Serial fever hit Britain early this year when podcast fans started raving about American public radio’s episodic investigation of a murder case. Broadcast on BBC 4 Extra in February, Serial then swam into radio’s mainstream.
4 Extra ended the year top of Britain’s digital league with two million listeners. BBC 6 Music – on the brink of closure at the start of the decade – ran it close and is now so popular with an international audience that digital entrepreneurs woo the BBC with proposals to monetise this mighty asset.
As the BBC engages on renewal of its Royal Charter, expect discussions about licence fee payers financing services that overseas users receive free. Get used to thinking of radio as audio.
Twenty years ago no one predicted that radio would stay so popular. The BBC reaches 66 per cent of the UK, according to the last RAJAR ratings; commercial radio reaches 65 per cent. Note the overlap.
Radio 2 has become the nation’s favourite station, Radio 4 and Radio 1 run neck and neck as nearest competitors. Radio 5 Live’s audience dipped after losing three top presenters, Victoria Derbyshire, Shelagh Fogarty and Richard Bacon. It’s rallied now, concentrating on breaking news. BBC local radio, having adopted a syndicated evening service, is wobbling.
British commercial radio (with a handful of exceptions) belongs to two international companies, Global and Bauer. Both offer centrally provided news bulletins. All three national commercial networks, talkSport (owned by UTV Media), Classic FM (owned by Global) and Absolute (owned by Bauer) broadcast in analogue and on digital.
Will listeners continue to buy digital radio sets when there’s more choice of audio via a smartphone or tablet? LBC, Global’s London news station, added online to analogue two years ago with Nick Ferrari’s Call Clegg, a weekly phone-in to Britain’s then-deputy prime minister. The election results killed it. But who knows what new audio smasheroo Ferrari and Global’s programming mastermind Richard Park will next invent?
Meanwhile, back in radio’s heartland, Archers fans wrestle with Rob, the outwardly charming, covertly villainous new husband of Helen Archer. The serial’s embrace of the grit of country life (floods, the price of land, the cost of housing) drove BBC Director-General Tony Hall in January to issue Archers editor Sean O’Connor a warning against “too much reality”. Rob is all too real, although eventually he’ll get his comeuppance.
My Radio 4 bugbear has been too much First World War. Home Front, a serial covering it day by day, and Tommies, a companion sequence of afternoon plays, probably looked good on paper. As drama, they’re more homework than heart work. Both will run to November 2018. I’ve stopped listening.
On the other hand, The Reunion never fails to broaden my horizons. Under the Mushroom Cloud (Radio 4, August), marking the 1945 atomic bombing of Hiroshima through an interview with a surviving eyewitness, was outstanding.
Applause is due for Blood, Sex and Money, the first tranche of feisty adaptations of 20 novels by Émile Zola (Radio 4, November), for Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III (Radio 3, June) and Look Who’s Back, a bold dramatisation of Timur Vermes’s satirical German novel, starring David Threlfall as Hitler, not dead after all, but stalking a new Germany.
In documentaries, Where Have All the Nurses Gone? (Radio 4, February) explained clearly how cutbacks in nurse training have led to shortages in hospitals which, fearing performance review, then borrow millions to hire agency and foreign nurses.
Misha Glenny’s The Making of France (Radio 4, October) was superb. Michael Goldfarb’s brilliant In Their Own Write, Notes From the Congress of Vienna (Radio 3, April) noted the source of Europe’s subsequent century and more of war.
Miles Jupp, hero of his own sly comedy In and Out of the Kitchen (first on radio, then television) made a fine Boswell in Jon Canter’s Boswell’s Lives (Radio 4, August). He then replaced Sandi Toksvig as chairman on Radio 4’s News Quiz where he laughs loudly. Alas, I don’t. Many an evening at 6.30pm I desert Radio 4’s comedies for Radio 3’s Composer of the Week.
But good comedy still happens on Radio 4. John Finnemore’s Double Acts were pure delight on Friday mornings.
Surprise of the year was The Robert Peston Interview Show (with Eddie Mair). Hosting Radio 4’s PM, Mair made a running joke of his feud with BBC economics editor Peston.
Here, each presented the other with a surprise guest whom they both interviewed. Sometimes jolly, sometimes sad, it worked well. Peston, who departs the BBC for ITN this month, gave Mair a parting gift by reading listeners’ letters on iPM, Mair’s Saturday address to the audio world. Did I say letters? How old fashioned. Make that tweets and emails.