Martha Kearney’s arrival at Today is a breath of fresh air

14 April 2018

9:00 AM

14 April 2018

9:00 AM

Like a breath of fresh air Martha Kearney has arrived on Radio 4’s Today programme, taking over from Sarah Montague (who will now host the lunchtime news programme formerly presided over by Kearney). Her presenting style is just so different, less confrontational, more investigative, perhaps developed by her because at lunchtime the mood is different, less rushed, more ambulant. The tone on the World At One was always much more reflective than reactive, Kearney pondering events rather than racing through to the next interview, butting in, hustling, flustering her guests.

On Monday morning’s Today, she interviewed the author of a book on ‘elastic thinking’. Leonard Mlodinow, a theoretical physicist who has also written scripts for Star Trek, argues that we need to think more flexibly if we want to cope with the avalanche of information that now threatens to engulf us. ‘Elastic thinking,’ he said, ‘is Mary Shelley, Stephen Hawking…’

‘Explain that?’ Kearney interrupted, with a rising tone to the question, the eagerness of someone really wanting to know. ‘Explain about Frankenstein.’

Mlodinow told us the story of the Villa Diodati, the holiday by the lake, the rain-filled days, the night-time bet, and Mary Shelley’s quest for a ghost story that would outdo Byron and her husband Shelley. She went to bed and tried to think of nothing, allowing her mind to make connections about which she herself might not have been consciously aware. Into that space, said Mlodinow, arrived Frankenstein and his monster. Not a bad thought to start the day, and only heard by us because Kearney had that instinct, that innate sense of what might be of interest, to ask him to explain.

Meanwhile, Petroc Trelawny who hosts Radio 3’s Breakfast programme, was invited on to Feedback last week to tell us why he’s drawing listeners away from Today, and especially, and perhaps surprisingly, younger listeners. We only have them for about 20 minutes, says Trelawny, while rushing through their smoothies and teeth-cleaning rituals. It’s no good putting on a whole symphony. No one would ever hear the whole of it. Instead, ‘We’re trying to give them great works from the repertoire in fantastic recordings… with brief but very well-written news bulletins’ (they are much better written than usual). The Mozart sonatas and Haydn, Grieg, Mendelssohn, Stravinsky, Delibes on his playlist could all be shared by Aled Jones, who hosted Classic FM’s breakfast show this week with his characteristic enthusiasm and well-balanced choice of music. But then, says Trelawny, we like to surprise our listeners, giving us Holst (Imogen, not Gustav), a song by Rabindranath Tagore and a snatch of Shostakovich, Compay Segundo and Iturralde. ‘Breakfast is a clear entry point into Radio 3,’ says Trelawny, ‘a window into our world.’

I tuned in to Feedback because we were promised an interview with Bob Shennan, the BBC’s director of radio and music. He was meant to be responding to the recent Annual Plan, delivered by the BBC’s board, which talked a lot about the new world of ‘personalisation’ (creating your own radio station through voice-recognition technologies), ‘fake news’ and globalisation, but said very little about how the stations would respond to these innovations. Sadly, Shennan was detained by ‘unavoidable operational issues’ and did not appear. The fate of radio as we know it, in a future ruled by Alexa (your virtual assistant, who can summon up programmes at your bidding, thereby dispensing with schedules) and flooded with podcasts, is as yet unknown.

Back in 1996 the writer A.L. Kennedy, always a class act on radio, set out to climb Mount Sinai. She was hoping for an epiphany. It’s ‘a spiritually charged place’ filled with pilgrims, camels and nuns. It was just like the pictures in her child’s illustrated bible. Surely it was not unreasonable to expect that something might happen, something that would change her?

In Epiphanies on Radio 4 (produced by David Barnes) Kennedy tried to define what we mean by ‘an epiphany’, asking the question of a neuroscientist, a psychologist, a rabbi, Muslim, Anglican canon, as well as taking us with her on her pilgrimage to Sinai, puffing and panting up the mountain. An epiphany could be as simple an experience as discovering the supreme beauty of rain while fumbling for your door key, or something more akin to ‘an ambush’, that light-bulb moment experienced by Shelley and many other writers. Canon Oakley told us of a chance conversation with a taxi-driver in Dresden. His grandfather was in the RAF during the second world war, flying bomber planes over Dresden. The taxi-driver’s mother, it turned out, had died on the night of 14 February 1945. ‘And now,’ said the taxi-driver, refusing to accept a fare, ‘you and I shake hands.’

Back at the top of Mount Sinai, Kennedy still feels nothing. Everyone around her is happy, uplifted by the experience, the pure air, the rising of the sun. She, though, is irritated. She buys a hot chocolate from the tumbledown kiosk and abandons her search for whatever breakthrough she expected. ‘And then for one big moment it was all beautiful. And I stopped being an idiot and paid attention. I was where I was and that was perfectly all right.’ It was an epiphany, of sorts.

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