But is this kind of highbrow discussion just siloed off on Radio 4? I remember when BBC Four used to commission long TV series exploring the history of Britain’s Gothic architecture, or literacy in the ancient world, or sequencing the genome. Now, if these programmes are made on TV, they’re self-consciously spangled with eye-pleasing treats. They’re presented by someone very familiar (Brian Cox and David Attenborough are on speed dial), bedecked with soaring music and flashy visuals.
Academic programmes on the radio, by contrast, feel as though they’re wired directly into the brain. The information is in a purer form, and therefore somehow easier to absorb.
And they go down well with listeners, too. In Our Time, Radio 4’s academic discussion series on the history of ideas, which has run since 1998 presented by Melvyn Bragg, is consistently one of the most downloaded programmes on BBC Sounds and one of the most popular among the BBC’s young adult demographic. The most recent episode was on the Decadent Movement in the 1890s. I’ve recently been transfixed by episodes on cave art, Herodotus, and the evolution of crocodiles. Next month, the annual Reith Lectures begin and will feature four presentations by Stuart Russell, Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, considering the moral philosophical questions and practical future of Artificial Intelligence systems.