Radio

Picking out the plums

19 January 2013

9:00 AM

19 January 2013

9:00 AM

‘How much did you say the TV licence cost?’ asks my American friend.

‘£145.50,’ I reply.

‘One hundred and forty-five pounds,’ she repeats, with astonishment. ‘And everyone has to pay it?’

‘Yep. Every home with a TV.’

‘That’s a lot of money.’

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My friend is an economist, with the ability to be as precise about the US’s federal budget as I am about what I’ve just spent at the supermarket. She made me stop and think. If you multiply £145.50 by 26.4 million households, that is for sure a huge amount of money. Is it worth it?

It’s the obvious question, to which the answer has to be yes, if the alternative is a commercially driven network, and especially when it comes to News. More divisive a question, and perhaps therefore more important, would be, what in particular is worth it?

This week we’ve had the chance to listen, for free, to Verdi, live from the Met, an adaptation of Trollope by the novelist Rose Tremain, two plays by Michael Frayn starring Simon Russell Beale, Greta Scacchi and Benedict Cumberbatch, and live commentary from the Australian Open. These are just the choicest samples. Often, though, what I find most inspiring are the odd things you just happen upon in the schedule. For instance that brilliant Radio 4 series The Life Scientific.

It’s such a simple idea. Take a scientist and ask them to talk about their work. But, and this is the key factor, not just about their work. Each week, the scientist under investigation is persuaded by the ever-so-skilful Jim Al-Khalili to talk a little as well about their life and how it interacts with their scientific endeavours. Since Al-Khalili is also an award-winning theoretical physicist, who just happens to have a gift for knowing when and how to ask the crucial question, his guests are usually easily persuaded to lower their guard.

Last week he was in conversation with Amoret Whitaker, a forensic entomologist. What’s striking about her life in science is how she got there. She left school believing herself not to be academic, with A-levels not in science but in what she described as ‘soft’ subjects. Then she worked in marketing for ten years before suddenly deciding, after a year of travelling, to ‘do something with her life rather than float about’. She took a degree in zoology, then a master’s in taxonomy and biodiversity. Now she’s one of just three experts on insect life in the UK called in by the police to help them solve murder cases.

I hope lots of young people were listening, because she made it sound so easy — that transition from hopeless at school to marketing to top scientist. In the week before Christmas, the Nobel Prize-winning developmental biologist Sir John Gurdon was equally inspiring as he described how at school (not your local comprehensive, but Eton) he had been labelled as a failure by his biology teacher and was told quite firmly he would never be a scientist. What that teacher didn’t know, or appreciate, was that at home Sir John collected caterpillars and studied them for hours, developing the patience and observational skills essential for his future career as the man who has pioneered research into stem cell transplants and cloning.

Science, in this series (produced by Pam Rutherford and Geraldine Fitzgerald), has been taken out of its box and brought to life, vividly, unforgettably. Amoret Whitaker, for instance, who spends her life at the Natural History Museum breeding blow flies and studying beetles, took us to Knoxville in Tennessee where she’s involved in something called ‘the body farm’. Here cadavers (we were assured they had all been freely donated) are collected and left to rot, so that Whitaker and her colleagues can study the larvae, flies, beetles that collect on the decomposing flesh. The more we know about rates of decomposition, and the accompanying insect life, the easier and more precise it will be to calculate the time of death.

Just as fascinating, although a lot less stomach-churning, was this week’s Just So Science (Radio 4), which I hope a lot of young listeners will catch on-demand (it was broadcast weekday lunchtimes so there’s no hope of being heard by them otherwise). The infinitely resourceful and sagacious Vivienne Parry wanted to find out how much science really lies behind Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories. Readings from Kipling, by Samuel West, were interwoven with conversations with chemists, biologists, oceanographers in this cleverly edited (by Rami Tzabar) short series.

First off was ‘How the Whale Got His Throat’, Kipling’s tale of the hungry whale, the ’stute fish, the shipwrecked fisherman and his suspenders — don’t forget the suspenders. Even though Kipling probably got it wrong (suspenders have nothing to do it), he was pretty spot-on when it came to explaining how the whale gets his dinner. Lunge-feeding by rorquals is, we
discovered, the most extraordinary feat
of biomechanical engineering on the
planet.


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Show comments
  • Shorne

    I agree with every word of this and would also mention Radio 4 extra where they are repeating “Round the Horne” and the whole glorious saga of Julian and Sandy has just started. I was in the pub the other day and some buffoon was moaning about the licence fee, I put 40p on the bar and said “Have tomorrows programmes on me and keep the change”

  • http://www.facebook.com/frank.palmerwhite.7 Frank Palmer-White

    Shorne, if you are so qualified as to tell me what is worth my money why not decide what movies I should pay for at the cinema or what novels I should pay for? Why stop there? I am sure my diet is not up to the government prescribed standards and I do nothing to support struggling artists. The facts are this is all personal choice, I love BBC4, my sister watches BBC3 and my father, who pays the fee, watches only ‘deal or no deal’. The market caters for this through advertisements and subscription.

  • http://twitter.com/JunkkMale Peter Martin

    “It’s the obvious question, to which the answer has to be yes, if the alternative is a commercially driven network, and especially when it comes to News. ”

    ‘News’ provided on the basis that gave us McAlpine, tried to ensure we didn’t get 28gate and only today gives us this?:

    http://bbcwatch.org/2013/01/20/bbcs-danahar-tweets-a-nothing-to-see-move-along-on-bullying-of-orthodox-youths/

    “a ‘Tweet then maybe check’ policy”

    You appear to know the cost of everything but not the actual value.

    £145.50 is too much for inaccuracy and lack of integrity. And injury compounded by insult when for propaganda backed by censorship imposed by compulsion. And with poor historical precedent.

    • SirMortimerPosh

      Errors like McAlpine make one shake one’s head in disbelief and heads must roll when they happen, but when one considers the scale and breadth of the BBCs output on about six TV channels and the radio network, the odd catastrophe palls into insignificance in terms of the balance of excellence and dross on the BBC.

      You are obviously one of the caffeine driven ranters of the far right. I’m a pretty caffeine driven ranter myself and pretty hard on the left, but I usually manage to hold onto reality, which you clearly don’t. The BBC can be better, but it produces an output vastly superior to that of most other broadcasters, and I would be filled with woe if it ever disappeared. Have you ever tried to watch TV in other countries? If you had, you’d value what we have.

      • http://twitter.com/JunkkMale Peter Martin

        Just clocked on? Read only the other day that the licence fee was going to have to stretch a wee bit further beyond the 147 PR types on duty already.

        “You are obviously one of the caffeine driven ranters of the far right… but I usually manage to hold onto reality, which you clearly don’t.”

        What is obvious to you being more a measure of your hold on reality, evidently.

        “Don’t you agree, or do you want some Hitlerian broadcasting organisation that only rants your own prejudices and suppresses others?”

        You have asked, if the addiction to the word ‘rant’ suggest it is one that your mind holds more than most. I have answered.

        And invoking Godwin when in defence of a compelled state broadcaster prone to ‘unique’ editorial slants, backed by a bunker-bound inability to acknowledge error and draconian censorship (those who complain to the BBC system get ‘expedited’, or banned, if they keep noticing the BBC stuffing up, and the oddly ‘not the BBC views’ twitter accounts of BBC staff who use it to solicit and disseminate their version of ‘news’ often see a blocking when called to account)… is ‘brave’.

        • SirMortimerPosh

          I’ll just quote myself again. this is the nub of what I said:

          “The BBC can be better, but it produces an output vastly superior to that of most other broadcasters, and I would be filled with woe if it was ever curtailed or starved of money. Have you ever tried to watch TV in other countries? If you had, you’d value what we have. The license fee is worth it for Radio 4 alone, albeit that the amount of left wing trash on there sends me ballistic at times. In my more considered moments, I am forced to toy with the idea that my political perspective is not the only one in the UK and that others of a different hue are also entitled to have their views aired…….”

          if you don’t agree with the bulk of this, you’re an f’ing nutter!

  • http://www.facebook.com/billcam Bill Cameron

    We don’t live in a ‘big brother’ state, at least theoretically. I watch BBC4 & listen to Radios 3 & 4 – others no doubt have completely different viewing and listening habits. I will happily pay for genuinely impartial news, not the agitprop that in recent years has been the BBC’s version of this commodity. BBC World Service Radio is generally much better, but of course until recently this came out of the FCO budget, not the licence fee. Make the whole lot other than BBC1 & Radio4 news output subscription-based and reduce the compulsory licence-fee accordingly (say max £50 pa) & let people subscribe to other output if they wish. Then the BBC will become responsive to the interests and needs of its subscribers, rather than be the arrogant organisation it is currently. If the government wants to continue to pay for the World Service out of taxation (via the FCO, for example) as a ‘window on Britain’, then put it in the manifesto and let voters decide if they wish to sanction this.

  • http://www.facebook.com/bwmc.waterhouse Benjamin Waterhouse

    I do not pay this poll tax; and, as a law abiding subject, I do not have a television receiving device. I do have a home cinema system and hire those BBC programmes I wish to watch. Why pay to have a sewer in your front room?

  • Tim Reed

    “This week we’ve had the chance to listen, for free…”

    Except it’s not free, is it.

    ‘How much did you say the TV licence cost?’ asks my American friend.
    ‘£145.50,’ I reply.

    • http://twitter.com/JunkkMale Peter Martin

      “Except it’s not free, is it?”

      Skills like that from our Kate, and Stephanie Flanders or Paul Mason best look out.

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