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Just a Minute, radio isn’t dead yet

If radio was really an outdated medium, desperate TV producers wouldn’t keep trying to rip off its ideas.

David Bowden

Topics Culture

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‘Radio is great, but it’s out of date’, sang Dinah Washington back in 1953. ‘TV is the thing again this year.’ The ‘Queen of the Blues’ was divorced seven times by the time she died aged 39, so perhaps picking sure-fire winners was not among her many other attributes. She was not the only one. Few mediums have had their death-knells pronounced as regularly as the talking box.

But while its more visual TV and film rivals have tended towards conservatism, radio has proven it is able to keep on reinventing itself as something more experimental and innovative. From the rising stars of student radio, to big stars looking to rebuild their shattered reputations, radio is still the medium most willing to offer a platform to the controversial, edgy and plain old cranky.

As a result, the BBC has always had a notoriously tricky relationship with it. Ever since its major overhaul in the mid-1990s, where derided DJs such as Dave Lee Travis and Bruno Brookes were jettisoned and ‘old’ music (recorded before 1990) was banned, Radio 1 has chased after young audiences in ever more desperate ways. But no matter how much rap it played, it has never quite able to shake off its school-disco air of establishment stuffiness. Curiously during the same period, Radio 2 (which traditionally attracted an older audience) became much more interesting, favouring quirkier, but experienced presenters, willing to test their audiences a little more. No matter how ill-judged the programme, it is nonetheless notable that ‘Brandgate’ – featuring presenters Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand – occurred on Radio 2.

The panicky response of the BBC, introducing compliance guidelines across all of the corporation’s output and virtually neutering its drama and comedy departments, was indicative of how ambivalent the risk-averse broadcaster was to its own programming. People simply aren’t meant to care that much about what happens on radio. Not long after, it had to back down from attempting to cut 6 Music, one of its few successful digital channels aimed at younger and hipper audiences, after an outcry from passionate fans. Outside of Radio 1 and 4, which seem to assert their own cultural significance and relevance, the BBC simply isn’t sure what it’s meant to be doing with the rest of its output.

The appearance of Just a Minute on our TV screens these past few weeks has been therefore puzzling. The show has been a Radio 4 staple virtually since the station’s launch in 1967 and still features the same vaudevillean-era presenter, Nicholas Parsons. It holds one of the most basic of formats, modelled on a Victorian parlour game – panellists must speak on a given topic for 60 seconds avoiding repetition, hesitation or deviation – and has provided a happy home for the wittier characters from British public life, from Kenneth Williams and Clement Freud, through to Julian Clary and Jenny Eclair. It is whimsical (frequently bordering on irritatingly twee), profoundly middle-of-the-road and undoubtedly popular.

Yet its appearance on our screen now speaks to a certain exhaustion. There is no sudden jolt, wondering why nobody had thought of it before now. Indeed, three separate television series have been previously attempted, all with virtually no success. It is a profoundly verbal format, reliant on intensely-staged formalism and constraints that become more and more ridiculous the more you see it. There is no ‘shock of the old’ effect to be had here, where a period of rudderless presentism is radically shaken up by the choice injection of more familiar and traditional elements. Bringing it back to our screens is a deeply conservative and defensive move: you suspect it is motivated more by the desire to use 88-year-old Parsons as a way of rebutting accusations of ageism just as much as it is to avoid taking the risk of coming up with new or interesting content.

Tellingly, it has been JAM‘s fellow Radio 4 staple The Archers which has been generating more controversy this week, having been criticised by radio presenter Richard Bacon (another person who has rebuilt his career on radio, having famously been fired from Blue Peter for drug revelations). He caused an outcry by saying that listening to the long-running programme was ‘like queuing for the till at a farm shop and accidentally overhearing two locals who don’t know each other very well having a half-hearted chit-chat behind you’. On the basis that this is what listening to The Archers is like, I can’t really be sure what the problem is.

Having to defend or bash The Archers is one of the more tedious aspects of a very British culture war, where metropolitan media-types declare their hatred of it for being ‘fuddy-duddy’ and everything they hate about Middle England, while others get misty-eyed about its ability to transport them away from the modern madding crowd. Personally, I’m happy enough for The Archers to remain tucked away on Radio 4 as one of people’s private indulgences and of no great cultural import. I suspect that’s how its fans like it too. Yet if they ever try to bring it to TV, we’ll know dark times are afoot.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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Topics Culture

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