Welcome to the third way

Radio 3 reaches the parts television cannot reach, thanks to some fresh ideas

<strong>Sunday Feat

Comparisons, we are taught, are odious, and those between different media pointless. Yet, because I spend half my week watching television for a living, I sometimes ask myself what radio offers that television does not. You can wax lyrical, of course, about the pictures being better on the radio or practical about radio's mobility, but the real difference is its range. Radio 3's television equivalent as a thinking person's channel is BBC4, but, intellectually, it aims for higher brows. On Sunday 16 September, BBC4's documentary offerings, for example, were about comics and superheroes; Radio 3's Sunday Feature was An American Legend: James Agee. It is inconceivable that BBC4 would have commissioned a 45-minute documentary about a writer whom even the presenter, Blake Morrison, admitted was virtually unknown in Britain.

Agee's disappearance from view was partly what interested Morrison. He feared that, like Agee, he had spread himself too thinly over poetry, fiction, reportage, memoir and criticism for posterity to take much notice. He had reason to be gloomy, because Agee had things going for him that should have made an indelible image on the popular retina. His looks were dramatic, his drinking legendary and he died young (aged 45, in a New York cab). Yet, even without the biographical trivia, he could have expected to be remembered for his screenplay for The African Queen.

He also brought the biblical quotation "Let us now praise famous men" into common usage when he used it as the title for a book that came to be seen as a prototype for the New Journalism. It was a report on the lives of poor (and unfamous) Alabama sharecroppers. Agee went to live with four of them and, it seems, fell in love with them in every possible way. He saw in them versions of his better self, of Christ and of his father, who had died in a car crash when he was six. He also masturbated over them (although Agee is better known as a womaniser who married three times). Morrison visited the cotton belt and talked to grandsons of the farmers he had written about. They had not been flattered by his portrait of noble poverty. Never mind, Morrison's programme made me want to read it and convinced me that the charismatic Agee was unjustly neglected.

Where radio, it seems to me, remains television's inferior is in drama. TV drama was transformed in the 1990s when it was taken out of the videotaped studio and into the celluloid-amenable real world. As a result, the television play is dead. Long live the TV film. On radio, however, most drama still sounds like a stage play: lots of dialogue and not much else. When my concentration lapses, it is often because I have a visual flash of the actors standing with their scripts by their Bakelite microphone.

Radio 3's The Wire, however, prides itself on "pushing the boundaries of drama and narrative" with new writers. Gill Adams's Donna Love Bite (15 September, 9.30pm) was a repeat in the slot but a well-deserved one. Nothing goes right for Donna, a teenager on a date in Humberside. First, she has to bring her younger sister Kylie along, then Stu, her date, turns out to be a rap-spouting . . . well, wanker is the word that springs to mind. The evening ends with a middle-aged man being kicked to death in a car park. The piece was atmospheric, heavy with the sounds and music of a working-class Saturday night, narratively complex (partly told by Kylie) and non-linear. The dead man's wife's increasingly desperate phone messages were haunting. It was a success, partly because it was so much less like a play than most radio drama.

Incidentally, a few weeks ago I wrote here that some of Radio 3's speech content went over my head. I attracted some derision for that, which is why I decided I would give the station's offerings another go. I was pleasantly surprised. I was not, however, going to mess again with Words and Music (Sundays, 10.15pm), the programme that mystified me a few weeks back. Yet I have been told by a Radio 3 PR that this collage of music and poetry was a popular recent addition to the schedules. She thought listeners found it "soothing". Narcotic would be my word.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times

Pick of the week

Doctor Faustus
23 September, 8pm, Radio 3
Mephistopheles and the Seven Deadly Sins . . .

25 September, 11pm, Radio 4
Weird sitcom makes comedy out of a coma.

Afternoon Play: Suing Mr Spargo
26 September, 2.15pm, Radio 4
Harriet's mum sues her school for her rubbish A-levels.

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Trouble ahead: the crises facing Gordon Brown