In Our Time, BBC Radio 4’s discussion series exploring big ideas, began on October 15th, 1998. Veteran broadcaster Melvyn Bragg has presented every episode from the beginning, a number approaching 700.
This is an extraordinary track record, says producer Victoria Brignell. “In Our Time is a bit like a university seminar, and Melvyn is very experienced at guiding the direction he wants [the guests] to go in.”
Where does its success come from? “The presenter is one factor, the huge variety of topics I think is another. We’ve covered Jane Eyre, Dark Matter, the California Gold Rush, Sappho, and we’ve even done programmes on Eunuchs and the Kama Sutra.”
Guests on In Our Time are leading authorities in their fields, either university academics or representatives from top museums. It sets itself apart from other talk shows in this respect, which often talk solely to journalists, politicians, and other public, media-savvy figures.
“One of the nice things about In Our Time is that we’re not governed by the news agenda,” says Brignell. “We choose topics because they are interesting in themselves. We don’t interview guests because they’ve got a new book out, or they’re promoting a new film, our guests are chosen because they are experts in their field.
“In the early years it very often involved contributors who were journalists or writers, but nowadays we have a policy of only using guests who hold positions at universities or leading museums, because we feel it gives it more authority.”
The show has six broad topics around which it picks its conversational subjects—philosophy, science, culture, history, religion, and classics. Despite Bragg being sharply intelligent and university-educated, he clearly can’t have academic qualifications in the range of subjects covered. I ask why it is better to have one presenter with fewer qualifications, than an expert host for each episode, like many subject-specific programmes on BBC Radio and TV do.
“I think that’s one of the reasons why the guests respond well to the questions, because they know they’re talking to someone who is, essentially, a layperson,” she explains. He’s a very interested layperson, but doesn’t necessarily have a qualification in the topic that they are discussing.”
It also helps keep the programme accessible to the listener, contributing to its success. “We say to our guests that the programme is being broadcast to a whole range of people. Some… may have some knowledge already on the topic, but loads of people will only have a limited knowledge of it. We need to make sure that they don’t exclude listeners who are new to the topic.”
Also unlike other Radio 4 programmes on science or culture, In Our Time is not prerecorded. There are three reasons for this. “First of all, Radio 4 likes to do as much live as possible.
“Secondly, live programmes tend to have a certain momentum to them, which prerecorded programmes don’t. Some people relish it, some people don’t, but we often find that programmes that are live have a bit more energy in them.
“The other advantage is that there’s actually less work involved,” she says. As long as there is a competent host, not having to edit or cut what is said means that well-briefed guests will produce a good live show.
One thing that In Our Time manages to do is introduce people to topics they wouldn’t have had a chance to study themselves. “For example, a few years ago we were contacted by somebody who used to be a lorry driver. He happened to hear an episode of In Our Time about philosophy when he was in his cab, and he became fascinated by philosophy, so he did a university degree.
“From hearing an episode of In Our Time he had [gone on] to get a BA in Philosophy. It’s stories like that that make the job really worthwhile. You feel that you’re broadening people’s horizons and expanding their understanding of the world.”
Furthermore, “In Our Time is a wonderful vehicle for academics to promote their subjects and spread awareness of their research,” she says.
“We get a lot of positive feedback from academics who have been on the programme, who have been pleasantly surprised at how much comment they get from their colleagues and the outside world after they’ve been on the programme.”
I ask if she has any advice for students interested in getting involved in broadcasting production. Her route into the career was not typical—being a tetraplegic wheelchair user, she benefitted from a BBC traineeship aimed at giving disabled people the opportunity to get into production.
“There’s a separate scheme called Extend, which is also aimed specifically at disabled people, and that offers placements for people who are disabled to learn about broadcasting production.
For those interested in a career in journalism or media, “my advice… would be that you’ve got to be very tenacious. It’s very competitive; a lot of people wanting a career in the sector, lots of people chasing relatively few numbers of posts.
Though she didn’t get involved in student radio when she was at university, she calls it “a great way of experimenting, [and] finding out what works and what doesn’t work.
“It’s a space where you can try out new things and it doesn’t matter too much if they don’t work as well as you were hoping. If your university has a radio station it’s a good opportunity to learn some skills that might well be useful later in your career.”
In the future, she is confident that Radio 4 will increase its appeal to a younger audience. “There are a lot of programmes on Radio 4 which will appeal to young people. The 6:30pm comedy slot in particular, and programmes like the News Quiz, Now Show, [and] The Unbelievable Truth.
“I would definitely encourage young people to switch on to Radio 4. Sometimes people have a misconception as to what Radio 4 can offer, and a lot is equally valuable to a younger audience as it is to the older audience.”
In Our Time returns to BBC Radio 4 on the 24th of September. The first episode will cover Perpetual Motion. All In Our Time episodes are available to listen to and download via the In Our Time webpage, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006qykl.
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