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The Week in Radio: Tangled up in Bob Dylan, but times need to change on Radio 2


Bob Dylan, I can take him or leave him. Sorry, but it's true. Oh I get that Bob is a big deal. You can bang on all you like about how he's a peerless songwriter and poet and maverick who changed popular culture for ever, and I will nod sagely in agreement.

But do I want to sit through one of his concerts and listen to him wheezing his way through his back catalogue like a rusty lawn mower? Do I want to slog through the zillions of books, roughly 2,438 pages a piece, each devoted to unpicking his every pronouncement then concluding that he is, indeed, an enigma? For the love of God, no.

But help is at hand. Now, in the company of music snobs, I will be able to hold my head high and feign a more substantial knowledge of Dylan. I will be able to wing it with airy descriptions of his highs and lows, his successes and failures, thanks to David Quantick, one time NME scribe-turned-comedy writer and the brains behind Radio 2's Blagger's Guide series.

In the past, Blagger's Guide has given us crammer courses in jazz, James Bond, country music, the classics and Dr Who, each of them a chaotic whirlwind of popular culture trivia, music clips and daft sound effects. Listening to them was like attending an Open University lecture while having your feet tickled and your ears boxed.

This week found him on the subject of Dylan, whizzing us through through his early gigs in Dinkytown (how we laughed), his admiration for Woody Guthrie and his, ahem, idiosyncratic vocal style that may have been down to his insistence on copying Guthrie or being stung in the throat by a wasp (Quantick likes to drop in tall tales to keep us on our toes).

We were dragged, much in the manner of an unseated rider with a foot still wedged in the stirrup, through the protest years and the "Judas!" incident and through Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Highway 61 Revisited (précis: "I'm not the Messiah, I'm Jewish. Until the Seventies.") All this was covered in just over 10 minutes.

Throughout this, Quantick retained a healthy disrespect for his subject. "John Wesley Harding's not a bad album," he noted, "if you don't mind a complete lack of choruses, the sixth-form use of 'did' to make it scan, and the fact that it extended the career of UB40 and Robert Palmer."

Blagger's Guide is both lofty and lowbrow, clever and puerile and is very funny indeed. On paper, it sounds dire but in reality it's an unexpected treat. Even more unexpectedly, it's on Radio 2.

Poor old Radio 2. I'm always having a pop at it. But this week its controller Bob Shennan invited more widespread irritation when, responding to criticisms of its lack of female voices in the daytime slots, he blamed the popularity of its male presenters. I will generously assume that Shennan wasn't suggesting that women could never hope to attain the ratings that Jeremy Vine, Simon Mayo and Ken Bruce enjoy, though one could certainly read it that way.

Not for the first time I found myself pondering why I find myself so exasperated with the station. Perhaps it's because, when one scans the schedules and sees male presenters broadcasting from 6.30am to 8pm, one gets the feeling that the station doesn't care much for women, or women listeners.

Perhaps it's also because a large proportion of the mostly male line-up have been telling the same jokes on the airwaves for 30 bloody years. To live in fear of ratings dips is to let a station go stagnant. The times they are a-changing, though not nearly fast enough on Radio 2.