Have you heard? Radio is critically ill

It may be all change at Radio 4, but without feedback from the other media it exists in a cultural vacuum, says David Walker
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Walk the corridors at Broadcasting House, where they make radio programmes - many of them shortly to be evacuated to make way for the accountants and managers who seem the true creative stars of the modern BBC - and your eye is caught by pinboards and their newspaper clippings.

All journalists like feedback. Readers' letters, even the critical ones, prove someone is out there, paying attention. In radio, however, the need is acute. Huge amounts of energy and imagination go into the production of one-off events that float out on the ether to be picked up scrappily or not at all. So, on the pinboards, the merest scrap of response and every column inch of coverage is displayed, often enlarged.

Look closely, though, and many of these articles about radio programmes have a similar typeface. And byline. It is the work of Gillian Reynolds of the Daily Telegraph, now virtually the last full-time radio critic. Without her, much speech radio - large chunks of the output of Radio Four - would not exist. That is to say, they would not resonate by being listened to in public by a sympathetic critic who has heard enough radio to have developed a feel for good and bad, can compare today's output with yesterday's, is in tune with the kind of aesthetic judgement the medium's best producers apply to their work. Music radio and news radio live on: they have prospects in the 21st century. The outlook for "serious" speech radio is much bleaker. What is to happen to books at bedtime, radio drama, documentaries, features; what the trade calls "built" programmes as opposed to phone-ins or live interviews?

A cultural puzzle in the age of television has been the survival of the speech radio listening habit among enough people to justify news editors sending reporters to last week's announcement by James Boyle of Radio Four of his new April schedules. But did they go to hear about a radio story, rather than one about the changing BBC? Take away specific programmes, such as Today and The Archers - changes in their timing and form constituting news - and there is not much interest left. Who listens professionally nowadays?

Radio gets a weekly column here at The Independent, and similar treatment at the other broadsheets. The Spectator still does radio; the Statesman does not. There is, to state the obvious, no more Listener. You can assemble enough journalists, it's true, to fill the tables at the annual Sony Awards. But radio lacks a "critical community". There is no regular conversation among those with knowledge and experience who - this is crucial - can feed back to creative people in the medium. Hang on, you may say, the "critical community" for television is not exactly scholarly. Television writing in the newspapers may be clever but often consists of quirky response to the most disparate programmes (at least those that are prerecorded and can be viewed in advance). It hardly constitutes a discipline. And yet television does have a critical infrastructure - there are magazines, journals, even a Royal Television Society. Put two ferrets in a sack - sorry, put David Elstein of Channel Five together with the late Dennis Potter - and while they might disagree about everything from Rupert Murdoch to John Birt, they would share some understanding of what "good television" looks like, and what it costs to make it.

Is there is such a thing as "good radio" above and beyond some subjective response to presenter or subject matter? You may have seen pictures of the radio "stars" trotted out to advertise the new Radio 4 schedules and perhaps taken comfort from the fact that neither youth nor good looks appears to be a qualification for celebrity in this medium. "Stars" is a word heard with increasing frequency as the new schedules loom. It points to the attempt to import cultural credibility into radio from outside. Just as, at the presentation of the new lists of programmes, James Boyle used video to make his point, so radio cannot be trusted to make its own reputation.

There is nothing new about radio's wallflower status. Even in its heyday - the late Twenties - the editor of Radio Times, Eric Maschwitz, regretted how "there is not growing up around the art of broadcasting that strife and contention, that nucleus of critical writing, which has grown up round the other arts. Listeners do not give it the critical attention they award the Drama and the Cinema." If attention spans in radio listening were short in 1928, how brief are they now?

Should the BBC save itself the pounds 79 million it is spending on Radio Four? The honest answer is that it cannot, for without this channel of access to England and the English elite, paradoxically, its days as an organ of the British state would indeed be numbered. And yet James Boyle's dream of weaning young people and children to serious speech radio - defined as programmes you need to listen to with any degree of concentration - looks impossible. You do not have to go all the way with George Steiner and bemoan the lack of silence in the modern world; without silence, how can anyone listen intently? Radio's fate is that by failing to resonate in The Culture, it ceases to exist. When was the last time they discussed a radio programme on the Late Review, or some such fashionable locale that gives a cultural product the legs to walk out into public consciousness?

Unless we ought to think of "culture" as, increasingly, a set of separate boxes and brands. Perhaps radio's calling card is what it is not, rather than what it is: something older people do, something that is not television, something they don't talk about on trendy chat shows, something you just discover along with gardening, or wine appreciation or creaky joints. Perhaps the BBC's mistake, with this relaunch as with past attempts to modernise, is that it evacuates from the product exactly what it is that makes it. If radio producers were given their head and allowed to make their difficult, demanding programmes it might increase the sense of radio's old-fashionedness, but perhaps also emphasise its distinction, its difference. Who knows, newspapers might even start writing about it once again.

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