Pause for Thought

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Producer Christopher Templeton reflects on the first humanist broadcasts for BBC World Service, recorded between 1997-1999.

The ethical conflict between rationalists and the BBC is as old as the corporation itself. Over time, those tensions have been vented in constructive ways, but a mutual ire is acutely demonstrated with the eponymous series known as Thought for the Day. You know TFTD, it’s the three-minute morning thought platform from which all humanists have been locked out since its first broadcast in 1970.

This was an odd way to go for the BBC, when you consider that the inaugural BBC Reith Lecture in 1948, the one that spawned all others, was given by Bertrand Russell. A presentation that set a cracking pace for the broadcaster on the themes of ‘Authority and the Individual’. It was original sounding stuff that really made you think twice.

Despite this enlightened beginning, programming output in this genre became at least for atheists, predictably establishment, arid and almost entirely religious in outlook.

Let’s be clear about the BBC’s position here. Over this great stretch of time, the charm of their conceit was to suppose that rationalist thinking, at least spoken out loud, would be of no value to its audiences. Why disturb the status quo after all? Why till the soil? Over two generations a body-politic condition emerged along with an attitude that the people out there, the so-called ‘audience’, really didn’t want to hear that category of opinion or be made uncomfortable by it.

Of course on this side of the fence, for the emerging humanist communities, for the active rationalists and atheists of the period – the need to tune into enlightened ethical ideas was extremely important. When you listen to the radio, you define yourself by what you hear after all. The lack of our kind of sentiment on the airwaves was in short, a compromised freedom.

However in 1997, there was a breakthrough. At the time, I was a radio drama producer at the BBC World Service on the ‘Play for the Week’ series but had also just joined the RPA.

During those early meetings at Conway Hall, the dominant issue that appeared to be driving everyone to madness was how to secure an atheist on the ‘Thought for the Day’ strand. To my mind, it was a kind of monomaniacal occupation. There was nothing else to do in the humanist universe as far as I could see. I did understand however, because the BBC acted without compunction. Letters and verbal salvos were passing back and forth between the RPA and Broadcasting House on a weekly basis – and of course getting nowhere, with the BHA also breaking its honourable lance at every attempt.

In 1996, the World Service ran a parallel strand to ‘Thought for the Day’, called ‘Pause for Thought’. These notional titles were largely interchangeable because the domestic BBC Radio 4 and the international BBC World Service shared their recordings. Both strands were entirely religious in their persuasions. Editors arguing the old trope that only the religious do ethics. Remind yourself that this was twenty years ago.

In many ways the World Service, ex-Empire Service Radio and steady employer of George Orwell was in a real sense, the soft underbelly of the corporation. Here, economics had a great way of deflecting the establishment strictures and allowing exposure to new ethical outlooks. Because its paymaster was the Foreign Office, not the licence fee payer, the BBC World Service Editors were arguably more freethinking than their domestic partners.

This proved to be an all-important distinction. After proving ourselves with several pilots, I managed to secure a production budget to record 26 non-religious and distinctly secular episodes of Pause for Thought. These were duly recorded, delivered and broadcast between 1997 and 1999 to international audiences of over 35 million people. A significantly greater audience reach than the 2-3 million BBC Radio 4 listeners that the RPA were seeking to connect with. We had effectively walked around the problem and found richer, greener pastures.

Some folks are interesting enough to say: ‘I don’t like that music I’m listening to – but I do appreciate its originality’. Well that’s rationalism all over, always searching for the germ of an idea, or the originality of an idea that advances understanding. The shifting constructs of human life are deeply fascinating to rationalists and so, for the first time on BBC radio, humanists and rationalists were let loose en masse onto the airwaves, offering their personal thoughts and ideas for the first time.

The contemporary speakers on the strand tended to be religious leaders of course, or perceived to be the best advocates of their faiths. Men, and they were largely all men at this time, like Rabbi Blum, Lord Sacks, Rowan Williams, Tom Butler and James Jones, were re-circulated on the beltway from the pulpit to the microphone and back again. You discovered a pattern here in that the BBC would often double down on certain individuals if they were mildly entertaining. The Reform Rabbis, with a lighter grip on their faith, tended to get the airplay largely because unlike the Anglicans, they didn’t take themselves too seriously. They were arguably more secular in outlook as well. After all, Jews make great atheists. In this way, World Service editors were already moving closer to the humanist mind-set, only they didn’t realise this at the time.

When approaching our set of recordings, we developed a new psychology for the strand. It wasn’t easy, but in the end we decided to promote ‘ordinary’ humanists. In other words, not the people who were perceived to be public figures within humanist circles. Bravely, we drew on the deeper humanist community at large.

Most of the speakers we selected to record had never been in a recording studio before and therefore what you heard, in contrast to the theists and deists, amounted to a new kind of pure sentiment – in stark contrast to the prepared and laboured dogmas of the religious. They became unique examples of this genre. It is also why they succeeded as stand alone thought pieces. In the spirit of Bertrand Russell’s original 1948 radio lecture, this was original sounding stuff that really made you think twice.

You can listen to some of the Pause for Thought recordings here.

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