A short tweet to save the story
Many people rely on the short stories on BBC’s-40-year-old Radio4 to provide the cultural focus that many other stations have wholly abandoned.
No wonder there was a crescendo of tweet protests when the BBC decided to reduce the frequency of the programme says SUNEETHA BALAKRISHNAN
Tuesday, Sep 27 11:24:48, 2011
The new media has multi-pronged protest devices in its repertoire to meet any contingency, right from online petitions to Tweetathons. The BBC Radio4 is now at the receiving end of one of these protests, a Tweetathon, for a cutback they have implemented in the frequency of their popular short story broadcasts, Afternoon Reading.
The BBC claims to have always promoted the short story genre. They have an Annual Short Story Award in place, which is considered a prestigious win by many. They admit on their web site that “The BBC National Short Story Award, managed in partnership with Booktrust, continues to serve as a reminder of the power of the short story and to celebrate a literary form that is proving ever more versatile in the twenty first century, enjoyed not just on the page, on air and increasingly on every sort of screen, but also in flash fiction events, short story festivals and slams. The short story has moved beyond the revival of recent years and is now experiencing a golden age.” They also claim, “BBC Radio 4 is the world's leading broadcaster of short stories and a staunch and long-time supporter of the form. Short stories are broadcast every week, attracting over a million listeners.”
Correction! Till 2009, the BBC Radio4 had a five-day-a-week, ten-minutes-a-day broadcast devoted to the short story. Their Afternoon Reading slot sought to broadcast “short stories or abridged books, often from new writers”. The BBC website even has a buzz page where they list blogs discussing Afternoon Reading and one can see that the lists are long. The Afternoon Reading has for numerous years been a platform not just for known names but for the newbie writer too. Many a talented writer in the U.K. has tasted success for the first time on the Afternoon Reading programme, as Ian Rankin, the author of the Rebus novels affirms.
A short history of the short story genre on BBC Radio 4, put up by the National Short Story Week website in the U.K., is interesting. On Monday 2nd July 1973, "Morning Story" was first broadcast on Radio 4. This regular slot was at 10.45 am each Monday to Friday. One of the stories in that first week was “Romance with a Double Bass" by Anton Chekhov. The other writers whose work was broadcast in 1973 include Liam O'Flaherty, Frank O'Conner, Saki and Katherine Mansfield. Not a bad beginning at all!
In 2009, Radio4 brought the frequency down to three stories per week. And in 2011 July, they further axed the incidence of the programme to once a week. A press release of 10th July from the BBC states that the short story output on BBC Radio 4 would be reduced to twice a week from November and once a week from next spring. This is what set off the protest among the writers, who also form a chunk of the audience for the programme which has been on air for 40 years. . The loyal audience is now going all out to show how they need to hear the short story more often on the radio than the current twice a week, as restored by Radio4 in a conciliatory step after the initial protests from listeners.
As a first step, The Society of Authors, The Writers' Guild of Great Britain and Equity UK have written a joint letter to BBC Chairman Chris Patten and Director General Mark Thompson. There is also an online petition in place which has 6716 signatures as I write this. But the highlight of this Save-the-Short-Story-on-Radio campaign is the innovative protest, a weekly short story Tweetathon by the Society of Authors, probably a never-before-attempted collaboration between top authors and tweeters
Starting September 14, each Wednesday, and running every Wednesday for the next four weeks, authors Simon Brett, Ian Rankin, Neil Gaiman, Joanne Harris and Sarah Waters will provide the first line of a story on Twitter each week. All of the five campaign leaders are authors who are acknowledged and appreciated and are on best-selling and award lists including the Booker and Orange prizes.
The tweeters need to complete the next four sentences using the hash tag #soatale and create a short story in 670 characters. There are judges, including the novelist Jane Thynne, the dramatist and screenwriter Colin Teevan and Ian Skillicorn of National Short Story Week, who will select the best line each hour. The resulting short story will be published on the Society of Authors' website. It starts at 11am and concludes at 3pm; with one sentence tweeted every hour on the hour, followed by 30 minutes for submissions to be tweeted. Another 30 minutes are allowed for the judging and posting of the winning sentence on this website. Sentences cannot exceed the 140 character limit, including the hash tag #soatale.You can read the rules for participation as well as the completed SoA tale of the first week here. And it goes on for the next four weeks.
It’s interesting to note that Neil Gaiman, one of the campaigners, has 1,635,549 Twitter followers currently and in a Guardian article he says that “The point of this tweetathon is not to produce great art, but to remind people to love the short story”. As Joanne Harris says, “So many people rely on R4 to provide the cultural focus that so many other stations have wholly abandoned.” In tune with all this sentiment, Chris Patten, the chairman of the BBC trust has said in an interview published on the Guardian page that BBC is "a moral force, a theatre company and a news organisation". And that they are “definitely not going to close BBC4”.
But the move to cut down programmes like Afternoon Reading seems to be devoid of any consideration for their popularity. Art funding is generally the first casualty when a fund cut or cost-saving proposal is mooted. Traditional platforms for art and culture across the globe have been the first to be axed in the new economic scenario where markets and profits rule. Adding the Radio4’s axing of Afternoon Reads to the closure of local libraries in the U.K. is seen by many as a trend which points to the beginning of the end.
In the current publishing scenario, the short form of fiction may not be on best seller lists, and may be sought more by the publishers on the other side of the Atlantic. But a short crisp story remains one of the first and sustained loves of the fiction-reader, over the decades across continents. And it still has plenty of takers. As a listener said on the Guardian website, “There are too many programmes both on radio and television featuring men shouting at one another.’’
BBC Radio4’s audience may be limited to one geographical area, but the protest they have put up is something the world can emulate. The cyber medium is sans borders and the people’s revolutions on Planet Earth have set a model in place on the directions that protest campaigns can take.
A time to Tweet to save the short story, perhaps!
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