Cul­tural Ex­change: Bri­tons perk up their ears.

More Bri­tons are lis­ten­ing to the ra­dio than ever — more than 90% of all adults in the U.K. — and a big rea­son is Ra­dio 4, a chan­nel with­out equal in the United States.

Los Angeles Times - - Calendar - Henry Chu re­port­ing from london henry.chu@latimes.com

Editors’ note: With this re­port, Sun­day Cal­en­dar launches a new, weekly fea­ture, “Cul­tural Ex­change.” In it, Times for­eign cor­re­spon­dents will ex­plore cul­tural and en­ter­tain­ment trends, de­vel­op­ments, per­son­al­i­ties and de­bates around the world.

The phone can ring all it wants when Meg Dono­van is lis­ten­ing to the ra­dio. If she’s tuned in to a play or to the nightly in­stall­ment of “The Archers,” a soap opera that’s been on the air in Bri­tain for nearly 60 years, her callers can wait.

“I’m not pre­pared to miss any­thing, you see,” said Dono­van, a re­tired school­teacher. “I’m quite happy to be in­ter­rupted when watch­ing tele­vi­sion, but never while lis­ten­ing to the ra­dio.”

There’s a set in nearly ev­ery room of her home in south­west­ern Eng­land. When­ever the mood strikes, Dono­van can lis­ten to the news, im­prov com­edy, a book read­ing, clas­si­cal mu­sic, a new drama, a sci­ence lec­ture, the ship­ping fore­cast or a hun­dred-part se­ries (re­ally) on the his­tory of the world.

It’s all part of Bri­tain’s con­tin­u­ing love af­fair with the ra­dio, even in an age of dig­i­tal TV and In­ter­net down­loads. Video was sup­posed to kill the ra­dio star, but the re­al­ity has turned out to be quite dif­fer­ent: More Bri­tons are lis­ten­ing to the ra­dio than ever — more than 90% of all adults in this nation of 60 mil­lion peo­ple.

But it’s not just how many ears are lis­ten­ing — it’s how long they spend do­ing it. A com­pa­ra­ble pro­por­tion of Amer­i­cans also switch on their ra­dios, but your av­er­age lis­tener in the U.S. tunes in for only two-thirds as much time as your av­er­age Brit, who de­votes 22 hours a week to a medium once thought in dan­ger of be­com­ing ob­so­lete.

It’s not hard to see — or hear — why. With a few ex­cep­tions — such as paid satel­lite ra­dio — twirling the dial on U.S. ra­dio means sam­pling a limited diet of news, mu­sic and talk shows that hew to monotonously sim­i­lar for­mats. Lis­ten­ers here feast on an au­ral smor­gas­bord that en­com­passes not just stan­dard mu­sic-and-chat but also doc­u­men­taries, sit­coms, orig­i­nal plays, quiz shows, po­etry, in-depth in­ter­views, a women’s hour, art re­views, sports com­men­tary, re­li­gious dis­cus­sions, po­lit­i­cal de­bate and much more.

It’s the rea­son that many Brits, pen in hand, comb through the weekly ra­dio list­ings with en­thu­si­asm and thor­ough­ness. (In­deed, the de­fin­i­tive weekly bi­ble to what’s on the air here, on ra­dio and tele­vi­sion, is still called the Ra­dio Times.) News­pa­pers and mag­a­zines em­ploy ra­dio crit­ics.

“I just love the way … you can turn the ra­dio on and one minute you can be hear­ing about this amaz­ing first im­age of Christ that was made in Bri­tain, and the next minute you could be lis­ten­ing to a Bea­tles song, and the next you could be lis­ten­ing to a play or a clas­sic se­rial,” said Kate Chisholm, the ra­dio critic for the Spec­ta­tor mag­a­zine. “So quickly you can just be trans­ported from one to an­other.”

Crit­ics and au­di­ences alike praise of­fer­ings such as “A His­tory of the World in 100 Ob­jects,” a fas­ci­nat­ing se­ries ex­plor­ing ar­ti­facts stored at the Bri­tish Mu­seum. Fac­tual but also given to flights of fancy, the episodes cover ob­jects rang­ing from the Rosetta stone to a golden llama fash­ioned by the In­cas to an anti-cap­i­tal­ist plate made dur­ing the Rus­sian Revo­lu­tion.

The pro­gram, like so many oth­ers that have earned wide ac­claim, is heard on BBC Ra­dio 4, a chan­nel with na­tional reach and whose im­pact on this coun­try can be hard to over­es­ti­mate. With more than 10 mil­lion lis­ten­ers a week, Ra­dio 4 is, in many ways, the stan­dard-bearer of qual­ity ra­dio in Bri­tain. It’s been called “the great­est broad­cast­ing chan­nel in the world.”

It also ex­plains why the U.S., un­for­tu­nately, will al­most cer­tainly never pro­duce any­thing to equal it.

As one of the BBC sta­ble of chan­nels, Ra­dio 4 is not a com­mer­cial en­ter­prise. It’s pub­licly funded through the tele­vi­sion li­cense fee that all house­holds with TVs in Bri­tain must pay, which this year gave it a bud­get of more than $150 mil­lion — far larger than those of com­mer­cial sta­tions, which were late to de­velop in Bri­tain.

The guar­an­teed in­come en­ables the chan­nel to hire top-flight tal­ent, ex­per­i­ment and in­vest in pro­gram­ming shunned by com­mer­cial sta­tions. For in­stance, Ra­dio 4 re­mains one of the biggest com­mis­sion­ers of orig­i­nal plays in Bri­tain. Its “Satur­day Play” of­ten show­cases es­tab­lished ac­tors and in­tro­duces au­di­ences to new works by such well-known play­wrights as Tom Stop­pard.

‘The rea­son why ra­dio sounds so dif­fer­ent here from North Amer­ica is com­pletely a prod­uct of pub­lic fund­ing.’

GRANT GOD­DARD,

a London-based ra­dio an­a­lyst

Some of the coun­try’s best-known co­me­di­ans also have started their ca­reers on the chan­nel. The im­prov show “Whose Line Is It Any­way?” and the sit­com “Lit­tle Bri­tain” be­gan life as ra­dio pro­grams be­fore mi­grat­ing to tele­vi­sion.

“The rea­son why ra­dio sounds so dif­fer­ent here from North Amer­ica is com­pletely a prod­uct of pub­lic fund­ing,” said Grant God­dard, a Lon­don­based ra­dio an­a­lyst. “It’s only be­cause we’ve had pub­lic ra­dio as the very be­gin­nings of ra­dio that we have such a wide va­ri­ety of pro­grams.”

Amer­i­cans might be tempted to equate Ra­dio 4 with Na­tional Pub­lic Ra­dio, which is also lauded for its high-qual­ity pro­grams, but that would be in­cor­rect, God­dard and other an­a­lysts say. Ra­dio 4’s va­ri­ety eclipses that of NPR. So does its in­flu­ence on Bri­tish so­ci­ety and pub­lic life. The “To­day” morn­ing news pro­gram on Ra­dio 4 of­ten sets the day’s na­tional po­lit­i­cal agenda in a way that NPR’s “Morn­ing Edi­tion” does not.

Be­cause it’s shielded from com­mer­cial and ad­ver­tiser con­cerns, Ra­dio 4 has never had to ap­peal to any spe­cific de­mo­graphic, said Mark Da­mazer, who served as head of Ra­dio 4 for six years un­til leav­ing ear­lier this month. The av­er­age lis­tener is 55 years old, but that has held steady over time, mean­ing that Ra­dio 4 isn’t merely grow­ing old with one par­tic­u­lar set of lis­ten­ers who are start­ing to die off.

In fact, it’s the sec­ond-most-lis­tened-to chan­nel in the coun­try, af­ter Ra­dio 2, BBC’s mu­sic and chat net­work. In dy­namic, cos­mopoli­tan, welle­d­u­cated, po­lit­i­cally minded London, Ra­dio 4 ranks No. 1.

“Their tar­get might be ‘who­ever has a cu­ri­ous mind,’ whether it’s ur­ban or ru­ral, male or fe­male,” said David Hendy, a com­mu­ni­ca­tions pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­sity of West­min­ster and the author of a his­tory of Ra­dio 4. “That makes it dif­fer­ent from com­mer­cial op­er­a­tors who have to de­fine a seg­ment they’re go­ing to tar­get.”

But that doesn’t pre­vent the chan­nel from in­spir­ing a de­vo­tion among en­thu­si­asts that can border on the “fa­nat­i­cal or fun­da­men­tal­ist,” as one writer put it.

Dono­van, the re­tired teacher, wakes up lis­ten­ing to the “To­day” pro­gram; in the evening, she un­winds by lis­ten­ing to the lat­est ex­ploits of “The Archers,” a daily soap set in the coun­try­side. Quintessen­tially English, the show pre­miered in 1951 and, in­cred­i­bly, at­tracts more lis­ten­ers now than ever.

Dono­van, 66, has fol­lowed it for half a cen­tury and knows the char­ac­ters in­side and out.

“Once a day you’re just trans­ported from re­al­ity,” she said. “You fol­low these peo­ple from their birth, and you will fol­low them to the grave. And that’s why you can’t miss it. They’re like mem­bers of your own fam­ily.”

Paul Gon­za­les

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