October 4th, 2008

Like a lot of Brits – 9.5 million according to audience surveys – I turn on the BBC Radio 4 programme in a Pavlovian routine in the morning. On Thursday I caught a real treat: 45 minutes of experts on Islamic history talking about the translation movement in the Abbasid caliphate. The caliphs, followed by provincial sultans and lesser sponsors of a lively Baghdad salon culture, invested considerable resources in hoovering up Greek texts on philosophy, science, mathematics and medicine in the Koranic pursuit of hikmah, wisdom. Top translators into Arabic from Greek and Syriac could earn 500 gold dinars a month. You can get the podcast here – only until Thursday, when it will be replaced by next week’s edition.

The outline of the story of the odyssey of Greek learning to the Arab world and later Latin Christendom is I suppose known to most eggheads, if not to the average citizen.

It takes a very skilled populariser like Melvin Bragg, the moderator of the In Our Time cultural history programme, to make a broadcast from which listeners with very different baselines are bound to learn something new. I didn’t know that the translation movement had nothing to do with (entirely Arab) Umayyads. The Abbasids , whose initial supporters were Persian converts, were following an earlier Persian model. You see the Greeks had really stolen their wisdom from Persia and they wanted it back.

When I started this post I thought I would have to make a special pleading case for the subsidy of this sort of thing: we pointy-heads deserve our miserable offcuts of pork too, what’s the point of peasants except to create surplus for High Culture, etc. It turns out that this isn’t necessary. In Our Time has a mass audience, some of it attentive. The BBC doesn’t release audience ratings for individual programmes (why not?), but Radio 4′s 9.5 million audience listen on average for over 12 hours a day. In other words, there are millions who just have it on all the time. In Our Time claims 30,000 podcast downloads per episode to serious listeners.

The costs aren’t high. The Radio 4 annual budget is £71m, for almost 20 hours a day; around £10,000 per hour. In Our Time, repeated once, fills 1.5 hours = £15,000 an episode. (Crosscheck guesswork: 1 celebrity presenter, 1 week @£4,000, 1 researcher, 4 weeks @ £1,000, 3 talking heads @ £1,000, technical services £4,000, makes £15,000; not obviously unreasonable.) IOT is not representative of Radio 4′s output, and is one of its highest-brow regular features. The mean is closer to the undemanding but subtly revealing musical interview, Desert Island Discs. In Our Time is still an advertisement for public service broadcasting.

The topic of next Thursday’s aural wallpaper for self-improving homemakers and truck drivers: Gödel’s incompleteness theorem.

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