Vital Signs

Radio Days

In England, it used to be possible to drift into a doctorate-level education simply by listening to the radio. A child could begin with adventure serials and comedies, graduate to radio theater versions of classic plays and novels or documentaries about historical figures, and end up listening to an Oxford don talking about the Oxford Movement. Having been exiled to New York for the past several years, I do not know if this still applies, but I do know that serious radio programming in America hardly exists. Whereas in England, Radios Three and Four (the Third Program and Home Service of old) would broadcast lectures, documentaries, and plays, their American equivalents on National Public Radio seem able only to lecture.

For those who love radio, spinning the dial in search of intelligent life in the American ether can be a disheartening experience. New York has the world's largest radio market and more stations than any other city—I have listened to most of them and can report mostly disappointment. It is depressing to compare my childhood listening in England with the intellectual fare served up to American youngsters on WNYC (New York's Public Radio station) and the independent station WBAI. As a first-generation English boy who spoke only Polish at home, BBC radios Three and Four helped me become acculturated to Englishness at its best, and helped me develop an understanding of English character, history, and literature....

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