Front Man


At the cinema the other night to see Frost/Nixon, at least five minutes of the commercial break were devoted to selling Radio Four. It was such an odd experience. Nothing to watch, just a blank screen, with Paul Merton and co. telling a few jokes in Dolby sense surround. But we'd bought tickets to watch something on screen, not tune into something aural. And although Merton is the sharpest wit on the station, I've never thought that stand-up works on radio. You need to be there, on the spot, with a drink in your hand to really get the joke. In the dark, echoey cinema the disembodied voices were lost amid the crackle of popcorn and clicking of fingernails on keypads.

Radio Four's marketing strategy must be that it's a brilliant cross-over tactic, reaching out to that crucial 15-35 age range who don't at present listen to the station but do spend a lot of money in the cinema. If Radio Four doesn't catch them now, they'll be lost for ever. But anyone who pays to watch a film about a series of TV interviews with an ex-president of the USA is pretty well aware of Radio Four anyway, and I'm not convinced they would have rushed home afterwards to download Recorded for Training Purposes, let alone The Moral Maze.

I can never understand why the BBC insists on spending so much money on advertising, even puffing its own stations to its own listeners. Yes, of course, the market is difficult out there with so many stations nibbling away at their market dominance.

But isn't the best way to fend off competition always to be sure that you are the best at what you do by investing in production and product development?

We've only just begun to explore how radio can simulate the weird way our minds work, and how we receive and process the world we see and hear around us. Radio Three's The Wire does promise on its website 'to push the boundaries of drama and narrative', and Saturday night's play by the Front Row presenter Mark Lawson was a fascinating insight into what goes on behind the microphone. In The Number of the Dead, Tim Freeman (brilliantly played by Tim McInnerny) is the anchorman on the main midday news programme. He's a bit jaded, having done it for more than 20 years, and now reckons that there are only three kinds of story in his show: dead people whom you've never heard of, dead people you have heard of, and ways you might die. …

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