‘X Factor for Academics’ – Auditioning for BBC/AHRC New Generation Thinkers

 ‘Academics go head to head in X Factor-like talent contest’ – this is the sort of headline that accompanied the inaugural year of the BBC/AHRC’s scheme to train academics to be mainstream radio and television commentators and programme makers, launched in 2011. Cue images of tear-stained research papers and boy bands in corduroy jackets…

            At the end of March I was invited to one of the audition workshop sessions for New Generation Thinkers 2012. I had submitted a proposal to make three 15-minute radio programmes for Radio 3 based on my book Ice Diaries, about the literary and spiritual history of ice and its connection with climate change narratives.

            I arrived in a state of transcendental exhaustion, fresh off an overnight flight as I had been teaching abroad and could only return the very morning of the audition itself. I looked around at my fellow ‘young’ academics (the quotes are for me, not them). They were younger, smarter, and they had more sleep.

     The BBC radio and television Arts producers assembled in a basement of the newly refurbished Broadcast House in central London showed us a Powerpoint of the summary of media coverage of the scheme. It had been much more successful than they anticipated, they told us, attracting around 1000 proposals, from which ours had been chosen.

        We were asked to comment on historical and contemporary ‘academic’ television - mostly historian-fronted programmes. Things have come a long way from the 1970s, when a risky shot was to put said corduroy-clad historian on the balcony of a clocktower somewhere, and rotate the camera around him in vertigo-inducing spirals while he shouted down the microphone. Now there is much more whiz-bang in modern television, calculated for the vanishing attention spans of a visually ADHD generation. Mary Beard’s Pompeii , in contrast, is an amalgam of the best of old-school academic television making – informed commentary, critical gravitas – combined with CGI re-enactments and dramatic montages to illustrate the gore and uncertainty of your average past civilisation.

        For our radio workshops, we were set the task of simulating a Night Waves/Newsnight Review panel. Our question to argue for or against was: Is Life a Comedy or a Tragedy? (Easy, then!) We had to switch in and out of roles between arguing for, against, and being Kirsty Wark. The trick of course is to come up with compelling arguments on the spot, illustrating them with references to thinkers, history – the history of thought for that matter – literature, and anecdotal experience. (NB: best done on a full night’s sleep). It was more fun than I thought it was going to be. And real, in that we were being filmed and recorded for future scrutiny.

        Next came our chance to present our radio programme ideas. We formed a critical panel for each of our cohort, asking the kinds of probing questions programme producers and presenters might ask. The programme ideas put forward were varied and quirky – our cultural and intellectual relationship with Mars, ‘lifestyle’ obsessions of England in the 1800s, including – yes – cooking columns in newspapers, and how this presaged our current middle class obsession with properness and social capital more generally; and what do growing advances in artificial intelligence tell us about the neurological capabilities of the humble human brain?

        New Generation Thinkers is a useful talent-spotting programme for the BBC; it’s clear what the organisation gains from the process. Us ‘academics’ – in my case I use the term loosely as I am a practitioner and teach as a writer, rather than as a scholar – gain exposure to the ruthless and demanding world of radio and television media commentary. But also a chance to put our ideas across to a much wider audience than they might reach in the confines of the classroom and the printed word.

        The process gave me new respect for the practice of Arts media commentary. It’s not easy to be interesting, informed and witty on the spot, to be able to opine knowledgeably on virtually any topic, live on air or recorded. I look more benevolently now on those rabbit-in-the-headlights sacrificial victims, fresh off a long-haul flight, who face Jeremy Paxman.

        What’s clear from observing my peers is that some people simply have it – the ability, the knack for referencing Spinoza and East Enders in the same sentence. I’m not sure I do, although I have done a lot of media, both radio and TV, over the years, and am comfortable in front of the microphone and the camera.

        But it was fun, and they didn’t make us sing.