Radio: What are radio's critics listening to?

I was driving at speed in the fast lane of the M25 when a front tyre burst. Some six seconds later the car bumped to a standstill on the hard shoulder. This scary incident happened a couple of years ago, and I've taken to driving much more slowly since. But it still bothered me that I didn't understand how on earth I had wrenched the old banger through dense, fast-moving traffic to safety: it seemed miraculous that the route had been clear. Now at last, after listening to Frontiers (R4), it begins to make sense: it is all to do with subconscious knowledge.

This programme was ostensibly about "blindsight," a rare condition that allows certain blind people to "see" what is happening. A man known as "G Y" was injured at the age of eight and his primary visual cortex (the part of the brain thought to be essential for receiving visual stimuli) completely destroyed. Yet "G Y" is able to recognise certain visual images: he thinks he is only guessing, yet time and again he can identify the situation or the movement of objects passed in front of his eyes. And, amazingly, as this happens, his pupils change shape.

The neuro-scientists can't yet explain it, but they are getting there. There are, it seems, nine other pathways from the eye to the brain, all of them old in evolutionary terms, which can convey messages without their owner's awareness. By similar means, the deaf can sometimes hear, the numb feel and drivers know where they are in relation to their surroundings, though their conscious minds may be miles away, even - as mine was that terrifying day - in the mythic Arcadia that is Ambridge. Most strangely, the less hard we try to make these methods work, the better they do.

Now. Could you honestly say that such an instructive and stimulating programme was symptomatic of the dumbing-down from which we are all supposed to be suffering? If you listen, really listen, to enough radio, you know the truth: there are some astonishingly un-dumb programmes out there.

Of course, there is also a fair amount of rubbish, the stuff that we critics regularly and despairingly sweep up, some of it noisome, toxic material, some just untidy or grubby. Also, the political problems faced by those who make programmes are not insignificant - caused, generally, when bureaucrats, knowing little about the practicalities but a lot about consulting dubious focus groups, impose rules that are irrelevant, unworkable or silly. The recent, pointless censoring of the harmless Double Vision (R4) is a prime example.

Yet despite or because of all this, it is important to celebrate the excellent, which survives to distract, provoke and entrance a weary world. It really does. Take Seamus Heaney. Or rather, leave him just where he was last Sunday, Viewing the Century on R3. And force anyone who complains about the intellectual weakening of radio to listen to this kind of thing. Heaney's subject was provoked by something Auden wrote in his elegy for W B Yeats: "for poetry makes nothing happen." He went on to prove, triumphantly, the irony of that line.

In one grand sentence, he dismissed all the things he could have said about how poetry has changed the way we look at things - from the trenches, through resistance to totalitarianism, to the acceleration of cultural, sexual and racial awareness. His talk became, instead, a series of elegies, linked to Auden's, rising to a powerful lament for Ted Hughes and culminating in his own, for Joseph Brodsky. Brodsky said that human beings are put on earth to create civilisation. Heaney asserted, with great authority, that poets have been true to that purpose.

And so has R3. Forget, if you can, the irritations of Petroc Trelawney and his kind. Think instead of last weekend, when the exalted and spiritual voice of Olivier Messiaen dominated the air, followed, on Saturday, by Opera on 3 - a live, intensely moving performance of Lucia di Lammermoor from the Metropolitan Opera in New York - followed in turn by the intellectual aerobics of The Brains Trust. Or tune in to World Music, listen to the "Song of the Slandered Woman" and lament the loss of other Maori chants, which once accompanied tattooing, canoe-paddling, "degrading others" and sorcery - and then talk about dumbness, if you dare.

If you still wonder where it's all going, Piers Plowright offered some ideas in a typically eclectic melange of opinions and examples he called The Future of Radio (R4). There were memories, such as the huge delight of listening to pirate stations under teenage eiderdowns (long before duvets had been invented). There were great radio moments of the last few years: Hugo Gryn bearing witness, furiously, to the truth about Auschwitz on The Moral Maze; the first few moments of Lee Hall's miraculous monologue Spoonface Steinberg; that powerful performance of the Verdi Requiem at the Proms, at which both Princess Diana and Georg Solti were saluted.

Various speakers spoke of their visions of a digital future rich in microchips, when we might be able merely to imagine what we want to hear in order to hear it. But I believe it was Frank Delaney who uttered the dire warning that we must never allow ourselves to think that, unless something's popular, it's not important. His great fear is the interminable proliferation of cheap and fatuous phone-ins and he argued that the private individual response to a shared event is a central purpose of radio.

And it is also the purpose of music. Yet the privacy of Private Passions (R3) is sometimes, usefully, invaded by conversation. The painter, John Burningham, spoke of the difficulty faced by an artist who tries to differentiate between dawn and sunset, a problem gloriously surmounted by Richard Strauss in Burningham's ninth choice - a recording that went straight onto my shopping list. Here is his selection:

"Erlkonig" (Schubert, arr. Liszt), Leslie Howard

"At the Jazz Band Ball" (La Rocca), Bix Beiderbecke

"O del mi amato ben" (Donaudy), Gigli

Third cello suite in C (Bach)

"J'attendrai" Tino Rossi

The Coolin (trad) Felix Doren

"Una voce poco fa" (Rossini), Luisa Tetrazzini

"Besame mucho" (Velasquez), Quentin Verdu

An Alpine Symphony (Strauss), Berlin Philharmonic

"Deh vieni ... " (Mozart), Ingvar Wixell

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform