The History of Ideas

In the emerging world of popular podcast, people are moving further away from the typical, hour long show, wanting something that can be consumed quickly and keep them interested in a short sprint of a topic. BBC Radio 4 has undoubtedly tapped into this, having created their latest obsession: their new miniseries The History of Ideas. The small, typically ten minute long episodes are educational but enticing, making it the perfect merge of radio and podcast that entangles the listener in a black hole of addictive learning.

The style of these shows is to drop the listener into a world that they have probably never even heard of before – providing a brief, but exclusive insight into topics such as mythology and language. Fascinating narrators and guests wade their way into these philosophical, and often scientific, topics and make the listener want to follow them into the deep. You get prominent thinkers such as Noam Chomsky, but also lesser known, ‘big names’ within the fields discussed on that particular episode. The program should be commended for cleverly making it so that each episode gives a well-respected scientist/philosopher/historian etc. a platform from which to speak on their specialty, catching the eye of the listener with a prominent thinker as they scroll through episodes.

What is particularly remarkable about this series however, as I’ve touched on already, is how well structured and marketed The History of Ideas is to the modern world of media consumption. Radio 4, which can often be seen as old and dusty, failing to keep up with what is ‘cool’ or ‘modern’, has managed to keep up with the most recent innovations and ideas in the realm of media, whilst at the same time maintaining the quality of programming that gives Radio 4 its highly regarded reputation. It manages to make academic-style content interesting to even the most apathetic listener, because it formats all of its shows into small, speedy chunks which satisfy the millennial need for instant gratification. To top it off, several episodes have adorable graphic videos to illustrate the content in small pieces as you listen, grabbing the visually inclined listernship to stay tuned.

Unfortunately, the show does fail in consistency. There are a number of episodes that have been released since early January and I was lucky enough in that the first few I listened to were fairly interesting and fun. I enjoyed listening to them, learned a fair bit, and felt like I’d spent my time usefully. Eventually, there did follow some episodes which lacked the finesse and the excitement that made the others so tantilising. They felt like dry documentary pieces on topics that were not worth listening to, leaving me relieved that they were only twelve minutes. This is not hugely surprising, considering that there is such a large number of episodes, but Radio 4 must be careful that first time listeners pick the right episode for their first try, because if they don’t, they may end up hoping for it to end, or even just turning off prematurely.

The History of Ideas is hopefully the first of many modern radio series with which Radio 4 will grace us in the coming year. It is the perfect series for those of us with busy lifestyles, or who just want to spend small chunks of time learning something new without sucking their time into something too in-depth. And because most episodes are only just over ten minutes, they are a perfect length for students, digestible for your commute to campus, or even killing time between classes. If Radio 4 is smart, this series will be the start of a ‘New Radio’, where stations that are considered to be ‘boring’ begin to shift some of their content down to the microsized needs of today’s millennial listeners, retaining their quality at the same level, but changing the rule book of how radio is supposed to be done. If they manage to succeed in making more programming, Radio 4 may make itself far more mainstream to the younger audience it so often seems to miss.

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