The Week In Radio: The appliance of science soon proves its worth

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The Independent Culture

Radio 4 or Formula 1? It's not a valid choice, as any apparatchik will tell you. It's a category error. On the one hand, you have diehard fans who live to watch a bunch of cars with the combined carbon footprint of Brazil race round a track. On the other hand, you have 10 million people who use Radio 4 as the essential soundtrack to their lives. You can't compare the two. So on what basis does the BBC, attempting to slim 20 per cent of its budget by 2014, wield the axe? Public service? Cost? Greatest happiness of the greatest number?

Whichever measure the Trust plumped for, to most of that 10 million they got it right when they suggested that Radio 4 – annual cost £91.3 million – should be "ring-fenced", while half of Formula 1 will be shared with Sky to save £30 million a year. Yet other networks did not get off so lightly. Radio 5 Live must refocus on news and sport and Radios 2 and 3 are told there will be less live music. Local radio faces a big squeeze, with more sharing within regions. It has also been revealed that the crystal valves on which Radio 4 long wave relies are no longer being manufactured, so although the BBC has bought up all 10 remaining valves in the world, there will come a day when Test Match Special, The Daily Service, and Yesterday in Parliament move to other analogue BBC stations. But overall, Delivering Quality First proved to be a holding operation and there is honey still for tea.

For Radio 4, I'm relieved of course. Indeed, to me it seems a total no-brainer, though I would have taken more radical action elsewhere. (£2 billion refurbishing Broadcasting House, Salford and Glasgow, anyone? £65 million for BBC3?) Because while more sharing of news bulletins between networks is sensible and no one is going to shed any tears if presenters are paid less on Radio 2, the salami slice is a dangerous technique. Shift Formula 1 to Sky and all those cars will still be zooming round the track. Hack away at a radio network and you start to imperil the organism itself.

This week, we began to see the first fruits of Radio 4 controller Gwyneth Williams's push to increase the public understanding of science. The Life Scientific, a one-to-one interview presented by Jim Al-Khalili, professor of physics at the University of Surrey, is a valiant attempt to make scientific concepts more accessible. So it was ironic that while Paul Nurse, Nobel Prize-winning geneticist, was interesting on the genes of yeast, it was on the subject of his own genes that the interview really took off. Late in life, he made the discovery that his sister was really his mother, and what impressed was his insistence on publicising it. "Because my mother had kept this secret, I felt I had a responsibility actually to talk about it," he explained in a rational, unemotional, indeed wonderfully scientific manner.

Christopher Hitchens, by contrast, demonstrated not so much theoretical science as in-your-face applied science in his account of undergoing waterboarding, part of his series of essays called Arguably. As his legs were lashed together he wondered, "if I should tell them about the 15,000 cigarettes I had inhaled every year for the past several decades." When the hood and three layers of towel were applied and he felt a slow cascade of water going up his nose, he reached the inescapable conclusion. "You feel that you are drowning, because you are drowning." It's hard to think of any journalist who isn't a war correspondent being so brave in the line of duty. Credit also to Roger Allam, for making Hitchens sound as cool as he undoubtedly is.

jane@janethynne.com

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