It can be pretty infuriating to turn on the radio expecting one thing but finding something else. It happened to me yesterday.
I usually start the day with Radio 5 Live’s Wake Up to Money, the best background guide to all of the political and economic stories that may unfold later. It’s fresh, authoritative, sometimes funny, never pompous. But at 5.15am yesterday it wasn’t there. Tennis was, the Australian Open, live, with the Telegraph’s Simon Briggs in the commentary box.
Kyle Edmund of East Yorkshire had just won the first set against world number three Grigor Dimitrov. The winner would get into the semi-final. Dimitrov, fighting back, took the second set. In the third (I was hooked by now) his game grew erratic. I stayed for the fourth set.
Meanwhile, back in Salford, 5 Live’s home, I was imagining tough decisions: What to do with Wake Up to Money? Make it a podcast. What about guests booked for Breakfast between 6am and 7am? Hold them. What if the match went to five sets? Well, it didn’t. Edmund’s victory was dramatic and, Breakfast, with Nicky Campbell and Rachel Burden, came on around 6.45am with people already ringing in to say how much Edmund’s triumph had cheered them up.
Someone asked me the other day about radio’s renaissance. Renaissance? This is a medium that attracts 90 per cent of the UK population, has audience loyalty and listening hours TV can only envy, is a major seedbed of talent for journalism, drama, comedy, sports reporting and all kinds of music. It’s been like that for ages. There’s a healthily even share of audience now between commercial radio and the BBC, plus an interesting interflow of ideas and talent.
Listeners will have noticed how regularly LBC scoops now appear on BBC radio and TV. BBC Two’s Newsnight occasionally employs LBC presenters James O’Brien and Nick Ferrari. Radio 3 didn’t have a film music show until Classic FM showed the way. Jazz FM has been collaborating with Radio 3 for several years on the London Jazz Festival.
Radio takes chances. A bright idea can reach the air fast. What will make that bright idea grow is good production. Why is BBC’s television version of Radio 4’s Front Row so bad? Because radio has better producers. Why does radio have better producers? Because BBC TV stopped covering the arts properly 20 years ago but BBC radio, on all its networks, has always covered the arts.
Last week, the BBC published its new arts and culture programming for 2018, declaring it “the biggest arts commission in ages”. Radio gets just two mentions, one for “explorations” of Muriel Spark by “five female Scottish writers” (whew, that’s diversity and regionality wrapped up), and the other for “an evening of new plays inspired by Spike Milligan”, both on Radio 3. That’s not even a fair reflection of what Radio 3 does for the arts day by day, never mind the BBC’s other radio networks.
I despair, or I would if I didn’t listen to the wireless. But it’s not just the arts that radio knows and reports better than TV. On Monday night, I listened to the concluding part of The Cameron Years, Steve Richards’s Radio 4 trilogy on the man who was Prime Minister from 2010-16. Where, on BBC, ITV or Channel 4, is there a documentary as good as this? Meticulously accurate, impressively sourced, thoughtfully presented, it is the kind of programme we Radio 4 listeners rather take it for granted. Just as we do that, Monday’s Front Row wove together a film review, an analysis of sex simulation on stage and screen, a visit to an exhibition of portrait pottery and an evaluation of a film reissue, each with appropriate comment from experts in real conversation with presenter John Wilson.
It isn’t always as lovely. When Wilson ended on Monday, saying “Join Stig Abell tomorrow at 7.15”, I shouted at the radio “Not me!” Abell gabbles, swallows names, reads his script rather than talking it. Grrr. Where’s his producer?
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But, usually, a radio critic has only two problems, one being the vast choice of what to write about, the other that there is seldom enough rubbish from which to build scaffolds of scorn, bonfires of vanity.
I leave this space now, after 42 years of listening for you and with you. It’s been a privilege, an education. And, truly, huge fun.