OPEN UNIVERSITY FEBRUARY 7, 2007
by Eric Rauchway
I concede that few genres of question more reliably annoy than, "Why do the British do it better?", because so many things, they don't. But I wish now to ask: Why are there so many excellent program(me)s on BBC Radio 4 with no American counterpart? And specifically, why do they get so much more out of their professors and general intellectuals?
Let's pick two examples, both podcast, so you can listen for yourself.
Exhibit A. "Start the Week." Each Monday, the host has four guests on to discuss their projects. They might be painters, playwrights, novelists, actors, scientists, social scientists, or anything really; the criterion seems to be that they have to be presenting some kind of new performance or lecture or book or program in the coming week.
The difference between this and most otherwise similar shows is that the guests have been given each others' work to examine beforehand. So after the host goes to each guest in turn, spending a few minutes explaining what the new work is, the other guests get to have a turn asking questions, often pointed ones, about the project. You finish the program feeling you've a sense of the fresh debates on four separate subjects. They aren't always as spirited as when Henry Kissinger "had to leave early," but they're usually substantive.
Exhibit B. "In Our Time." Despite the title, not mainly on current affairs. Rather, each week features a topic of interest to the generally educated person. Some recent examples include the speed of light, anarchism, the Peasants' Revolt, and altruism. Normally they're scientific, philosophic, or historical subjects.
The host spends 45 minutes talking to three or four experts on the subject, marching them--sometimes with a pretty firm hand--through a basic outline of the topic, including a fairly responsible discussion of popular myths debunked, developments in recent scholarship, and all jargon-free.
The value provided here is mainly in the determination of the host, Melvyn Bragg, to get through the subject to his satisfaction, and he's an excellent proxy for the non-specialist but educated listener. You finish the show feeling as if you've learned something quite painlessly on a subject of some worth.
For both these programs, the cost of production has to be minimal. They air live, they have no theme music or breaks, the people just come on and talk. They work because the hosts and guests prepare and do a thorough job on serious subjects. Both could easily translate to American airwaves.
Most important, they showcase real scholarly or artistic debate, rather than the fake controversies we so often see ginned up by getting one paid-up certifiable type from column A and one from column B.
Why don't we have programming like this? I can think of at least two reasons, but neither seems adequate.
Inadequate reason 1. American academics aren't as good as British academics at speaking to a broader audience. This doesn't fly, I think: In both the shows I mention, a journalist more or less forces (however gently) his scholarly guests to speak plainly. So maybe ...
Inadequate reason 2. American journalists aren't as good as British journalists at picking the pith from academic arguments and riding herd on professors. Perhaps this is so. But surely in our nation of 300 million we can find one or two.
I can think of reasons it's easier to do these programs in Britain--they've a single city that's the political, financial, intellectual, and artistic capital, for example--but such reasons don't make it impossible or even implausible to do them here. And we know NPR isn't averse to adaptation of BBC programs. After all, "Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me," which host Peter Sagal tells you every week is "the NPR news quiz," is in fact the NPR "News Quiz." We could make other borrowings.