Radio 3 Requests, Radio 3<br/>How the Wall Fell, Radio 4

Long live the listener as disc jockey

Simon O'Hagan@SimonOHagan
Sunday 01 November 2009 01:00

When people talk about the threat to radio from the increasing wealth of material that can be accessed for free online, my thoughts turn to Geoffrey Smith and Fiona Talkington, presenters, respectively, of Jazz Record Requests on Radio 3, and Radio 3 Requests.

Because if there's one genre of programme that really stands to suffer at the hands of Spotify and other such providers, then surely it must be the request show. Why write in to hear a piece of music that can be whistled up in seconds on your computer?

It may not be as simple as that. Even in the days when your only hope of hearing the Hindemith Sonata for Trumpet that mysteriously went missing from your collection of 78s was a begging letter to Broadcasting House, the process was never just about temporarily filling a gaping hole in your life.

Back in the 1970s I was one of thousands of students who bombarded Annie Nightingale with requests for her to play on her hugely popular Radio 1 request show on Sunday afternoons, and I still remember the shock of hearing her read out my name. But I certainly don't remember what record I was asking for.

I thought about that moment when, on last Sunday's Radio 3 Requests, Fiona Talkington introduced a request from someone who simply referred to himself as Alfred, writing from Ghana. All he wanted was for her to "just play a nice song", and Talkington obliged with a heartbreaking version of the Jimmy Webb song "The Moon's a Harsh Mistress" by the late Norwegian jazz singer, Radka Toneff.

But as both Alfred and I know, request shows aren't about the music requested. They're about a listener's moment in the sun, and you can't get that on Spotify.

On Front Row last Tuesday Mark Lawson and Michael Dobbs were agreeing that TV's latest Churchill drama (Into the Storm, on BBC2 tomorrow) tried to cram too much into too short a time. Which is rather how I felt about How the Wall Fell, the Radio 4 documentary that came along a little later.

Part of Radio 4's 1989 season, it was a think-tankier version of Sue MacGregor's The Reunion, with the great John Tusa chairing a discussion of leading figures who were there at the time. Instructive and authoritative, for sure, but I was mainly aware of Tusa rushing them all along so that a vast slice of 20th-century history could be dealt with in 40 minutes.

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