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Twenty years of Between the Ears | Plus October Highlights

On 5 October, the pioneering Radio 3 series Between the Ears celebrates its twentieth anniversary. Broadcast on Saturday evenings at various points throughout the year, it began life as a modest four programme series designed to showcase bold and adventurous radio.

On 5 October, the pioneering Radio 3 series Between the Ears celebrates its twentieth anniversary. Broadcast on Saturday evenings at various points throughout the year, it began life as a modest four programme series designed to showcase bold and adventurous radio. It immediately picked up a coveted Prix Italia and has since gone on to win three more Prix Italias plus more than ten Sony Gold awards and numerous others.

While music is an important element for the series (and the original proposal came from Radio 3’s new music department), Between the Ears is not a music series as such but a way of engaging in innovative programme-making by experimenting with sound, according to Matthew Dodd, Radio 3’s commissioning editor for speech. ‘It’s about working within the documentary and feature traditions to produce something to which audiences can listen without analysis, ‘which is why we so very rarely use presenters.’

‘Music is as much part of innovative feature-making as any of the other sound arts,’ Dodd continues. ‘However the use of music in the series is not restricted to classical, although that has been one of the elements which has been part of the Between the Ears tradition over the last twenty years.’ Last year, for instance, the composer Jocelyn Pook was commissioned to write for a programme about memory and death, and one of the programmes Dodd recalls which used significant amounts of music was made ten or so years ago by Alan Hall, the producer of the first Between the Ears. ‘It was a complete version of Beethoven’s Fifth using all the enormous variations of the way that piece has been recorded. And it wasn’t just classical music that was used. There were ring tones and lots of other instruments. It was an amazing journey through the way in which Beethoven’s Fifth has been interpreted by different people.’

More and more people are now considering the Between the Ears form as a means of expressing ideas. There has also been a considerable increase in the number of sound artists who are no longer limited to radio as the only outlet for their work. ‘Sound artists have expanded into art galleries and into the world of online listening. There are even more people becoming interested in the idea of listening to this kind of composed feature.’

The anniversary celebrations begin on 5 October with the broadcast of part one of Shadowplay, four interlinked programmes produced by Hall, who describes them as being symphonic in structure. The Between the Ears team will also be taking over The Essay with five 15-minute features made by new, up-and-coming programme makers from around the world ‘to show that the tradition of this kind of work still continues’. There will also be a 45-minute Sunday Feature about the rise of sound art, how it has gone from being a relatively marginal part of the art world to something you can find in major art galleries.

How does Dodd see the future for Between the Ears? ‘Obviously engaging with the digital world is something we have to do more. I would also like us to take advantage of the work done by sound artists who are coming to radio from another direction, and somehow collaborate with them. And I still think there’s a lot more we can do with composers.’

 

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