The other day I was in a garage, waiting for my car to return from its MOT. The radio I could hear in the background was tuned to a local station, LBC. I tried hard to ignore the presenter's moronic tones but, short of shoving cheese in my ears, it was impossible. First, he asked Londoners to call in and tell him about their experiences of keeping chickens. Then, perhaps realising that not many of us actually keep chickens in London, he asked listeners to get in touch if they thought it a bad idea for cohabiting couples to marry. Possibly the office telephone did not ring off the hook, because he then told people that they were welcome to ring "about anything else at all". He engaged those who did bother to call in some of the most pointlessly rambling conversations I have ever heard outside an old people's home. "What are your chickens called?" he asked one woman. She told him. "And can you tell them APART?" he bawled. His caller then treated us to a detailed rundown of the personality traits of each of her three chickens. Gaah! Please make it stop!
The flip side to arbitrary listening is that sometimes you hear something you might ordinarily avoid, and enjoy it. This happened to me twice in the past week. I am not especially a fan of Private Passions, Radio 3's rather snooty version of Desert Island Discs (its title promises so much: a kinky perversion, or a secret adoration of something embarrassingly lowbrow; usually, in fact, it is just someone middle class going on about how much they enjoy Messiaen). Nor did I have a strong urge to hear of the musical tastes of Mark Lawson, the show's guest on 9 October. There is quite enough of him on the radio already, thanks. But the programme, which I listened to in the car, turned out to be interesting. Lawson, being a presenter himself, brought something extra to the table. Rather than saying "How lovely that crescendo is" after every record, his responses were layered with wonderful cross-references. He also seemed nerdishly keen to convey the thrill of, say, John Adams - and it was contagious. I came home and immediately ordered Nixon in China from Amazon. (Even so, the idea of presenters as guests is not to be encouraged. That way, the BBC will eat itself.)
Mind Changers on Radio 4 (12 October, 11am) was about the American psychologist J B Watson, the founder of behaviourism. It was Watson who, early last century, carried out a series of dubious experiments on a nine-month-old baby, "Little Albert", with a view to proving that fear, like salivation, could be conditioned. Albert was shown a rat, of which he was not, at first, afraid. Thereafter, every time he saw the rat, a claw hammer was banged against an iron bar. Result: he was soon scared of rats, plus rabbits, fur coats, human hair and a "lunging" Santa Claus mask. This was riveting, scandalous stuff. First because, at the time, Watson's critics were more concerned about the welfare of his rats than poor little Albert, whose trauma he preserved for posterity on film. And second because you can still see the (more benign) ripples of Watson's work today. Every time a television "supernanny" trains a child, she draws on Watson. The same goes for advertising executives (disgraced after an affair with a graduate student, Watson went to work for J Walter Thompson) - though not, it seems, many radio producers. When, I wonder, will they realise that the words "We're waiting for your call" deploy fear to precisely the wrong effect?