To Russia with love

Radio - Louis Barfe on how the young of Moscow are still cashing in on the great songmakers

Last July, the BBC World Service ended short-wave transmissions to North America, Australia and New Zealand. Understandably, the move was seen as controversial. The argument was that satellite broadcasting, relays of BBC programming on local stations and the growth of radio on the internet had made such old technology as short wave redundant in developed countries - a view not entirely convincing, given that the take-up for these channels of distribution is far from universal.

In other territories, however, the arguments in favour of staying on short wave are undeniable. One of these, for both economic and geographical reasons, is Russia. In recent weeks, listeners to the BBC's Russian Service have been able to enjoy a ten-part series in Russian called The Great Songmakers, looking at the work of important songwriters through recordings of their work made by other artists. The choice of subjects has been admirably eclectic, ranging from Jerome Kern in the first edition to the Bee Gees in the last of the series, taking in Irving Berlin, Duke Ellington, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen and Hoagy Carmichael along the way.

Tony Cash, the writer and presenter of the series, admits that the selections have been "partly personal", while he has remained mindful of the need to be as representative as possible. "It's my belief that broadcasters have really undersold the great songwriters and their craft," he says. "I've tried to choose what I believe to be the definitive version of each song as an illustration. In the case of Irving Berlin's 'Cheek to Cheek', that will obviously be the Fred Astaire version. However, sometimes I've chosen two contrasting readings. For Kern's 'Smoke Gets in Your Eyes', I used one by Dinah Shore and one by Thelonious Monk. I've also tried to show how the lyrics work with the music, through readings of lyrical extracts from native Russian speakers. In a way, this series is like the sleeve notes on an LP."

For much of his career, Cash has worked as a television producer, but this series represents a homecoming, as he began his working life with a five-year stint at the Russian Service from 1963. "The Russians were jamming transmissions until a few weeks before I joined, and then stopped. I left a few weeks before the Russian tanks rolled into Prague in 1968, when the jamming resumed," he recalls, adding with a laugh that he has "sometimes wondered if it was a coincidence or something more sinister".

During his initial stay at the World Service, Cash gained quite a reputation in the eastern bloc with his own show, playing the latest pop releases. He had been a jazz purist, playing clarinet and saxophone, but soon became convinced by the new sound. "It was a remarkable time to be doing a show like that," he observes. "It coincided with some of the best music ever written."

However, while British teenagers, listening under the bedclothes to Radio Luxembourg on Fab 208, risked a telling-off from their parents if they got caught, the stakes were much higher for Cash's listeners. "It was never my intention to suborn young Russians, but it seems that listeners became dissidents simply by tuning in," he explains. Many took the risk and listened intently for his opening jingle in Russian, which translates as "Tony Cash, lover of jazz and symphonies, at the microphone to delight you up to midnight Moscow time".

And they continue to listen: Cash has received a considerable response from listeners to the new show who remember him from the first time around, when he brought them the decadent sounds of the Sixties.

Further information on the BBC Russian Service is available at

This article first appeared in the 04 February 2002 issue of the New Statesman, Revealed: how Labour sees women