Interview: Alan Davey

Alan Davey, BBC Radio 3 controller
Alan Davey, controller of BBC Radio 3. Credit: Guy Levy

In our interview with Alan Davey, the controller of BBC Radio 3, we explore the importance of the research community to BBC Radio 3 and how arts and humanities researchers can work with them.

Radio 3 is more than a flagship cultural network that allows people to enjoy great musical events, according to the station's controller, Alan Davey.

It is also the home of intelligent conversation and offers a platform to the arts and humanities community through initiatives such as New Generation Thinkers.

“While other areas of the BBC may connect with science, we want to connect with the arts and humanities. Because we know our audience are interested,” he says.

“We want to bring our listeners the cutting edge, the unusual – and the plain intriguing. That's what New Generation Thinkers is all about. It's a way of getting these ideas across to a bigger audience and driving knowledge forward.

“The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) have been a great partner to us. They helped us find the New Generation Thinkers and promote what we are doing.”

“It's a brilliant initiative and something I've supported for a long time.”

One of the main reasons Davey backs the New Generation Thinkers project is because of its capacity to draw in genuinely intriguing topics that would otherwise stay off-radar. “You get some very surprising results,” he says.

He cites last October's Proms Interval Talk on The politics of shaving as a great example. “People really seemed to enjoy the programme,” he says.

“The idea behind it came about through a conversation with a New Generation Thinker. It was full of interesting facts about beards and trended on social media back in the autumn.”

For example, one of the reasons facial hair became so popular in Victorian times was the Crimean War. Large numbers of soldiers returned home in the mid-19th century with the moustaches and beards they’d grown to keep out the cold.

“We have an intellectually curious audience who are fascinated by these kinds of stories. For us, it's all part of our mission to stay at the leading edge of thought and ideas,” says Davey.

But it's not only Radio 3 and its audience that benefit from links with academics. Alan Davey believes the researchers involved also learn more about how to focus their work and reach a broader audience.

“I think it helps them think about impact,” he says. “About how they can get the essence of what they have been doing out to people without dumbing down and oversimplifying. We don't make things easy. If it's a complicated idea, then we need to reflect that.

“The discipline of telling a story on radio can help them think about exactly what it is in what they do that audiences want to hear about.”

As well as New Generation Thinkers, there are many other ways that academics can get involved with Radio 3.

These include providing expert input into an existing project, by working with individual programme makers to create new projects, or by appearing on programmes and becoming part of the explanation.

For example, Radio 3 has recently been reaching out to the academic community for help compiling a series of programmes celebrating neglected women composers.

“We recently held a workshop where academics came and presented composers that they felt were worthy of consideration,” says Davey. “I learned a lot on that day, I really did. It was a great example of how to take things beyond theory and make them happen.

“I think that there is a market for intelligent speech that examines complex issues and those involved in academic research have great stories to tell,” says Davey.

Another example is the recent Northern Lights season. It not only looked at northern composers. But also the context in which they wrote and the essence of “northerness”. “We had lots of great academic involvement and brought in experts on folklore, art and literature,” says Davey.

“We're always up for ideas. I want to work as closely as possible with the arts and humanities community. Email me. We want to take new angles on things. We want to hear about different approaches.

“Listen out for what we are about and get in touch if what you are looking at fits in. Think about how our audience might perceive your work. What would they find interesting? And how can you bring that out?

“Assume a voracious curiosity. There is a hunger for intelligent, long form content.

“The important thing is to keep the ideas flowing.”

Main image by Steve Bowbrick from Radlett, United Kingdom [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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