Academics on the airwaves

June 4, 2009

Matthew Reisz makes a convincing case for public intellectuals ("Listen and learn", 28 May) and his main example, the Reith Lectures, is evidence of the importance of radio for academics.

There can be little doubt that the non-visual medium lends itself to the world of ideas, uncluttered by visual support. The history of dons on the radio (mainly from Oxbridge and London), however, has been mixed. Up to the early 1960s, there were thousands of dull radio talks every year, often by academics talking to tiny audiences. From 1970, Radio 4's Analysis had considerable success integrating academics into current affairs radio but, as Gary Hall points out, popularising academic ideas is fraught with difficulty. Melvyn Bragg's In Our Time brings together three authorities to discuss an area of study, more often than not on a classical theme, but the result is strangely antiseptic and without the critical exchange of the academy: high table without the arguments.

Radio 4 is the natural home for the public airing of academic ideas, as Laurie Taylor's Thinking Allowed demonstrates; an important example that owes a lot to Taylor's academic credentials and his skills as a radio presenter.

Hugh Chignell, Associate professor of broadcasting history, Bournemouth University.

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