Today marks the 500th episode of the unapologetically high-brow, but somehow accessible, BBC Radio 4 show In Our Time, hosted by the whip-smart and endearingly irascible Melvyn Bragg – listening to him herd his academic guests being one of the main pleasures of the show. The concept of In Our Time is to highlight the wealth of knowledge welling up at British universities by allowing said academics, media-savvy professors and lowliest lecturers alike, a weekly voice on the prestigious airwaves of Radio 4. (For an American equivalent, think NPR, The New York Times and a pre-Murdoch Wall Street Journal – basically as serious and agenda-forming as journalism gets while still being listenable – and you’ll get close to what Radio 4 means in Britain (well, especially London, but that’s a whole other thing).) Since its higher education system really is Britain’s greatest asset and export – something the Tory government doesn’t at all understand – fostering understanding of its place in the UK’s culture is a great service In Our Time provides. I’ve often thought, probably naively and certainly fondly, that if there were a similar program for American intellectuals there wouldn’t be quite as great a divide between academe and the rest of American culture – maybe (and this is certainly naive) even a better understanding of the value of all research.
In Our Time has been for about four years the only podcast I listen to regularly, partly because no others have hooked me and, since I usually listen to it at the gym or on long car trips, it’s nice to feel smart when you’re sweating or blankly staring at the highway. Also, though I unsurprisingly prefer the episodes about literature and intellectual history, listening to intelligent conversation about the nervous system, the age of the universe, and other diverse topics hasn’t done me any harm. The whole archive of 500 programs is available to listen to on the website, and the podcast updates regularly. I really hope someday they will open up the whole archive in podcast form. Recent highlights include an episode about the Ancient Greek oracle at Delphi, and the only bum episode I recall in four years was the one last fall about unicorns – Bragg and the guests seemed to be talking from completely different sets of notes. This underscores, though, how brilliant the show’s producers are at background research and, crucially, getting academics who are actually great on air. Having worked in public radio briefly, I can tell you this is no mean feat.
Egg-headed In Our Time certainly is, but listeners fostering a connection to the intellectual work of their bookish countrymen is a good thing and, as Telegraph writer Lindsay Johns put it, there is value in being talked up to. Johns gets a bit fawning, but I’ll let him have the last word:
In today’s relentlessly lowbrow public broadcasting culture, this is a milestone which deserves serious applause. The truth is that no one has ever suffered from being talked up to. […] Week in, week out, Bragg and his guests do precisely that to us, with great chunks of humbling erudition and a no-nonsense discussion of the history of ideas. Lord Bragg deserves the plaudits that come his way. He walks ahead of us as our genial, moderately opinionated guide to the intellectual riches of the past. He is the Statius to our Dante, holding his lantern aloft so that we might see better through the purgatory of the mid-week grind.
That’s a bit rich – I think the derisive snort I just heard came from his Lordship’s nostrils – but no less true for that. I’ll have my own last word hopefully this weekend with an essay inspired by a recent episode of In Our Time.