Series Producer, Factual and Music Radio
BBC Religion and Ethics, Salford
Bible literacy and factual programmes
I am going to talk to you about should not be interpreted as BBC policy but more my personal perspective from my practical experience of having worked for over 25 years in religious broadcasting.
So what I would like to look at is biblical literacy in terms of the media context in which I work and how programmes about the Bible fit into this world. And I'm going to concentrate on the world of radio rather than television because although I have worked in television in the past, my role for the last few years has been as Editor of factual radio programmes in the Religion and Ethics department.
Now my department broadcasts over 170 hours of worship programmes a year which include daily and weekly services on Radio 4 - the Daily Service being well into its 80s and newer programmes on Radio 2 such as the Christian music show - The Sunday Hour. All of these programmes contain regular bible readings and most are within a worship context. So I’m going to turn my attention to Biblical literacy in factual programmes because I think there are more significant differences and changes of approach over the years.
When I started to think about this talk I decided to look through the BBC archives to see the sort of programmes that have been made about the Bible over the years.
There were over two thousand references – which I was surprised at because for many years the BBC Archives were quite selective about what they kept, not everything that was broadcast has been saved. What it revealed was a fascinating mix of factual programmes over the years which looked at the Bible from a variety of perspectives. Like this one:
Clip 1 - CH Dodd on New English Bible “The project… was called for.” 0’45
The eminent theologian CH Dodd from the beginning of a 15 minute talk he made in 1961 on the publication of the New English Bible.
It really does sound from another age of broadcasting - quite Reithian. The other thing that struck me was how matter of fact it was. No concept here of drawing the listeners in, it was just straight to the point with the assumption that the audience would be interested and would have a certain knowledge of what he was talking about.
Contrast that with a talk given by Simon Schama in 2011 introducing the story of Noah and the Ark from the King James Bible season on Radio 4.
Clip 2: “There were giants….fate of the world was encompassed.” Dur: 1’56
Which of these two would you be drawn to listen to today on the radio I wonder? I’ve played the whole talk which was just under two minutes. But in that time there is humour, an acknowledgement of not understanding what certain passages might mean but also mixed with a serious point at the end. By the time he had finished I really wanted to hear the reading that followed next.
And perhaps that is what is at the heart of the difference of approach between now and then. CH Dodd’s talk – full of factual information and seriousness perhaps suggests an age when people seemed to have more time to listen to the radio and watch television. People were used to being given more of a lecture than a friendly chat. They didn’t need to be enticed in to listen.
So What’s changed?
The other day I was travelling back and forth to London and I was curious to see what sort of devises my fellow travellers were using. It ranged from laptops to mobiles to mp3 players and tablets from which they consumed music, films, books and the radio. I am always fascinated by this revolution in modern technology and the implications and consequences it throws up for broadcasters. I know from my own experience my kids will happily listen to music on their smart phone, keep in touch with friends on Facebook and watch the TV all at the same time. In fact an Ofcom report on adults and the media published earlier this year showed that 16-24 yr olds spend over 24 hours a week online. But that's not all – 8 in 10 adults use the internet, and the over 65s are one of the fastest growing groups online largely because of the introduction of tablets (not the medical kind).
The BBC's own research also shows a change in the way people consume the radio – there’s a steady increase in the numbers of people listening to the radio: on their mobiles on the way to work, on their computers during the day and on tablets and mobiles in the evening and at weekends.
From these devises news, information and entertainment is available 24/7. So from wherever and whenever you want - you can access a plethora of media made by a range of professional broadcasters, newspapers, commercial companies and what we call “user generated content” - ordinary people creating their own videos, blogs and photos.
To give you an querky example - a couple of years ago my family bought a canoe - and the first place we looked for lessons on how to use it was YouTube - where there were countless videos from canoeing enthusiasts who had happily spent hours filming their step by step advice for anyone to watch.
So why am I telling you this - because this is the environment in which myself and my colleagues at the BBC operate. The average viewer takes seconds not minutes to decide whether or not to watch a programme. Thankfully it is a bit longer in radio. But still, the demands on people’s time and attention are just as intense and this does have an impact on what is commissioned and broadcast. We are aware that we need to give people a reason to listen, an appointment to view to spend their precise time listening or watching the BBC - whether it be to inform them about what's going on in the world around them, to provide opportunities to hear about extraordinary people and worlds they would never encounter themselves or to give people the opportunity to be entertained through music, comedy or drama. It all feels a long way from the broadcast of CH Dodd when in 1961 there was only the Home, Light and Third radio networks and BBC 1 and ITV.
Yet in other ways there are still similarities with 1961 - the Reithian values to inform, educate and entertain are still at the core of the BBC. And licence fee payers should be able to find something on the BBC each week which appeals to them.
Looking back at the BBC archives and the programmes made about the Bible also reveals something of the changing nature of broadcasting. The sheer number of programmes made about the Bible, or with significant reference to it, (over two thousand in radio alone) shows that the Bible as a book of important religious, literary or cultural significance has not really diminished but the way programmes are made about the Bible have changed over the years. Here’s an example:
Clip 3 – “In the first programme……Turn, Turn, Turn” 1’25
“The People of the Book”, a 12 part series presented by Brian Redhead 1975, Robert Beckford on “Start the Week” talking about Revelation and Paul Gambaccini's “Pop Goes the Bible” from 2011.
In 1984 Sue MacGregor presented a programme called Tuesday Call. In this edition she invited listeners to call in with questions about the Christian faith to Don Cupitt and the Rev Keith Ward, in response to Cupitt's controversial series “A Sea of Faith”. Here’s an extract in which a caller challenges their views of the Bible.
Clip 4: Tuesday Call “Don Cupitt……interpret the meaning” 1’36
It’s was interesting programme in which lots of callers challenged them on issues ranging from suffering and evil, their understanding of the resurrection, the importance of prayer, Sunday schools and the teachings of other faiths. All the callers spoke intelligently and with a degree of knowledge of Christianity.
30 years on we cannot assume that listeners still have that level of knowledge or will recognise quotes or be familiar with stories from the Bible. In 2009 the Sunday programme went on the streets of Manchester to test the biblical knowledge of shoppers.
Clip 5 : Sunday biblical literacy “do either of you…..got him better.” 1’10
Although we knew that biblical literacy was in decline, we didn’t expect to get quite this level of ignorance about basic stories in the Bible. But perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. The Ofsted Report on Religious Education in Schools last year highlighted the patchy quality of teaching and lack of resources in schools. This combined with falling attendances in many churches, especially amongst the young, creates a worrying picture.
In a survey recently conducted by the Bible Society - 30% of secondary school children didn’t identify that The Nativity was a Bible story and 46% of adults when told the plot line of Noah and the Ark didn’t recognise it as coming from the Bible. Even more alarming 34% of parents thought the plot of Harry Potter was or might be a Bible story and 54% thought the same about the Hunger Games. To a certain extent you can understand this because there is a large cross over in terms of plot lines being inspired by or used from the Bible in Hollywood films. The recent Noah film is a case in point. Even in television, drama series such as EastEnders have been known to take inspiration for plotlines from the Bible. But decline in biblical literacy is still of concern.
And this has a knock on effect for broadcasters in two ways.
Firstly - No longer can we assume that the people we are broadcasting to have a basic level of knowledge of the Bible. So presenters and contributors compensate for this by providing far more context for biblical quotes and stories than would have been the case when I started in religious broadcasting over 25 years ago.
Let me play you an example from this year’s Lent Talks on Radio 4. It’s a series in which each year we invite a variety of writers to reflect on a particular theme associated with the passion story. This year the theme was “The power and the Passion”. These talks are broadcast to the general Radio 4 audience, as are all our religious programmes, not to a target Christian audience. Here’s Catherine Fox reflecting on the power of submission in her talk – listen to the way she talks about aspects of the passion story.
CLIP 6: Lent Talk – “It turns out that…..even of the wind and the waves” 2’15”
It’s interesting the way she does it. All the time she is explaining aspects of the Passion story in a way I hope is engaging and not patronising... So that if you didn’t know the story you could still follow what she was saying and if it was familiar to you, you could reflect on the points she is making at a deeper level. It requires a real skill in writing for radio to make this work successfully. This is something that we require of those who write talks for us be it on Thought for the Day or Lent Talks.
Secondly as Biblical literacy in society is declining, so it is reflected in many media organisations. This is inevitable. As younger generations are joining companies like the BBC, many of whom have come from non-religious families and have not studied RE beyond the basic required level, so their knowledge of the Bible and religious beliefs will be low. The Prebble Report published last year for the BBC Trust talked about low levels of basic knowledge of main and minority religions by journalists in News and Current Affairs. Several years ago the BBC tried to address this issue by providing on online course in the BBC’s College of Journalism which covered the basic facts and issues associated with a range of faiths to help journalists. But what it was not possible to do in a relatively short course was give journalists a comprehensive knowledge of the Bible. Because at the end of the day, as with Shakespeare, there is no real substitute for sitting down and reading it – not necessarily from cover to cover but to select the most important books and stories and read them.
However, this problem is by no means confined to the BBC. Newsrooms are renowned as secular places. Religious stories come way down the list for Editors whose focus will inevitably be on politics, economic and home affairs issues. Religion is seen by some Editors as something niche and the Bible as a book used and quoted by “religious nutters”. Politicians these days don’t “do God”, certainly not in public and if they dare put their toe in the water like David Cameron did recently, his comments on being still a “Christian country” received many column inches debating whether he should have said it, was it true and is he Christian enough to have said it.
Now, I do not think there are deliberate attempts in newsrooms not to cover religion; I think stories are ignored, or often when covered over sensationalised, due to ignorance and an unwillingness to engage based on lack of knowledge and interest. So one by one the national newspapers have let go of their religious affairs correspondents and yet religious stories continue to be on the news agenda - for good or bad reasons.
In contrast, the Religion and Ethics department continues to broadcast over 400 hours of radio output across Radio 2,3 and 4. My television colleagues broadcast over 150 hours. Local radio has weekly religious programmes on all its 42 stations. Audience figures are strong and our programmes continue to be at scheduled in popular slots. So we know there is still an appetite for programmes about religion and spirituality even if the informed knowledge of the listeners and viewers is not what it was.
This has an effect on factual radio programmes on the bible over the years. There is much more focus on the context of its historical and literary/cultural significance rather than its theological content as a holy book. Here’s an example from Beyond Belief.
Clip 8: beyond belief. “Now Francesca….by the term ritual.” 2’06
“Beyond Belief” presented by Ernie Rea on archaeology and the Bible with Professors Tim Insoll and Francesca Stav-rako-pou-lou from February this year.
It might be worth saying something about the commissioning process here because you might be thinking well why not just broadcast different types of programmes. Well it is not as simple as that. All the channel controllers have their vision and their remit for what each network should be doing, how it is distinctive from the other channels, who it is aimed at, the audiences’ interests and how they consume the media.
This will all have an influence on what is commissioned and the style and content of the programmes made for that network. Most channels have long running programmes which define their network – Radio 4 often talks about the furniture around which everything else fits into place – programmes such as Today, Woman’s Hour, You and Yours, The World at One etc, etc. My department have programme strands such as Sunday, Moral Maze, Beyond Belief on Radio 4, Choral Evensong on Radio 3 and Good Morning Sunday and the Sunday Hour on Radio 2 to name a few. Departments and Indies produce and deliver a set number of programmes a year as decided by and defined by each network.
Just to digress for a moment it’s interesting to think that one of Radio 4’s most famous pieces of furniture - Desert Island Discs – has since 1951 are given a Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare to all castaways, except those of other faiths, to read. Apparently when its creator Roy Plomley introduced the Bible into the show, it was assumed it would have been deposited there by The Gideon Society in much the same way as it appears in hotels.
Anyway back to commissioning - ad hoc programmes such as documentaries, features and discussions are commissioned by Commissioning Editors and all departments can pitch ideas. Radio 4 receives well over a thousand ideas every commissioning round for a few hundred slots. As you can imagine competition is fierce and factors such as originality, creativity, importance of the subject, topicality, location and presenters are often key elements for those choosing what to commission.
So any series or single programme on The Bible has to go through this commissioning process. Ideas have to be good enough to compete with all the other ideas in each commissioning round. Listeners love to hear something they don’t know, especially on Radio 4, they like to hear a story retold in a different way which could be because of new discoveries, a quirky angle or an unusual presenter, someone unexpected. Listeners enjoy the programmes to which they can say I didn’t know that! And tell their friends about it. This also applies to regular programmes such as Today, Woman’s Hour, Start the Week, Front Row, even the Sunday programme – they will all cover stories on the Bible from time to time but they need to sound different or fresh.
Here’s Sunday taking a quirky look at the Bible.
CLIP 9: Sunday – “Back on earth….help they can get.” 2’38
Those were items on the sale of a microfiche bible taken into space, a poll by Ship of Fools to find the worse bible verse and Rabbi Jonathan Romaine on finding help for the England football team from the Bible – let’s hope England do better this time around.
One of the boldest projects Radio 4 commissioned in the last few years on the Bible was to mark the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. Once described as “the noblest monument of English prose”, of all the translations the King James remains one of the most popular and influential books in the English language.
Radio 4 decided to devote 10 hours of airtime to it. There were to be 28 readings from the Bible by actors such as Sam West, Emilia Fox, Hugh Bonneville, Miriam Margolyes and Niamh Cusack and these were to be introduced by the likes of Simon Schama, David Lodge, Will Self, Rowan Williams, Frank Cottrell Boyce and Joanne Harris, who would provide their own insight and reaction to the readings the listeners were about to hear. The readings and essays were to be broadcast throughout a single day – 7.5 hours in total.
This is not the first time Radio 4 have run a season of bible readings on the network – some of you may remember the Cannongate series which Radio 4 broadcast in……. But nothing had been attempted quite on this scale before. The reason why Radio 4 was so confident this would appeal to the general audience can be summed up by Simon Schama in his introduction to the day of readings:
CLIP 10: Simon Schama “400 years ago……a prosaic world.” 0’42
Well who could argue with that!
The season began with Jim Naughtie’s documentary series. It told the story of the creation of the King James translation and its influence and was broadcast across 3 days in prime time at 9.00am after the Today programme. Here are extracts from programme 2 and 3. I wanted to play you this because it illustrates well how documentaries on the Bible sound today. Location, historical, social and cultural context are key ways of engaging the listeners and drawing them in and by finding ways of connection we then use them to in effect give the listener a history lesson. The series was described by radio critics at the time as a “luxurious thing” “which revelled in detail and evocative soundscapes.”
CLIP 11: KJB docs “From Hampton Court…..and 1000s like it.” 3’10
In a way the documentaries were quite straight forward to make. The readings on the other hand were of a different order. My role or should I say my mission was to abridge the Bible into 28 x 13 minute episodes – and to begin with it did feel like Mission Impossible. After much thought I decided the best way to do this was to go for bible stories; stories which would appeal to everyone regardless of whether they had ever read the bible before. My hope was that people would enjoy the readings on several levels:
for those familiar with the Bible that they would enjoying hearing it read in the eloquent language of the King James
for those with a vague knowledge of the plotlines of some of the stories - an opportunity to hear the stories in full and in context
and for those with no knowledge or even interest in the Bible - an opportunity to listen to tales of love, compassion, greed, jealousy, anger, betrayal and death – the experiences of what it means to be human and an understanding of our place in the world.
So we had episodes on Noah, Abraham and Isaac, Joseph, Moses, Ruth to name a few and of course the story of Jesus from birth to crucifixion, some of St Paul and finally a section from Revelation. Straight forward stuff you might think – well not at all. I was very thankful that back in the day I had done a degree in Theology because right from the start we had theological obstacles to overcome. Take episode 1 - The Creation – that would have been fine if it wasn’t for the fact that there are two Creation stories – which should we go for or do you combine the two? There were discussions on what to keep in and what to loose from the escape of Moses and the Israelites, how to abridge 40 chapters of Job into 13 minutes etc, etc. The only big omission in the series one might have noticed was the lack of Psalms. Having had several goes at abridging a collection of Psalms together, for various reasons it just didn’t work and we dropped them. Interestingly we never had any complaints from the audience. It was a big theological challenge but one I enjoyed.
The other aspect I enjoyed was working with the readings department, who produce the numerous book readings on Radio 4. They helped to secure the actors and record some of the readings. What was fascinating about this collaboration was working with people whose biblical literacy was very low but who were totally engaged with the project. So I would often spend half an hour on the phone talking the producer through the context, meaning and significance of each reading – conversations which would end up being fascinating theological discussions. This enabled them to work with the actors to get the most out of each reading. All through this process the aim was to create self-contained episodes which could be enjoyed by everyone regardless of their knowledge or understanding of the Bible. The readings were available as podcasts and we had over 250,000 downloads and we were awarded the Sanford St Martin award for the series.
Here’s a flavour
The essays were another attempt to draw the listeners in, especially those with little interest in religion or the Bible. By using well-known figures from the world of history, literature and religion such as Simon Schama, Will Self, David Lodge, Howard Brenton and Joanne Harris to engage and talk to the audience about the impact of these stories on themselves it might just entice the non-religious or biblically illiterate sections of the audience to listen.
Here’s a favour of one of the essays – by……………..
Of course series like these can only be broadcast from time to time but I hope as you have heard from the clips I have played; programmes about the Bible or its use as a reference point in historical, literary and cultural programming will continue to be made. But for how long is a serious question to ask.
If biblical literacy amongst the general population continues to fall - for how long will new generations of broadcasters continue to see the Bible as something they should engage with and make programmes about? Having mentioned the Bible’s influence on history, culture and literature I do find it strange that the Bible is only really studied at school (if at all) in RE lessons. Surely it should be part of the curriculum for a number of subjects. On the Sunday programme some time ago we ran an interview with a historian worried at the lack of biblical and religious knowledge of their students at university. How can they understand certain periods of history without the knowledge of the bible and the beliefs that come from it and their subsequent influence on politicians and society of the day – they asked? It is a question that could be asked of those studying English literature or even art.
It’s also a question that broadcasters need to ask. Already I have seen and heard programmes made (not from my department or even necessarily on the BBC) about historical events in the 15th and 16th centuries where there has been no mention of the religious beliefs that underpinned that society never mind references to the Bible. I don’t know why but I suspect if the programme makers have little or no knowledge of or interest in religion and the Bible then they will not appreciate its significance. So if the Bible is not engaged with as widely as possible then lack of biblical literacy will continue to grow. Perhaps there is a role here for broadcasters to continue to produce programmes about the Bible and by doing so it might help in some way to slow down this decline and to help to make the Bible relevant and come alive for subsequent generations.