The good old radio days - but were they really any better?

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The Independent Online
WE ARE all dumber now, claim the self-confessed elitists of Radio Einstein.

But a quick look at the schedules of Radios 3 and 4 from 10 and 20 years ago hardly supports their argument that BBC radio has slumped to the level of a Star reader.

Today on Radio 4 you can begin the day with the Today Programme, Home Truths, Miles Kington's chat show, Double Vision, The Food Programme and From Our Own Correspondent. Other highlights include a play in the afternoon, Weekend Woman's Hour, a film programme and a review of the week's cultural highlights.

By comparison, 10 years ago was little different: Today was there, followed by Sport on 4, Breakaway, Loose Ends, The Week in Westminster and From Our Own Correspondent. Saturday is leisure interest, foreign correspondent and politics day. There has been no paradigm shift in broadcasting.

If we go further back, Saturday doesn't look any more highbrow; when it's not virtually the same it just looks more hidebound.

Saturday morning 20 years ago had no Today; instead, you could have woken to something called It's a Bargain, with Norman Tozer. Sport on 4, International Assignment, Talking Politics with Anthony King and Anthony Howard reviewing the week's magazines are all just different versions of programmes that can still be found on Radio 4.

Was Kaleidoscope Encore with Sheridan Morley from 20 years ago really so much more intellectually elite than Saturday Review will be tonight? On Radio 3 you have to feel sorry for people so elite that they can claim Olivier Messiaen, star of today's Radio 3 concert, is on a station that has dumbed down. The modern compositions of Messiaen are notoriously "difficult", as classical- music buffs euphemistically say - which means you won't like it, but it is good for you.

There are almost two hours of Messiaen this afternoon, then there are three and a half hours of live opera this evening from the Met in New York, so it is hard to see how the station has chopped its music up into digestible "popular" bits.

Just as Punch was always said to be "never as funny as it used to be", so Radio 3 has always been threatened by cultural barbarians. Ten years ago the Radio 3 controller John Drummond was appearing on air to defend the station against listener complaints. Yet 20 years ago on Saturday morning Robin Ray was introducing popular classics on Radio 3, and where today there is Messiaen, 20 years ago there was a 40-minute selection of Mozart and Beethoven.

"Dumbing down" as a phrase sprang from America, when the Jim Carrey film Dumb and Dumber did well at the box-office. Applying it to Radio 3 is like complaining that cod-liver oil is now available in capsules. Meanwhile, Radio 4 producers, when they haven't just updated old formats, no longer think they have to go along the special-interest section of a newsagent looking for programme ideas.

Radio 3 currently reaches 5 per cent of the radio listening public, such is its drive for dumbed- down populism.

If ever Radio Einstein finds a backer and wins a radio licence, it will be interesting to the meet the accounting whizz who can make a commercial proposition out of even more elitist fare.