The Week in Radio

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The Independent Culture
THERE WAS a moment during PM (Radio 4) on Tuesday when proceedings ground to a temporary halt. Nigel Wrench was conducting a telephone interview with Judge Louise Arbour, the United Nations chief war crimes prosecutor, and she was explaining the present situation in Kosovo. She spoke of the recent massacre of 45 ethnic Albanians at Racak, paused for a second, and was immediately interrupted by Wrench. In the same instant he realised his mistake and said, "Sorry", to which Mrs Arbour replied, "Sorry" and then they both fell silent. There followed a short hush, broken at last by Wrench.

"What were you going to say?" he gently urged, and she continued, saying that, despite the set-backs (her investigation team had just been turned away by the Serb authorities), she was still optimistic about seeking out the perpetrators and bringing them to justice. Wrench recognised that there was no need for glib remarks wishing her luck, and the interview ended.

Silence is not usually welcomed on the radio, but sometimes it works better than any amount of screaming headlines. That awkward pause on Tuesday was enough to get the full attention of those who'd been only half-listening. Whether it would make any difference in the long run is another matter. After all, what can individuals do when such dreadful things occur, except shake their heads and frown?

In Viewing the Century (Radio 3, Sunday) Seamus Heaney tackled the same question from the point of view of poets. "Poetry makes nothing happen," declared WH Auden in 1939, but Heaney argued that this was meant as a challenge, rather than a statement of fact. With the aid of superb archive recordings he showed that Auden's elegy "In memory of WB Yeats" could be interpreted as a rallying cry against the evil forces gathering in totalitarian Europe, and that Dylan Thomas's "Do not go gentle into that good night" was a glimmer of hope in the darkness cast by the Holocaust. We heard the voices of Sylvia Plath, TS Eliot and, of course, Heaney himself. In his final reading he demonstrated "the sheer spellbinding power of rhythmic speech," and concluded that poetry provides a noble answer to the times.

"The written word and radio: they're the same thing," declared DJ Chris Evans. "We should never ever abuse them." These reassuring words were Evans' contribution to The Future of Radio (Radio 4, Thursday). Billed as an experimental feature, the programme drifted through the airwaves of past and present, with the hope of picking up suggestions for the next millennium. Superimposed over Michael Jackson came The Hound of the Baskervilles, only to be chased away by Arthur Askey and a posse of cool rap-DJs, then Beethoven, Toad of Toad Hall and Elvis. Anything's possible in Radio Wonderland! Everybody loves the wireless, it seems, but what they want is more and more choice, so that the entire world repertoire is available on request.

The reality, of course, is different. Jo Wiley remembered being called into her parents' bedroom to listen to Junior Choice. She was four years old, Ed "Stewpot" Stewart was in charge of the post-bag, and she waited for her birthday dedication. It never came.

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