The week in radio robert hanks

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Indy Lifestyle Online
WAR, SAID John Keegan in the opening volley of this year's Reith Lectures, is the scourge of our century: for the first time in history, it has replaced famine and pestilence as a source of danger to the common man. You could also say that change is the real scourge of our century, and war is one of its agents - or sometimes one of its results, as incomprehension and frustration resolve themselves in violence.

That's not to say that people hate all change; but we find it hard to handle change that has no evident reason. This century has been rich in deliberately disorientating change - like the supermarket that shifts the dairy produce every six months, putting the customer in unexplored aisles in the hope of encouraging new commerce.

Which brings us to Radio 4. The new schedule hasn't simply been an affair of displaced cereals and hard-to-locate soaps: much of the old stock was stale and you would be hard put to find a rationale for it. But the effect on the consumer has been similar to a supermarket switch-around: mild annoyance at not being able to find things in their usual place, and familiar brands suddenly disappearing off the shelves altogether.

That analogy probably won't go much further - for one thing, the supermarket is for most of us a once-a-week expedition; Radio 4 is a constant home companion. Then again, these days you can order supermarket shopping from home, either over the Internet or through a home delivery service, something I know a lot about because I heard it discussed on the new, extra-long You and Yours on Tuesday afternoon. And then I heard it discussed again about four hours later on the new magazine Shop Talk.

Now, I don't want to build an entire critique of the new schedule on one stray example of repetition. Still, it does point to something significant about the new schedule: the sudden proliferation of chatty, featury magazines - The Learning Curve, Case Notes, Thinking Allowed, Four Corners, The Material World - with, so it seems, only vaguely demarcated briefs. The Afternoon Shift may be dead but its progeny live on. And in all this jolly babble, thought-out ideas are squeezed while consumerist trivia is stretched.

To be fair, there is no evidence, so far, of any increase in the stupidity quotient. Front Row is more alert and focused than Kaleidoscope (though it marks a worrying shift away from criticism and towards the preview puff). I can't see the reason for killing off Science Now, but the programmes that replace it - Frontiers and Connect - don't seem like a step down, and both are a step up from the chirpy "Hey, kids!" attack of Radio 4's other science slot, Big Bang.

Of course, this week we've heard Radio 4 on its best behaviour. For example, in his new issues forum, Thinking Allowed, Laurie Taylor presented an admirably incisive conversation about penal policy; but as he pointed out himself, he was an academic criminologist for 20 years, and if he can't do penal policy there's little hope for him.

There are worrying aspects to the new schedule, like the proliferation of shorter, snappier programmes designed to suit modern attention spans, and a number of individually duff programmes: Monday's "social documentary" The Legacy of Wealth, apparently commissioned by the League of the Extremely Rich, and Wednesday's "comedy" panel programme I'm Glad You Asked Me That (the question in this case is either "What on earth is this programme supposed to be about?" or "Who told Gordon Kennedy he's funny?").

But you'd have to be a very sclerotic personality to be pining for the old schedules; really, it works far better than anyone could have expected.

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