Today is the 20th anniversary of a BBC Radio 4 program(me) called In Our Time. I stumbled across it in its first year on my shortwave radio.
That’s right, shortwave radio. In high school, I was very interested in radio broadcasting — its practice and science. I went to Radio Shack, bought a model radio kit, and built it. I think it picked up signals from the local airport, but it’s a little fuzzy now. My big next step was to save my babysitting money and buy the best shortwave radio $150 could buy (I wish I still had it).
There was this thing that shortwave nerds did (may still be a thing) where you send away to a station that you pick up with a written request for a postcard. The farther away, the better. Different times of day were good for stations from different parts of the world. Stations liked to know where their listeners were, and listeners enjoyed collecting postcards from exotic locations. I particularly prized my postcards from Radio Finland and the Vatican (both had broadcasts in Latin).
The BBC had frequencies that were strong throughout the day and night in central Texas. I enjoyed the programming on Radio 4 the best. It specialized in spoken content, including comedies, music, and cultural topics. In a household that wisely restricted TV viewing, it was my primary form of non-reading entertainment.
I brought my shortwave radio with me to college and continued to use it to pick up the Beeb. When it arrived on the air in late 1998, In Our Time struck me as a standout even among Radio 4’s great content. I think what made it so compelling was its host, Melvyn Bragg. Mr Bragg invites 3 or 4 academics to discuss a set historical, scientific, or literary topic each week. He is not himself an expert on the topics (usually). He is something rarer in public life — a curious, well-educated layman.
Mr Bragg never lets the professors get away with academic B.S. – he confidently, even doggedly, challenges his guests to explain the ideas or events under discussion without jargon or over-reliance on pet theories. He demands that they make their knowledge comprehensible to his audience. In this way, he doesn’t condescend to his listeners — he assumes that they, like him, are intelligent, informed, and curious — but not experts. In fact, I’d say he sort of turns the tables by holding academics, who are used to a certain deference, up to a kind of accountability. He demands that they engage in nothing less than educating the public.
I dare say if you listened to all the episodes on various themes, from Roman history to Shakespeare to physics, you’d gain as good an overview of the subject as most 101 level university courses.
Moreover, you’d learn that the stance of intelligent skepticism — of the spirit of energetic inquiry — is just as important to education as the facts themselves.
For these reasons, I rejoice that In Our Time has been available as a podcast for years now, and that all of its magnificent back-catalog is available for free — no analog shortwave radios required.