The Archers again, not for a while, that is. It has now been a while.) Or, more accurately, the announcements immediately preceding The Archers. These used to be gloriously inconsequential, doing nothing more than setting the opening scene for us. "It's Tuesday morning, and in the dairy, Pat can't find her rubber gloves." The first line of dialogue would then be: "Clarrie, have you seen my rubber gloves?"

Then, one day, some genius at missing the point decided that this wasn't the way to pull in listeners. For the bathetic link actually served to divert, like a magician's sleight of hand, our suspicion that something rather exciting was going to happen later on. Anyway, back to our genius. Genius, always looking out to increase ratings, starts making the announcers alert us to the most significant moment of the forthcoming episode, even if it didn't happen until the end. So, for example, if this genius had been appointed a year ago, we would have heard, after the news, someone saying this: "And now, in The Archers, something absolutely horrible is about to happen to John Archer. In fact, after a row with his dad, he is going to be crushed by his own tractor."

So someone wrote in to Feedback, which you normally feel is about as effective as writing the name of your loved one on a scrap of paper and burning it in a silver bowl by moonlight. But this brave man patiently pointed out that new listeners were hardly likely to be enticed by being promised developments in a soap opera they knew nothing about; and that established listeners would just get pissed off. (A phrase given linguistic authority and respectability ever since young Tommy Archer used it explosively a month or two ago. Society tottered but remains intact, if only just. The day Peggy Woolley says "bollocks", don't even bother running for the bunkers - we're all doomed.)

And now the strangest thing has happened: the BBC has taken some kind of notice. They are groping towards understanding and, as you might expect, have some way to go - this is just another example of how the clash between Reithian and Birtian values affects us at ground level - but they're getting there. Last week, we were told, before the theme music, that "It's Tuesday morning, and George is getting cantankerous." Splendid - this is what we want to hear. The effect was spoiled a bit when the show opened without George - it was Jack and Peggy Woolley being, as usual, stupid and snobbish respectively - but he did show up after a few minutes and, lo, he was indeed cantankerous. (I shall spare you the details. Even the other characters, who tolerate rank tedium to a degree not found in the real world anywhere, not even in East Finchley, are fed up with him.)

So the BBC is nearly there. I can quite understand how they don't want to go back to the old way of doing things all at once - these days the prime duty of a public service provider is not to listen to the public - but to admit you were wrong, even in a half-hearted way, shows we are making progress.

Another example is the decision to keep Radio 3 broadcasting all through the night. The other day they played, in the very wee hours of the morning, a whole slew of late Beethoven string quartets performed by the Busch quartet. These 60-year-old recordings are not only the finest ever made, but the scratchy patina of age gives them an added charm. I don't know how many insomniac Beethoven nuts were listening at that time of night, but this one felt extraordinarily privileged, as if the BBC were broadcasting just for him. And there is nothing, repeat nothing, better to listen to on your own in the kitchen at three in the morning than late Beethoven string quartets.

Meanwhile, under the convenient disguise of National Learning at Work Day, Radio 1 pioneered a new job-sharing scheme for disc jockeys, probably with a view to reducing salary overheads in the future. If you have ever thought that being a DJ was easy, I could do that, you don't even have to play records any more, you just stick a CD in a machine, etc, then Thursday afternoon would have confirmed your suspicions, when Vince from Security and Bridie from the canteen at BBC's Manchester HQ took over the beginning of Mark and Lard's show. They did very well, got all the catchphrases right or near enough. Meanwhile, Mark Radcliffe gave everyone the wrong colour passes and Lard, in the kitchens, had to come in and ask where the gravy boat was - Bridie: "In the corner." Lard (panicking): "Which corner? There are four of them!" - and overcharged John Birt for his poached egg. God save us, they're even funny when they're not on the air.