BBC Radio 4

    In Our Time: To download, keep and listen whenever you want

    I was surprised but obviously delighted when, seven years ago, I was told that In Our Time was to become the first BBC programme to be podcast - but, to be honest, I didn't quite know what it meant at the time. It turned out to mean a very great deal. Thus strikes the law of unexpected consequences once again.

    So far it has been only new editions of the programme that have been podcast. But this week we've started podcasting our entire In Our Time archive.

    From October 2008: "Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Dante's 'Inferno' - a medieval journey through the nine circles of Hell." Available now as a podcast to download and keep.

    To date we have produced 517 editions of In Our Time. All of these are available to be downloaded - and so will every future programme. In brief, you can get hold of and keep the whole collection at home on your own computer to listen whenever you want.

    It's become a library of the air.

    When we started in 1998, the idea of being of such value was off the radar. The main idea was to survive the first six months with what seemed to be a rather overambitious notion that we could take the cleverest academics in the land, and let them loose on the most recondite subjects available, and hope to gain a respectable Radio 4 audience just after nine o'clock on a Thursday morning.

    We underestimated the Radio 4 audience in those first few months - not in their intellectual reach or in their enthusiasm but in their numbers, and as time went on in their loyalty to this eclectic enterprise.

    It now seems that we are becoming an encyclopaedia (I say "we" not in the Mrs Thatcher sense of "We are a grandmother" but "we" in the sense of "the succession of producers, researchers and myself"). There couldn't be a much better outcome, could there? We are asking people to come in and talk whose work furnishes the great written encyclopaedias, and who themselves are salami-slicers of encyclopaedias, and they are now being recycled into a soundipaedia. Can we claim that as a new word? The wizards of the website have divided these 500-plus programmes into different categories (science, religion, history, culture, philosophy) so that they're easy to sort through.

    When I look at the range and see the way that the work has built up, I can, in an unwary moment, kid myself that there was some purpose at work in the early days. I'm afraid it wasn't so.

    The basic idea, among those of us who did it, was to educate ourselves and to find subjects which tested us - therefore we needed to be at full stretch; or baffled us - therefore we were looking for clarity. Others were part of an initially loose but increasingly resolute attempt to lasso areas of knowledge not very often brought to a wider public.

    I suppose one of the best examples of that is works from the great Arabic Courts of learning from the 8th to the 14th century, or the outer edges of science, which contain so many rich ideas, opaque to most of us (with very much me included) but available, it seems, through the generous minds of the academics who turn up on Thursdays from all four points of the United Kingdom and give us the cream of their knowledge with quite remarkable concision.

    The wonderful thing about it, as far as I'm concerned, is that it is simply never-ending.

    We have done quite a few programmes about the history of China, although I'd like to do many more. The same applies to India, while we have barely touched on South America, which we must do more of. We have been reasonably good on philosophy, but I'm glad to say that has spread around other programmes, and so you feel maybe we can move a little more heavily into other areas. The classics, especially the Greeks - well, once upon a time I wanted to call the programme "It all Began with the Greeks", or a phrase to that effect.

    It did at one stage appear to be the case, and I was not even daunted when a formidable lady on the front-row pew of a church in Putney, when I was talking about IOT, said that if she heard the phrase "Let's go back to the Greeks" once more she'd lose the will to live. Nevertheless a few weeks later, when we did "go back to the Greeks", she dropped me a note to say she was still with us!

    I think at the best these programmes can be thrilling - well they certainly bring a great deal of excitement to me. It's rather an experiment to see if their freshness and vivacity will endure in this sonic encyclopaedia (or whatever the word is) and linger as long as works in some of the great libraries of the past. That's asking an awful lot - but who knows?

    Melvyn Bragg is the presenter of In Our Time


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