2007-10-30 : Admittedly I thought they’d said “Middle Earth”

Paul, HC and I elected to broaden our intellectual horizons and attend a public debate at the Institute for Contemporary Art (previously a place I'd only ever been to see weirdass movies), entitled “Is Radio 4 Too Middle England ?“. Probably less of a debate and more of a discussion, however the lineup of panellists would guarantee that however it went, it would be eloquent, intelligent, and erudite: Mark Damazer (Controller of Radio 4, and possibly my new hero), Natalie Schwarz (director of radio at Channel 4), Miranda Sawyer (radio critic for The Observer), and Simon Elmes (programme producer for Radio 4). I can't remember the compere's name.

Possibly a good job it wasn't a proper debate, because although there were some excellent points made in a variety of topical arcs, the one central and ever-present theme was the difficulty in pinning down exactly what's meant by the phrase “Middle England”. Various suggestions were proffered; initially that of “Disgusted, of Tunbridge Wells” – a village apparently totally populated by grumpy retired Colonels whose main occupation was finding things on the radio to complain about. Indeed many of the panellists and people there seemed preoccupied with asserting that this was the “average audience” that Radio 4 attracts and therefore pitches to, whereas Mark Damazer went to great length to try to explain that this fictional median group doesn't really exist and that their programming in fact is far far more varied and challenging than is popularly perceived.

Another term which kept surfacing was “middle class”, and Damazer went to strident lengths to stress that R4 didn't pitch to them either (a point which Sawyer said was pure poppycock, and wasn't helped by Damazer & Elmes' definite air of middle-classedness). In the pub discussion Paul & Hannah & I had after the session finished we spent a goodly deal of time trying to work out what in the hell “middle class” is, and how someone is deemed to fit into it – I left with the firm impression that I'd missed something somewhere. It's not based on social networks, it's not based on economics, and seemingly the more rigorously you try to analyse it in the context of an induvidual, the more ethereal it becomes…

Amusingly, I thought, was that using listener statistics it has been possible for researchers to get a picture of the “typical” Radio 4 audience – one factor being an average age of about 55-60. The trouble with averages is that they very seldom bear any resemblance to the real situation. Most people have slightly more than the average number of legs. And looking around the room it was plainly obvious that there weren't a lot of 60 year olds in there, and the passion with which those who spoke spake it seemed clear that they were in fact part of that listening audience. One particularly irritating oik behind us made a point of broadcasting the fact he was 22 (I may have been a little jealous because he used lots of long & relevant words and spoke without hesitating or muddling his speech, and seemed to be able to construct a response based around an intelligent premise… These are all things I hope to be able to achieve one day).

Incidentally, as I probably should have pointed out earlier for people not familiar with Radio 4 – it's currently Britain's only Talk Radio station, being made up of many produced programs that vary from documentary, to drama, to comedy, and universally have high production values. Largely for this reason also it's seen as a fairly Establishment station, or at least that's the viewpoint that Miranda Sawyer put forward and that Damazer and Elmes tried to insist wasn't the case. It's not a talkBACK radio station, so you won't have an inflammatory DJ airing passionate views about what's wrong with society today and stirring up retirees to ring in and agree that the kids have got no respect, etc. etc.

I haven't said much about Natalie Schwarz really, and primarily the reason for that was that her contribution was largely an awareness and sales presentation of the fact that Channel 4 are throwing a hat into the talk radio arena and forming a competitor to Radio 4… she managed to do that thing where she spoke too close to the mike and thereby appeared to be shouting at everyone, but I don't suppose that's relevant to the content. The trouble was that after everyone had universally agreed that a bit of competition is a healthy thing, she didn't really have much else to contribute to the discussion, and spent much of the rest of the chat grinning awkwardly as Elmes, Sawyer and Damazer locked empassioned horns.

So I suppose in answer to the question “Is Radio 4 too Middle England?”, you'd have to respond – as I think the panel did for most of the night – “It depends on what you mean by 'Middle England'…”.