This time round in the autumn shake-up of the schedules it’s Radios 2 and 3 who are on the frontline of change. They have had to face ‘tough decisions’ and to address ‘the financial challenges due to the licence-fee freeze’. Radio 3 has lost most of its ‘live’ Saturday-night transmissions from the Metropolitan Opera in New York, on the grounds that they cost too much to set up. It’s also given the chop to one of my favourite weekend programmes, World Routes, because of the ‘high costs’ of sending its presenter Dr Lucy Duran to far-flung places round the globe in search of unusual music. But this was never travel for the sake of it. Duran is an ethnomusicologist as much as a musician, and she woke us up to what music can sound like in the deserts of the Sahara as well as the frozen wastes of Greenland, making new connections through sound.
You might argue that after 13 years there were not many places left for Duran to visit. But we’ve also lost her programme’s spin-off, the World Routes Academy, which gave young instrumentalists the chance to be taught by masters of traditional music, promoting and preserving what might otherwise be lost. Radio 3’s mission was not just to send Duran out to unearth an unusual sound world, but also to ensure the music she heard and recorded would survive the creeping tentacles of globalised pop. These are the hidden benefits of public-service broadcasting — the willingness to give airtime to programmes that will only ever have a niche audience but that have an impact far greater than their minority status might suggest.
Make no mistake. We only have such programmes because of the licence fee. As a way of funding the BBC’s output, on-screen, on-air and now also on-digital (as the Corporation is so fond of telling us), the TV licence might seem like a relic of the prewar era; appropriate only in an age when taking Ovaltine to bed was the nation’s guilty secret. But what are the alternatives? Commercially funded stations, dependent on advertising and so constrained by the absolute need to maintain audience figures at a certain level? Or community stations funded by donations and subscriptions? Both kinds of radio have their place. Classic FM is chasing Radio 3 for listeners, and catching up. Local community stations have the appeal of small-scale, direct and immediate communication. But the BBC’s worldwide reputation is dependent on the way it is funded. Take that away and there will be fewer and fewer ‘live’ concerts, and a gradual diminution of Radio 3’s commitment to taking us into musical worlds far beyond Mozart, Mendelssohn and Mahler.
The acknowledgement by both Radio 2 and Radio 3 that these changes to the schedule have been dictated by funding cuts should make us stop and think. What next? Will Radio 4 staples such as Poetry Please be able to survive what might become a post-licence-fee world? Writing in the Guardian at the weekend, the programme’s producer Tim Dee reminded us that it’s ‘the longest running (and now probably only) poetry request show on any radio station anywhere in the world’. It works so well because it’s so simple. A half-hour of poems, selected by Dee and his presenter (Roger McGough) from the hundreds sent in by listeners, and read wonderfully well by professional readers (either stage actors or the poets themselves). No extras required. Just the words.
Or take this week’s rebroadcast, on Radio 4, of Seamus Heaney (who died in August) reading his own translation of Beowulf. Prime-time Anglo-Saxon would surely be a no-no for any other broadcaster but the BBC. ‘Out of the night came the shadow stalker’ and wove his spell across the airwaves for 15 minutes each weekday morning as Heaney pounded through his ‘word-hoard’ to tell us of Beowulf’s exploits against Grendel and other demons of the deep. It was thrilling stuff, and all for free every day this week, or (if you’re being pedantic) for £3 for the week (the price of a single cup of coffee and breakfast croissant). Once again the power lay in the simplicity of execution: just Heaney, his command of language both on the page and in the way the words rolled off his tongue, a microphone and a static-free studio.
At the other extreme the late-night drama series He Died with His Eyes Open on Radio 4 (Tuesdays) credits a sound designer, Caleb Knightley. He’s been responsible for turning a run-of-the-mill murder story (adapted by Nick Perry from Derek Raymond’s novel) into a chilling thriller, starring Toby Jones as the dead man and Burn Gorman as the detective determined to find out what happened to him. Jones is heard only through recordings of his voice, eerily replayed by a very-present Gorman, and given a ghostly aura to make him sound as if he is speaking from the other side. Directed by Sasha Yevtushenko, this is classic radio (for those of us brought up on Paul Temple) with acting of the highest quality and a sound world that’s so immediate it eats into the mind.