RADIO: The delicate art of repeating yourself

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The Independent Culture
I have made a wonderful discovery, which I would like to share with you. You know how some people, desperate for advice or consolation, claim they can turn at random to the Bible, Ulysses, or the Bhagavad-Gita and find something useful? Well, you can do the same with any decent-sized collection of Ogden Nash.

I realized this when I found a couplet which applies directly to the life of a radio critic. Not that I was looking for one, because you don't. Life teaches you that much. But there it is, kicking off "This is my Own, my Native Tongue": "Often I leave my television set to listen to my wireless,/So, often I hear the same song sung by the same singer many times a day, because at repeating itself the wireless is tireless."

All right, it's not one of his best, but that's not the point. The point is that the battle to fill airtime with different things all day long was as lost in 1952 as it is in 1999. And, funnily enough, it's not just the pop music stations which suffer from this. Due to a programming glitch on Radio 3 last week, you could have heard two different versions of Tchaikovsky's String Quartet No.1 being played on the same day - one live, as part of its evening concert, the other a repeat of its previous week's appearance in the Composer of the Week series.

Blow me, I can hear you saying, I never realized life could be so exciting. Yeah, yeah. What I liked about this moment was the way it had been allowed to happen at all. It showed there is still room for it, even in the new- look, bean-counting BBC. I imagine the scene thus:

Nervous Underling: Um, I've just noticed we're going to be playing Tchaikovsky's String Quartet No.1 twice in one evening.

Nervous Underling's Superior: Wonderful. Played by different "ensembles", of course? (He pronounces "ensemble" in a poncey French manner, cf. the way he mispronounces "Munich" with a German-sounding "ch".)

Nervous Underling: Well, yes, but ...

Nervous Underling's Superior: I see no impediment to the flow of art. Would you care for a Fox's glacier mint? Oh, that reminds me - we've only played Strauss's "Four Last Songs" three times this year, and it's already March. Look into it, would you, dear boy? Pip pip.

What I hope did not happen was that a purple-faced controller stormed up and down the corridors of Broadcasting House, screaming that heads would roll if anything like that ever happened again.

Thinking about nicely muddled moments on Radio 3 reminded me that it was time to listen to Classic FM again. I do this with a heavy heart. You get the impression that captains of industry love nothing more than listening to Classic FM in traffic jams (apart, of course, from sacking people for the sake of their dividends). I am also told that if you prefer Radio 3 to Classic FM then you are a snob.

Well, I listened to Classic FM again and lawks, imagine my surprise when my snobometer went into the red. Again. What was interesting this time was that I heard both R3 and CFM playing the same piece within minutes of each other - in this case, Stravinsky's "The Firebird". When it ended on R3, the announcer told an amusing story about how Debussy reacted to it: "Everyone's got to start somewhere," was what he apparently said, and he had a point. And what did the presenter on Classic FM say afterwards? He said, "The FIREbird!", in a tone of screamingly insincere enthusiasm, the way you say "spinach!" when handing a child, who is not at all sure he likes spinach, a plate of spinach.

What is it with people? Why do they prefer to have their intelligence insulted by the moronic cosiness of Classic FM? Why do they like to have ad breaks which are longer than the snatches of music played between them? Do they really like to hear radio adverts for PEPs, mobile phones, and (most desperately of all) radio adverts? I have a horrible feeling they do, especially the ads for PEPs. All this says to me is that if Classic FM is really the preferred listening of our captains of industry, then this country is never going to hover very far above the pan.

Meanwhile, in Borsetshire, the black-hearted, twisted scriptwriters continue their sadistic mission to vex us with annoying characters. Last week George Barford, Yorkshireman, ex- copper, gamekeeper, and general pain in the neck, was trying to get poor William Grundy to stay on at school. Grundy, who has not yet discovered drugs but is getting by on surliness, made the mistake of referring to an unspecified "she". Which meant that George got to use one of those lines which have done more than Elvis to drive a wedge between young and old in the West: "Who's she? The cat's mother?"

You would have thought George had more sense than to say something like that. The last time he gave a young person a lecture - Clive Horrobin, as I recall, the subject being the difference between mine and thine - he was thrashed to within an inch of his life. As this really is the only language he understands you would have thought the lesson had sunk in. But no.