The Year In Radio

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The Independent Culture
THE NAME of Theodore Sturgeon is unfamiliar to most people - a few will remember him as the author of the classic saga of man versus malign machine, Killdozer - but in the late Fifties he formulated one of the most important intellectual principles of this century. Defending science fiction against its detractors, he admitted that 90 per cent of the genre was crap. But, he pointed out, "90 per cent of everything is crap". This worrying truth has sometimes been called Sturgeon's Law; and it is something reviewers and readers of reviews should always bear in mind.

When you come to make your list of the highs and lows of the radio year, the lows, naturally, will vastly outnumber the highs. Excellence is hard to achieve; mediocrity and idiocy come cheap. So what?

But, slice it anywhere you like, this does seem to have been a particularly bad year for radio. Radio 1, having briefly enjoyed the most creative line-up for years, succumbed to a bad attack of the ratings collywobbles, shot Kershaw off to the wee small hours and signed Zoe Ball as its headline act. Similarly, Talk Radio experimented briefly with a slightly more intellectually challenging approach before Kelvin MacKenzie took over and propelled it into a new blokishness. Radio 3's daytime schedules saw music in full retreat from a barrage of anecdotes and interviews.

Most depressing of all has been Radio 4, where the cleaning out of the old schedules - a worthy ambition in itself - was accompanied by a ludicrous new commissioning system and an extraordinarily wasteful attitude to talent and knowledge.

Not everything this system has produced has been bad - looking through the files, I realise I never proclaimed publicly that King Stupid was a brilliant panel game. Against that, though, you have to set the mindlessness of Only Connect and I'm Glad You Asked Me That. And surely no serial drama has been as relentlessly dreary as Under One Roof; no phone-in as pointless or disorganised as Veg Talk.

Even the best things have sometimes had their disheartening side: no original radio drama has had one quarter the impact of Conor McPherson's The Weir or David Hare's monologue, Via Dolorosa, which both transferred from the West End to Radio 3.

Towards the end of this year there have been signs of a change for the better - notably the appointment of Roger Wright as controller of Radio 3. But it has been an anxious year; one that has shown the BBC running scared of audiences and governments, and commercial radio, by and large, unwilling to play anything but safe.

So farewell to 1998; and for me, farewell to writing about radio. As of the new year I'll be on the back page, turning square-eyed in front of the television set.

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