Magazine article The Spectator

Competitive Edge

Magazine article The Spectator

Competitive Edge

Article excerpt

Amid all the fuss about cuts at the BBC and how this will affect programme output, I can't help thinking, why the outrage? For years, there have been dark rumblings among writers that there's no longer a drama department to nurture young talent and commission new work -- the Birtian revolution of the 1990s saw to that, and it did initially cause a sharp decline in standards, especially in the number and range of original drama productions. Over at Radio Three, the Controller Roger Wright has been attacked for not encouraging live performances of new music, but you could say he has brought other virtues to the network. Sometimes a financial squeeze on programme-making can have the effect of a health-ensuring purgative, getting rid of waste. In any case, a bit of discomfiting self-questioning is no bad thing. Too little financial challenge, too much presumption of your right to be there often takes the edge off things, stultifying and stagnating.

The great thing about radio, of course, is its immediacy, its ability to function on nothing more than a microphone, an editing machine and a bit of imagination. Which is why radio has survived the arrival of television and is now flourishing in the brave new world of broadband. As anyone who has invested in a digital radio will know, or who has adapted to listening via the computer (it takes a bit of getting used to, and it still feels not quite right to me: surely we need someone else to be listening to the same programme at the same time? ), there are dozens of stations out there offering not just non-stop music (Heart, Smooth, theJazz, Magic, UCB Inspirational) but also community documentaries (see PRL24 -- Polish Radio London), original audio experiences (Resonance FM) and any amount of audio books on air. It's as if we're experiencing a renewed enthusiasm for a shared aural culture, if not all shared at the same time.

Commercial competition has been bracingly good for the BBC's wireless networks.

It's a long time since I've turned off an afternoon play midway through. And the big names in literary and theatre worlds are constantly popping up in the schedules.

(It's such a good showcase for both. ) The two worlds were brought together on Radio Four this week in an unusual commission for the actor Alan Howard's 70th birthday. Five writers -- Tom Stoppard, Julian Barnes, Helen Simpson, Marina Warner and Nina Raine -- were invited to write short stories for him to read. …

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