What happens when radio has pictures?

The Global Philosopher gave new meaning to the phrase "a face for radio". But isn't this how we all watch, now?

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“For the listeners on radio, I should explain I’m standing in a rather amazing new studio in Harvard Business School with many video screens . . .” That was Professor Michael Sandel, at the start of what might be a Radio 4 “audiovisual hybrid” series (29 March, 10am), bringing together 60 “thoughtful citizens” from 30 countries connected to each other by live video link, with Sandel managing the conversation.

So, if you wanted just to listen and ignore the online element, you heard Mitra in Wisconsin fiercely but fluidly arguing with Simon in Truro on the subject “Should Borders Matter?”. Because of the expensive technology and because everyone speaking could see each other, there was none of the awkward time delay or stop-start disconnect or general wrong-end-of-the-stickness that happens when several people attempt conversations across countries on the radio.

If you watched online, you could see the 60 contributors (all in effect sitting at a computer in their own home); a transfixed bank of faces and jackets and specs – Kristine in Athens huffing and angry, Suhindra in Hyderabad getting up to close his window – and Sandel pacing the room in a nice suit, thrilled to cast his eyes over this seeming super-crammed lecture hall, this gigantic human wall. “Powerful testimony, Leo . . .” he said at one point, responding to each comment with a flourish, like Barbra Streisand giving her weekly Nurembergian address in The Mirror Has Two Faces.

When I stopped watching and tried simply to listen, I found that the programme– neither TV nor radio – worked rather brilliantly as both. How much does TV operate as radio these days anyway? We listen to it with our eyes on other screens, other devices. As media platforms converge and begin to imitate each other, what was exciting here was that, this not being “proper TV” or “normal radio”, you got a sense of a slight shedding of old forms and rhythms (but the profound impact of this). Can you imagine the preening if it had been on BBC2? The irritating music, the handing over from one person to another, the faffing, the wasted visual information? This was the best kind of television because it was radio – and, surprisingly, vice versa. Intriguing. Encore.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She presents The Film Programme on BBC Radio 4. She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 08 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Tories at war

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