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Review of 2012: Radio

21 December 2012

FROM the self-proclaimed "biggest broadcasting deployment in peacetime" to ignominy, humiliation, and violent breast-beating, the BBC has had an embattled year, alleviated by none of the virtuous resilience of Dunkirk. The Olympic coverage may have demonstrated how, in the hour of need, all hands could be turned to the pump - the cricket correspondent Jonathan Agnew commentating on archery, for example, and Five Live's redoubtable team doing the best they could with synchronised diving - but, as the hour for the BBC's big 90th anniversary approached, the Corporation was shooting at itself over sexual-abuse allegations and editorial mismanagement. The only beneficiaries of such a crisis are those who either do not know how bad standards of radio broadcasting are elsewhere in the world, or do not care.

So it is with a certain protectiveness that I recall the broadcasting flops of the year; for they, at least, all dared to aspire. Classic Serial: Songs and Lamentations (Radio 4, June) is a case in point: a two-hour narrative squeezed from the book of Jeremiah and associated texts, which suffocated in its own earnestness; another was Richard Holloway's Honest Doubt (Radio 4, June), which attempted a 20-part history of religious scepticism, and lost its way after a couple of outings.

It is not that time and effort are not expended on these projects: take Says Who? (Radio 2, November), whose attempted survey of people's attitudes to morality employed some refined production values. But pacing is everything, and this effort was slowed down by the weight of background noise, the endless playlist of an over-zealous editor.

Two Radio 2 documentaries make it into my 2012 favourites: A Year in the Life: The Beatles 1962 (October) told the story of the Fab Four's coming-of-age; and How Sweet the Sound: The Amazing Grace story (May), a survey of the hymn in all its myriad forms, from the Scots Dragoon Guards to the Blind Boys of Alabama.

Rougher round the edges, but on a good day no less effective, is the Five Live method: immediate, and hands-on. Nicky Campbell taking performance-enhancing drugs (5 Live Breakfast, August) was compelling; and Men's Hour (July) on circumcision was traumatic; while Victoria Derbyshire's live programme in June from an abortion clinic justifies by itself her status as one of the BBC's finest.

You need great original material to make a great radio programme; and my two highlights of the year benefited from such. Radio 4's drama Blasphemy and the Governor of Punjab (September) told the story of the life and death of Salmaan Taseer, murdered for questioning Pakistani blasphemy laws. Methodical, yet bristling with righteous anger, the piece gave a valuable insight into a dysfunctional society.

Social dysfunction and moral ambivalence are all part of the world that James Joyce recreated in his masterpiece Ulysses, which, on Bloomsday this year (16 June), was celebrated on Radio 4 with a seven-part adaptation of the novel. This story of a flawed hero, negotiating prejudices and blandishments with a quiet determination, would make an appropriate role-model for the BBC in these dark days.

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