The payment extracted for sipping wine in a handsome function room in an ancient Oxford college is typically attendance at a lecture. Usually it's a small price to pay. Sometimes the cost is steep, indeed. But occasionally it's a pleasure, as it was last night, when I attended something called the Philip Geddes Memorial Lecture.
The topic was "Radio: Medium of the Moment" and the presenter was a journalist named Martha Kearney. She started out in radio news in London, moved to television and, since April, has been back in radio, as host of BBC Radio 4's daily current affairs program "The World at One."
Many colleagues, Kearney said, were baffled that she left television for radio. In the hierarchy that all journalists mentally calculate, radio is inferior to TV. But, she argued, radio can touch listeners in ways no other medium can and is, in these challenging digital-broadband-podcast-user-generated-content times, showing amazing stamina. (Of course, you couldn't really expect her to say otherwise. I can't imagine her delivering a lecture entitled "Radio: It Was Nice While It Lasted" or "Radio: Can I Have My Old TV Job Back, Please?")
While television news audiences have fallen, radio listenership, especially among the young, has risen--this 40 years after the birth of "modern" radio in Britain. The explosion of delivery mechanisms almost demands a change in terminology. "Radio" is a multipurpose word that means both the machine that one switches on and the program that comes out of the speaker. Those programs--that "content"--will be delivered in increasingly diverse ways, from downloadable .mp3 files to programs sent to mobile phones.
Regardless of how it tickles your cochlea, Kearney said radio will possess the same vital qualities, that of being "personal, portable and universal." Radio, she said, "is the most personal medium of all, a voice in your ear that follows you around."
After Kearney's lecture, Tim Gardam, himself a former television executive, asked a question: How fertile was the ground for commercial radio stations? Could they flourish in an environment where so many resources were lavished on the BBC? Kearney acknowledged the dilemma but hoped commercial radio could survive, possibly by taking advantage of the cost savings that come from harnessing new digital technology.
The exchange made me ponder the irony of the BBC: It wants to be--it has to be--successful, but it can't be too successful. It needs a viable commercial media the same way a company like Microsoft needs to be able to point at Apple and say: "See, we don't really have a monopoly."
As an Anglophile raised on PBS and "Masterpiece Theatre" I've always thought of the BBC as a Good Thing. And I'm sure it is. But I can see how--regardless of one's thoughts on its political bent--the BBC could be seen as a force that disrupts the intricate workings of The Market. Not that I understand those workings or even believe that they are intricate.
As I mentioned Monday, we spent the latter part of last week driving around the West Country. Because driving around certain villages--their roads a warren of one-way streets and diabolical roundabouts--can be maddening, we often saw the same signs again and again. That was the case in the Somerset town of Wells, where between trying to find an ATM and looking for Wells Cathedral, we drove down the same stretch of asphalt a dozen times. We kept passing the sign for a village called Wookey Hole and laughing at the name.
Then in today's Guardian I read that a hotelier in Wookey Hole is planning to host Britain's first ever Erotic Film Festival there next summer. I don't think I will ever be able to think of Wookey Hole the same way again.