What’s Hot on This BBC Podcast? The Siege of Munster (1534-35)
The Frankfurt School of philosophers emigrated from Nazi Germany and became dyspeptic critics of American culture. Several landed in Southern California where they were disturbed by the consumer culture and the gospel of relentless cheeriness. Depressive by nature, they focused on the disappointments and venality that surrounded them and how unnecessary it all was. It could be paradise, Theodor Adorno complained, but it was only California.
These gloomy Germans were the subject of a recent edition of “In Our Time,” a popular BBC Radio 4 program that is gaining fans in the United States through its free podcast, which is available on iTunes. It is hard to imagine a mainstream American radio show devoting a full episode to the Frankfurt School, but for “In Our Time,” that was relatively light fare.
Recently, the show has delved into the 1692 Glencoe Massacre in Scotland and aired a four-part series on the Royal Society, a scholarly institution celebrating its 350th anniversary. It made the episode on “Silas Marner,” George Eliot’s 1861 novel, seem frivolous.
There is a lot of talk about how the Internet is driving culture ever lower, but it also makes a wealth of serious thinking available. From the comfort of home, one can download free audio books by authors like Jane Austen and Joseph Conrad and free podcasts of university lectures (openculture.com has an assortment of both).
“In Our Time,” a program on “the history of ideas,” is in a class of its own. Each week the host, Melvyn Bragg — a BBC veteran, whose Life Peerage makes him Lord Bragg of Wigton — offers a panel of academic experts, with Oxford and Cambridge heavily represented. The guests have titles like “associate professor in philosophy and senior fellow in the public understanding of philosophy at the University of Warwick.” They talk about arcane topics from history, literature, science and philosophy, throwing off casual asides on subjects like Sigmund Freud’s theory of “gain through illness” — the idea that people become neurotic because it is useful to them.
Mr. Bragg doesn’t spare the stage directions: Would you please tell us about this? And We’ll Get to That Later. But his careful questioning and quick wit underlie the brilliance of “In Our Time” — its ability to draw in listeners on subjects that they would not expect themselves to care much about, or perhaps even to be able to tolerate.
I convinced a friend to start downloading the program when I mentioned an interesting discussion of logical positivism. The next time I saw her, she told me that she was hooked and that a new episode on the Siege of Munster — which had popped up on my iPhone, but which I had not rushed to hear — was surprisingly fascinating.
Intellectuals also talk about ideas on a second BBC Radio 4 program called “Thinking Allowed,” but its focus is “new research on how society works.” The host, Laurie Taylor, interviews professors and authors on subjects that are contemporary and often a bit whimsical. There have been episodes on acquaintances — people somewhere between strangers and friends — and a phenomenon described as “laddish masculinity in higher education.”
The discussions often involve scholarly inquiry into the minutiae of everyday life, with special attention to the role of social class — a subject rarely discussed in the American news media. On one, an inquiry into the sociology of car behavior suggested that when two middle-class couples ride in a car, the owners of the car are likely to sit in the front, with the second couple in the back. When two working-class couples go for a drive, the men are likely to sit in the front and the women in the back.
Making abstruse subjects accessible to nonexperts can be a challenge, something Mr. Bragg, a self-proclaimed nonexpert, appreciates. “Thank you very much, indeed, for bringing that down to us,” he told the panel at the end of the show on logical positivism.
After a brief pause, he announced the following week’s topic: “The Ediacara Biota, pre-Cambrian life forms, which vanished 542 million years ago — were they the earliest form of life?”