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Niamh Anderson: How is public involvement with radio changing?

When you tell people you want to work in radio, there is an uncanny similarity to the reaction you might get from telling them about your History degree (I have the happy experience of both). Eyes glaze over with doubt and you know they think you’re eternally unemployable – numbers of younger listeners are in decline as networks compete with websites, YouTube, or Facebook. But I refuse to believe that radio is dying. Instead it is evolving, and moving online – but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because podcasts bring us even more content to procrastinate with.

So this week, I spent my Wednesday afternoon a little differently to the usual midweek nap – at a BBC recording. Radio 4 has a monthly programme called Bookclub, in which an author sits down for an interview and discussion with James Naughtie, who recently left the Today programme. The producer, Dymphna Flynn, recruits a studio audience of about twenty-five, which this month included myself and my flatmates, whom I happily dragged along with the promise of being on the radio.

This month’s book was Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic adventure novel, Kidnapped, and the recording took place in the Hawes Inn, Queensferry, where Stevenson began to write the novel. The show has a friendly feel; basically that of your Mum’s Friday evening book club, something helped by the free wine. Every audience member is invited to ask questions to the author (this month necessarily and brilliantly replaced by novelist and RLS expert Louise Welsh) and to Jim, on anything around the novel or the writer.

Dymphna and I discussed Bookclub, and also BBC programmes which feature audiences, as seemingly fewer programmes involve members of the public. Dymphna sees that the public is “even more engaged than ever… the rise of Internet is correspondent with non-expansion of studio audiences” – technology has moved on from just phone-ins, or physical attendance, to tweeting, emails, or discussion groups on Facebook.  As a producer of a show based around the questions and opinions of public readers, Dymphna is always in contact with listeners, and told us that the “trend is to try and make contact with communities and listeners.”

By involving the public, the programme may seemingly be put at risk – the content could vary or dip in quality, rather than discussions between literary experts. Yet Dymphna describes the audience as a “group of contributors” more than anything else; a group made up of interested people – one couple in the audience, are the current residents of Robert Louis Stevenson’s home in Edinburgh. When I asked Louise what I thought (maybe mistakenly) was an intelligent question about the lack of resolution at end of Kidnapped, she gave me a reassuring answer – but both of us were countered by a fellow audience member paraphrasing a famous Stevenson quote; “it is not the arrival but the journey that matters.”   The room agreed with her and I felt ignorant – but that’s the joy of exchanging ideas in a studio discussion.

I think this quote is reflective of Kidnapped as a novel, Bookclub as a programme and the involvement of audiences with radio. Radio both stems from and creates a community, and so the making of radio should involve the people it is being made for – be that through phone-ins, the internet, or attending a recording. The arrival is important in radio (the show should sound good), but what goes into the making of it is just as important.

The whole day was a unique experience, and hearing the opinions of a BBC producer was another. I highly recommend researching what recordings may be coming up in the area – some may even warrant a trip down to London.

Many television programmes also continually host studio audiences, and the fact that many are free of charge should be taken advantage of.

In attending live recordings, you get to see and hear behind the scenes that you do not from simply listening. James Naughtie told a story of a time when a woman’s watch alarm went off mid-recording, and she felt so humiliated that the following month she brought a box of eggs as an apology – the alarm had been a reminder to feed her chickens. James described this as “Radio 4 in all its glory” – these anecdotes are peak Radio 4, but they’re also unique to the live settings.

As well as being free to attend, Bookclub is an amazing resource. Many of the world’s leading writers have been guests; Toni Morrison, Gore Vidal, Iain Banks, Pat Barker, JK Rowling – resulting in an archive of over two hundred programmes available on podcast – some might even be on your reading list.

The Kidnapped episode of Radio 4’s Bookclub programme will air at 4pm on November 6th. So unplug that tablet or laptop (unless you are fancy and  splashed out for a license), and tune into Radio 4 to hear a hugely enjoyable programme about books, adventure, and Scotland. Or maybe just to hear me embarrass myself on air.

Image: April Vest

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