Most Thursday mornings, just before 9am, three academics from across the country assemble in a small, unassuming radio studio in central London. They might be scientists or historians, philosophers or literature connoisseurs, classicists or scholars of religion. They have been chosen because they are leading authorities in their field, engaging communicators and passionate about their knowledge. They have been brought to Broadcasting House to be guests on Radio 4’s In Our Time, a programme which has become something of a radio institution.
In Our Time has been exploring the history of ideas ever since it began on October 15th 1998. More than 680 editions have now been made and each one is available to listen to or download via the In Our Time website. In each programme our guests discuss for 42 minutes their particular area of expertise, usually live on air, and the diversity of subjects we tackle is positively breathtaking. To give you a taste of what we offer, this year we have examined Jane Eyre, dark matter, the California Gold Rush and Sappho to name but a few. Our back catalogue even includes programmes on eunuchs and the Kama Sutra.
In Our Time’s presenter is Melvyn Bragg, who has the extraordinary track record of having presented every single edition. In Our Time is rather like a university seminar on radio with Melvyn cleverly and subtly ensuring that the discussion remains focussed on the topic in hand. Sometimes he will probe a guest when he feels more explanation is needed, sometimes he will ask for clarification when a guest is trying to describe a complex idea and sometimes he has to hurry a guest along if he or she is spending too much time on a particular point. The Radio 4 schedule must be maintained so In Our Time cannot overrun. Last year, Melvyn won the bronze award in the ‘best speech radio broadcaster’ category at the Radio Academy Awards, radio’s equivalent of the BAFTAs.
People who listen to In Our Time often assume that there is a huge team of BBC staff behind the scenes. In fact, just three of us are involved – Simon, the senior producer; myself, the junior producer; and Ingrid, the production coordinator. She divides her time between In Our Time, Start the Week and Thinking Allowed.
I happen to be a tetraplegic wheelchair user so I employ personal assistants to enable me to do my job. I’m only able to do this because I have funding from the Government’s Access to Work scheme. My PAs help me to use audio-editing software and, when I’m compiling briefing notes for Melvyn, I dictate what I want to type to them.
Simon and I have one thing in common which is that neither of us originally set out to work for the BBC. Simon read English at the University of York and then worked as a solicitor for a few years before embarking on a media career. As a teenager, my plan was to become a newspaper reporter so, after studying Classics at the University of Cambridge, I then completed a postgraduate diploma in newspaper journalism at Cardiff University. However, having failed dismally to obtain a newspaper job (I still have the pile of rejection letters I received), I was delighted and surprised when I gained a place in January 1999 on a BBC production traineeship aimed at disabled people. Over the last 16 years I’ve been lucky enough to work on various Radio 4 programmes including Start the Week, Woman’s Hour and You and Yours, before arriving at In Our Time. In my opinion, being a producer on In Our Time is a real privilege and I find it gratifying to think that my BBC career began just three months after In Our Time first hit the airwaves.
Producing a weekly radio programme involves a certain amount of routine. We have regular meetings with Melvyn in which we consider what topics will be covered in the next tranche of programmes. Many of the ideas come from academics and listeners as well as Melvyn and the production team. Once the list of subjects has been decided, we book the guests, usually several weeks in advance. Academics lead busy lives so it’s important to approach them before their diaries become too full. Simon and myself then carry out detailed, hour-long research calls on the phone with each guest.
Having the opportunity to talk at such length with some of the most eminent scholars in Britain is incredibly stimulating. The information we gain from these conversations subsequently forms the basis of the briefing notes we write for Melvyn.
Every Friday, Melvyn is sent about 30 pages of notes for the following week’s programme, together with the script. Simon or myself then rings each guest a second time to give them a rough outline of the structure we have in mind for the discussion. On Thursdays, programme day, Melvyn will arrive in time to do a trail at 8.30am during the Today programme. This is also the time the guests come so they can meet before we go on air.
In Our Time has evolved during its life. For a start, it has grown longer. Initially, it was half an hour but soon it was felt that this was not enough time to do complex subjects justice. Now it’s about 42 minutes and the programme works much better at that length. The type of guests has also changed. When In Our Time began, journalists and writers were often included in the panel. Today, we only book people who hold positions at universities or leading museums because it is felt that this gives them extra authority and credibility. Our guests have been drawn from more than 50 academic institutions, including the University of Exeter.
Among the notable figures who have appeared on In Our Time are Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal; Steve Jones, Emeritus Professor of Genetics at University College London and Mary Beard, Professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge. In Our Time is also known for giving a voice to women. In the last five years alone, we have had 14 all-female panels of guests who have discussed subjects like the number ‘e’, the An Lushan Rebellion and the Icelandic Sagas.
A distinctive feature of In Our Time that has remained the same is that we are not bound by the news agenda. Indeed, we sometimes joke that our motto should be ‘never knowingly topical’. While other programmes will discuss a subject because a celebrity is promoting a new book or film or there is an anniversary to mark, we choose a topic purely because it is interesting in itself (we hope!). This gives In Our Time a refreshing unpredictability and its producers an enormous feeling of liberation. Robert Gleave, Professor of Arabic Studies at Exeter, who has taken part in In Our Time programmes on Al-Ghazali, the Safavid Dynasty and Islamic law, comments: “In Our Time is one of the few places on radio or television where the concern is not about relevance or currency but about learning and knowledge for its own sake.
Being a guest on IOT is seen by many of us in the Arts and Humanities as the most effective means of engaging with a wider public. Before it starts, the nerves are jangling, but once Melvyn has kicked off, you relax and you become just three academics sitting around chatting about your subject with a well-informed, interested layperson.”
Whatever course you’re undertaking, there is likely to be an edition that is relevant for you. If you’re not familiar with In Our Time already, then have a browse through our website and see what we have to offer.
All the editions we have ever broadcast are available there. I hope you find that In Our Time gives you a little extra help with your studies. You may even discover topics you never knew existed!
Victoria Brignell, Producer of In Our Time