RADIO / Sorry, much too hip to think straight

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The Independent Culture
RADIO 1's legal department must be a dusty place. The sort of journalism that risks libel actions is not Radio 1's style. You had only to listen to the fulsome thanks paid by Simon Bates to PR firms on Christmas Eve to appreciate the station's cosy relations with the record industry. It struck a Faustian bargain long ago: its critical soul in exchange for eternal access to the stars.

The dud fruit of the deal has been rotting the airwaves this week, in a series of documentaries in place of holidaying DJs. The most inventive was Zoo Radio, an account of the best-selling rock band U2 and their present world tour, recorded in Denver and Los Angeles. The programme resembled the show, flitting between the words and music of the band, and a battery of satellite channels. It was like watching television while a child played with the zapper. Buffeted by snatches of George Bush, Marshall McLuhan and space invaders, you longed for continuous discourse. 'It's very confusing, and it's about confusion,' explained the singer Bono, deeply.

The promotion notes called it 'post-modern', but it seemed more like a way of being portentous and ironic at the same time. The band threw out half-articulated ideas which they were too hip to pursue. Afraid of ridicule, they ridicule themselves. One of them (usually Bono) would comment astutely on rebellion's new respectability or the value of contradiction. But the quote would be interrupted by a husky jingle or jeered by the rest of the band. 'To all accusations of being pretentious - guilty, your honour,' pleaded Bono, characteristically seeking to pre-empt the catcalls. They weren't pretentious enough.

Gloria Estefan, one of pop's brighter stars (a BA in psychology) was pitted against Nicky Campbell, Radio 1's answer to Michael Ignatieff. The gaff was blown after about five minutes: 'Let's have something from this greatest hits compilation that's just come out,' Campbell suggested. The writing had been on the wall in his opening gambit, which informed us that he'd been told, 'You will not meet a nicer person.' Still, he managed to elicit some squirming revisionism on her support for George Bush, and a harrowing account of her car crash. And she did seem nice. She must be: she laughed at Campbell's jokes.

'I can be a bitch on wheels,' commented Cher on Cher (R1). An armour-plated bore too, it turned out. She's unlikely to be invited on Just a Minute. True, she's unhesitating, and rarely deviates from the subject, so long as it's herself, but, boy, does she repeat herself. There was about 15 minutes' material in this hour-and-a-half. Cher kept describing people as 'unbelievably interesting', and making them sound the opposite. Simon Bates provided his usual gruesomely sensitive line of questioning on her man trouble - 'Because you're so disciplined how did you cope with the horror?'; 'Were you upset as a woman when you left?' - periodically emitting a mock-sympathetic grunt.

Cher may have had cosmetic surgery on her brain, but Radio 1 can surely do better than this. With Radio 3 and 4's arts programmes uninterested in pop, an influential art is covered almost entirely frivolously by BBC radio. Radio 1 puts forward its responsible programming as an argument against privatisation. But in serious comment on popular music, it's hard to see how a commercial station could do worse.

Sexual intercourse began in 1963. With typical promptness, radio has just discovered it. Expect an orgy of programmes this year. The first, and probably one of the best, is Sex in the Head (R4), a series about sexual fantasies. Bold members of the public outline their fantasies and how they use them, while 'specialists' pop up to explain things like the way we select from a 'menu' of scenarios determined early in life ('By five it's all wrapped up').

The fantasies proved fairly tame, especially to anyone who's read Nicholson Baker's Vox: an old buffer recalled yearning for 'a beautiful bosom that came out like the prows of a ship'; a woman imagined ravishment by a customs officer. The speakers were unabashed, usually quite brazen: 'I started masturbating from a very early age - two or three . . . not the sophisticated method I've developed now,' one woman bragged. The different accounts were deftly edited, with occasional sound-effects - the sigh of the wind in the storm scene. Those looking for depravity will have jammed the switchboard. The rest of us were enlightened without being titillated.

The other day I saw Alan 'Fluff' Freeman at a BBC reception: a crouched figure in trainers and pullover, sitting apart from the strutting BBC suits. He has always been a down-to-earth broadcaster, remarkable for his speed and economy. His final Pick of the Pops (R1), after 30 years, showed that his talents were as unwithered as his catchphrases - 'Greetings, pop pickers]', 'Not 'arf', and that curious chivalry whereby he puts 'Mr' before most men's names and 'the lovely' before all women's. He never did learn to use the full-stop, rushing headlong from sentence to sentence, but he could make a telling comment with the merest hint. He went out with no gushy thank yous to listeners or colleagues and no self-pitying sign-off - a pro doing his job. Will we miss him? Not 'arf.