Out of the seminar room and on to the airwaves

Workshop offers guidance for the aspiring academic radio stars of the future

January 26, 2017
My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love by Dmitri Vrubel
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Graphic discussion: graffiti on the Berlin Wall was one scholar’s topic

Simon Beard, a research associate at the University of Cambridge’s Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, described himself as “a moral philosopher with a problem”.

Although he ate organic food and avoided flying, he was well aware that he was “doubling [his] ecological footprint” by having two children. “I love my children dearly,” he reflected, “but are they my biggest moral mistake?”

Anne Hanley, a junior research fellow in modern history at New College, Oxford described the punitive and hypocritical ways that patients with sexually transmitted diseases were treated in the 19th century – and the disquieting “parallels with how we apportion blame today”, like when organ transplants are refused to smokers.

Philip Lancaster, British Academy postdoctoral research fellow in English at the University of Exeter, recalled how W. B. Yeats once heard a version of The Lake Isle of Innisfree – a poem about his yearning for peace and solitude – sung by a choir of a thousand Boy Scouts, and asked what duty composers have to respect the words they are setting.

Other early career academics offered their insights into Indian independent cinema, changing attitudes to autism and how the Berlin Wall was turned into “the world’s biggest canvas” by graffiti artists.

These were just a few of the 60 researchers at a series of workshops pitching ideas for radio programmes with a view to becoming one of this year’s 10 New Generation Thinkers (NGTs).

This is a scheme set up by the BBC and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) in 2011 to “develop a new generation of academics who can bring the best of university research and scholarly ideas to a broad audience – through BBC broadcasting”.

It is open to all UK residents who are currently PhD students, who have completed a PhD within the past eight years or have secured their first academic appointment within the past six years. The final selection, to be announced in March, will be made on the basis of the pitches and the candidates’ performance in a mock radio discussion programme.

Those who become NGTs will get a chance to “work with BBC producers to develop their own programme ideas for BBC Radio 3” or to “make a short taster film for BBC TV Arts”. They will also receive “further media training and support from the AHRC”.

In past years, BBC producer Robyn Read explained at the workshop, about a third of the candidates who didn’t get through had also appeared on the radio.

So what are the core skills that enable young academics to make the transition to broadcasting?

On hand with some guidance was Alexandra Harris, professor of English at the University of Liverpool – and one of the initial 2011 crop of New Generation Thinkers.

Some NGTs, she noted, might just want to “make one particular programme on their own research area”. Others might “decide to become total hacks and talk about anything”.

She had herself once taken part in a radio discussion about ash trees having been unable to recognise one beforehand, and she participated in another on irony for which she had prepared some comments on 18th-century satire but was asked about contemporary New York hip hop. Although such situations could be stressful, she recommended that NGTs “take up every opportunity during the first year” and then be more selective after that.

Professor Harris agreed with Ms Read that the key to appearing on a discussion programme was to “work out three things you want to say and then find a way of shoehorning them into the conversation”, adding that it was wise to “make sure you use your best point first”.

It was also important to learn how to “drop your self-consciousness, so you can react in a genuine way when interviewing someone” – and not to be too worried about how fellow academics might react. On one occasion, she had read out some Anglo-Saxon in a programme and was terrified by the thought that she would be heard by two professors of Anglo-Saxon who lived in a house opposite hers. In the event, no one had commented on her accent.

For younger academics keen to embrace the medium, Professor Harris said she believed that radio offered many pleasures and benefits. Fifteen-minute essays in particular were “ideal for using little bubbles of enthusiasm that can’t be used in academic monographs”.


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