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Review of the year 2023: Radio

22 December 2023


The presenters of the daily news podcast The News Agents — Jon Sopel, Emily Maitlis, and Lewis Goodall — at the Podcast Show in London, in May

The presenters of the daily news podcast The News Agents — Jon Sopel, Emily Maitlis, and Lewis Goodall — at the Podcast Show in London, in May

ONCE in a while, your reviewer finds himself on the other side of the microphone. One such occasion was Sunday Worship on the First Sunday of Advent; and I was reminded not just of the enormous care that is taken to customise each “liturgy” to the circumstances and environment of the broadcast, but of the vast numbers who listen — still more than a million.

After the broadcast, I received a number of emails, which typically began, “I don’t normally listen to Sunday Worship, but. . .”: not so much an embarrassed admission, as an acknowledgement of the difference between hearing and listening. All those judiciously crafted prayers and perfectly enunciated hymns fall, I suspect, on many more an indifferent than attentive ear.

This leads me to podcasts, the inexorable rise of which medium is swiftly bleeding dry scheduled broadcast radio. One might assume that the podcast — which must be selected, subscribed to, and streamed — would attract something more akin to a “listenership” than a “hearership”. Yet, according to the Edison Podcast Metrics UK chart, the first ranking of its kind for this country, the most popular shows feature low-octane interview, padded out with banter.

The most structured productions are staples from the BBC portfolio, such as The Infinite Monkey Cage and Desert Island Discs. Nothing in the list comes close to the high production values offered by Radio Ulster’s Assume Nothing strand, three of whose series would easily make my top-ten list for the year.

We must expend some intellectual energy to follow a structured narrative; and our attention is otherwise most likely to be stirred if we hear something unusual or provocative. Radio remains primarily a low-engagement medium; but this makes scrutiny of BBC Radio’s cultural and political bias more, not less, relevant.

In an interview for Roger Bolton’s Beeb Watch podcast, in November, the veteran journalist Michael Crick observed that the daily output of Radio 4 (aside from the news) demonstrated a clear and predictable Left-liberal bias. How often does Radio 4, by offering a perspective that differs from what Crick regards as the norm, provoke its listeners into attention?

If you are fed up with the knockabout of Today¸ you can find solace in the calm centrism of The Rest is Politics, Political Currency, or The News Agents, as many have, including the presenters, who have abandoned their duty of balance for a more congenial environment — as in the Cheers theme song: “Sometimes you wanna go, Where everybody knows your name, And they’re always glad you came.” In the land of podcasts, you have full control over your intellectual landscape.

In contrast, the BBC schedules, which roll like a never-ending stream, should provide the best opportunity for a chance encounter — with a different perspective, a person whom you would not otherwise meet, perhaps even with an enemy. This is the hill that the BBC must reclaim. There is real civic, cultural, and moral value in a medium that awakens us to listen.

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