The Ghastly Impermanence: Hit Something Big

assumptions & attitudes

The BBC Trust reported in February of 2011 that Radio 4 could do a better job of serving the Northern Counties and youth, specifically so:

Radio 4 is considered by many of its listeners to be a ‘national treasure’ and to be at the heart of public service radio broadcasting. It is often the main point of contact with the BBC for its large and dedicated audience. Its scale and distinctive content ensures that it plays a major role in the BBC’s overall delivery of the public purposes. Whilst Radio 4 is the most expensive BBC radio service, audiences felt that it represents excellent value for money overall. We endorse Radio 4’s strategy of broadening its core appeal where possible and believe that the station should continue to evolve to replenish its audience. In addition:

  • Radio 4 should to aim to increase appeal amongst different demographic groups
  • We have increased the minimum hours of original documentaries required in the Radio 4 service licence
  • BBC management should consider Radio 4’s role in sports coverage. This consideration should take into account Radio 4’s role within BBC radio’s overall sports coverage.
  • Radio 4 should consider the balance of its international coverage and in particular, its coverage between Europe and the rest of the world, compared with America.

Not surprisingly this fairly reasonable list was reduced quickly to clichés that the station was “too white, too Southern, too middle-class.” Radio 4 was “too boring,” so boring that people were using it to ward off foxes from attacking swans. Hearing their beloved Radio 4 under fire, pundits went on the attack–and this is no surprise because most of those same pundits were, in fact, white, Southern and middle-class. Various Tories like Quentin Letts lamented that it was all a Liberal plot to destroy the station that is “the last redoubt of civilised mass broadcasting.” He went on and on about the evils of multiculturalism destroying quality, destroying the country, blah blah blah.

In truth all this commentary had virtually nothing to do with the entire point of the BBC report. The issue, as clearly stated, was then and remains now the “replenisher audience.” Half of Radio 4 listeners are over-55. As they die off–Death comes to every man, you know, even the British–nothing will replace them unless Radio 4 makes some sort of effort to inculcate listenership in younger citizens. And the hard reality of British life, whatever the Tories might think, is that Britain is no longer the lily-white, WASP fantasy land it was in the Edwardian era. The ethnic makeup of the country has changed. The practical matter is not simply how to represent the voices of these new ethnicities, though that too is important, but also how to impart British cultural values to them while accepting all those different heritages and bring them together. The goal is syncretism, not imperialism. To be defensive in reaching for this goal is simply part and parcel of the mission.

I understand the political framework of such debates even though I as an American could hardly care less about British problems, except insofar as they affect my friends or me. The problem is that Radio 4 remains the largest and most influential producer of English-language radio drama in the world. My field is very much affected by them, and thus by BBC politics.

Since that report issued, and even slightly before it–when the first wave cries about BBC “bias” hit the Director-General’s desk in 2008 or so–I have noticed a distinct social turn in BBC radio drama. I’ll let the Prix Italia board speak on this one:

A perception that there are still a good number of traditional dramas and in only a few cases were we presented with pieces that challenged us in terms of the form and the content. Little provocative material. In some cases there was a dilemma as to whether a piece was in the right category…documentary for example. If Radio Drama is to remain a living art form then the producers should be more open about presenting stories about the present day, about seizing opportunities to catch the spirit of younger minds and exploiting new technologies.

This is a combination of the obvious and the frustrating. But it has something to do with their General Considerations from the year before.

General Considerations

The jury is surprised that so many plays are dealing with existential issues like death, rape, illness, alcoholism and family problems. Where is the joy of life?

Any given selection of BBC Radio 4 drama will exhibit these problems, Woman’s Hour dramas probably worst of all. On more than one radio enthusiasts’ bulletin board I have heard similar complaints to the Prix Italia board’s. An example:

One particular type of drama which I find I have to dodge increasingly often is the worthy, topical and “thought provoking” kind which some BBC producers seem to revel in (of course the reveling is of a repressed and depressed nature).

I could go on. Obviously I’m not the only one who has noticed these things. I am also not the only one who detects a bit of smugness on the part of the Beeb in such matters. But I understand also why this is so. The BBC are, I think, doing their best to “present stories about the present day” as the board says. Issues of sexism, classism, racism and so on are flashbulb issues for the modern urban society of Britain. It is hardly surprising that whenever a society diversifies, social oppression too rises. Syncretism brings fundamentalism as its countervailing power.

What concerns me is not political motive but aesthetic value. While I am far from a formalist about art, and I accept that much of the value of art as an activity is its power to provoke further discussion, I have found in much BBC topical drama an almost painful dullor. It is no sin to discuss topical issues. It is no sin to be didactic. It is a sin to do so and be slipshod, bloodless, boring.

The 2007 winner of the Prix Italia was Ed Hime’s brilliant piece, The Incomplete Recorded Works of a Dead Body. Not only is it an extraordinary use of sound and a challenge” in terms of the form and content” that “exploits new technologies,” it is also a subtle bit of social commentary upon the racism of British society and the paranoia around so-called terrorism. It is also marvelous black comedy. It is BBC Radio at its finest. It also came not from Radio 4 but rather Radio 3. The BBC submissions to the Prix Italia since then have been:

  • 2008 Lullaby of Shadows
  • 2009 49 Donkeys Hanged
  • 2010 People Snogging in Public Places
  • 2011 Etian
  • 2012 Pilgrim: Sookey Hill

With the exception of Pilgrim, all these plays come not from Radio 4 but rather from Radio 3’s The Wire series, which is billed as a “showcase for works that push the boundaries of drama and narrative.” In other words, the “form and content” of which the Prix Italia board laments. So what does BBC think is boundary-pushing? Here you go:

Jenny and Matt have a new baby, Tara, and everything is changing. Jenny’s anxiety is worsening, not helped by Matt’s secretive phone calls. Matt tries to be a reassuring husband, but Jenny is suspicious and films his every move with a camcorder… Then Jenny’s worst nightmare happens–Tara disappears! Matt must have done something terrible. But with Jenny hysterical and Matt claiming innocence, the line between reality and delusion becomes more blurred and it’s difficult to know who to trust.


Malcolm McKay’s hard-hitting play centres on a young woman in therapy after a violent assault. Etian was once called Josie, the daughter of an ordinary Irish family living in London. That was before she was raped by an intruder in her flat and began cognitive therapy to help her come to terms with her ordeal.


When he was younger, his Uncle Patrick came to live with the family and James and Patrick were inseparable. But Uncle Patrick has severe learning disabilities and now that James is growing up he finds the situation difficult. James would like to be friends with Pete, the most popular boy in school, so when Pete plans to come round one Saturday, James knows he has to get rid of his embarrassing uncle for the afternoon, by any means necessary.

There you have it: innovation, Beeb-style. While it may be true that any description can trivialize a work of art, these are the BBC’s own descriptions to the judges so I am not exaggerating the case. Plays like these are how the BBC deal with topical issues like abortion, rape, learning disorders and the like. And this is Radio 3, the “culture” station. The situation on Radio 4 is far, far worse because of the structure of BBC radio. With its old roots in the Home Service, Radio Four is middle-of-the-road both by tradition and by endeavor. Radio 3 has always been elite. But at the heart of the Reithian values that determine this hierarchy is the famous statement by Baron Briggs about the Home Service:

The real Home Programme of the people of the United Kingdom, carefully balanced, appealing to all classes, paying attention to culture at a level at which the ordinary listener can appreciate it; giving talks that will inform the whole democracy rather than an already informed section; and generally so designed that it will steadily but imperceptibly raise the standard of taste, entertainments, outlook, and citizenship (emphasis mine).

The fact that it aims at the broadest possible society means that whenever there is a crisis in British society, the inclusive texture of Radio Four will show it, perhaps more clearly than anywhere else. What that reveals to me, presently, is that there is an official willingness and a desire to take on the issues of the day: race, class, gender, politics etc. This is noble enough. I am not, however, convinced that the BBC can take on these things within its currently nostalgic forms that convey to me a sense that the past thirty years of radio drama, and certainly continental radio drama, simply did not happen. Nor does the essential desire of the apparent BBC policy not to offend whenever possible help matters. Consequently it is a rarity, even on BBC 3, to hear something that challenges in either form or content.

This would seem to be the area in which independent producers might excel. For awhile, I think, they did, especially in the fine work of IRDP. But that window in Britain has closed. Over the same time, the window in American radio seems to be opening up. Recent shuffles in the FCC structure are beginning to dismantle repeater stations and loosen the corporate hold on radio broadcasting to return radio back to the small community level. Podcasting, while not an American phenomenon by any stretch of the imagination, nevertheless has a strong American presence. These factors should imply that American radio drama can finally make strides.

Yet this has not happened. If anything, American radio drama is worse off. The United States has nothing even close to the BBC in terms of network radio drama. The best America seems to be able to do falls into the realm of non-fiction storytelling like Snap Judgment or the eccentric stream-of-consciousness pieces of Joe Frank. There has been no DIY revolution in American radio drama for many reasons. Sheer diffusion of talent is one of them. Lack of a continuous tradition among actors and producers is another. Pure ego, too, is another part. Radio drama carries no prestige with it in the US, therefore no aggrandizement.

However, the single greatest thing working against a revolution in DIY drama is ignorance. American fans of radio drama tend to gaze fondly backward through rose-colored mist; rare is the one who does not immediately associate “radio drama” with thin-sounding, vacuum-tube productions heard on third generation magnetic tapes, operating in the same rigidly defined genres that make television so tedious and repetitive. Those who are not “fans” either share the same cliché about “old-timey radio” or are ignorant of the field entirely.

This might seem like a problem, but it is a problem of opportunity. Where there is ignorance, there can be learning. Audiences who have no clichés and do not know what to expect offer the greatest chance to impress with material that does not fall neatly into genre. Similarly, where there is no leadership (as with the BBC) there is great possibility. Podcasters have no leadership and are therefore bristling with the opportunity to do whatever they bloody well please. Unfortunately, this has so far meant more sci-fi, more horror, more mystery, more genre fiction. It need not be so. If it is true that there are 165,000 SAG-AFTRA members and around 50,000 members of Actors’ Equity Association, with the 30% unemployment rate among actors there should be somewhere near 60,000 actors unemployed at any given time. This should provide more than enough talent for radio drama groups to utilize. Why not put them to work and revolutionize the medium?

The biggest problems across both cultures remain conservatism and timidity. Radio drama is now more wide open than it has ever been, with more possibilities than ever. Yet producers of radio drama act as though there is only one way to do things or that there is only one thing to do. This is not true. Radio drama is far off the grid of most people’s awareness. When you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose. There is absolutely nothing to lose and everything to gain. Producers might as well roll the dice.

Radio drama is not dying either in the US or the UK. The BBC audience for radio drama has not declined notably in the past ten years; it has, in fact, grown slightly–quite unlike television. Even if radio drama were “dying,” however, I do not think the basic problems facing the medium would be any different. As Dan O’Neill of the Air Pirates once said, if you’re going down in flames, hit something big. If the BBC should give up on radio drama, let it go out in an explosion of glory, not with the whimpering attempts at relevance currently on offer all too often. For the independent producer, now is the time to aim high and fall. And, in so falling, char the fields so that others can grow the seeds of the future.

Categories Radio

Omar Willey was born at St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Seattle and grew up near Lucky Market on Beacon Avenue. He believes Seattle is the greatest city on Earth and came to this conclusion by travelling much of the Earth. He is a junior member of Lesser Seattle and, as an oboist, does not blow his own trumpet. Contact him at omar [at] seattlestar [dot] net

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