A World of Ideas

The Forum is a radio show (and podcast) that has been running on the BBC World Service since 2009. The regular host is Bridget Kendall, the BBC's diplomatic correspondent - that diplomatic role is significant here. Several other people have acted as guest presenters at different times, recently including newscaster Zeinab Badawi and astronomer Martin Rees.

Every week the programme brings together three prominent international thinkers, usually from very disparate fields, to talk on a theme that somehow touches on all of their specialities. For example, the Forum on the notions of the 'real and virtual' brought in a ceramicist, a mathematician and someone who uses complex simulations to produce 3D images of decisive moments during catastrophic events. Some themes allow each guest interpret them in a completely different sense, as when the black hole episode talked about singularities, financial crises and memory holes. The usual format is for each guest to talk about their specialism for a while, with prompting from the host and interjections from the other guests. Besides allowing the programme to cover fascinatingly broad swathes of intellectual ground, having specialists from quite different fields encourages questions and perspectives of interest to intelligent outsiders, and hopefully interdisciplinary cross-pollination.

The Forum might be seen as a more chaotic, younger sister to BBC Radio 4's equally excellent In Our Time. Whereas the latter is a history of ideas, Forum is all about the exploration of ideas - In Our Time tries to cover all the major points about its topic of the week, where Forum goes for intrigue over comprehensiveness. Both shows aim to spread knowledge and encourage active thought, with Forum more focused on the debating side of things. It is also considerably more international in its selection of experts.

A regular feature of the show is the 'Sixty Second Idea to Change the World', in which one of the panelists has one minute to present a grand, revolutionary idea. The ideas range from the perfectly serious to the manifestly silly, with a slight tendency towards the latter. Once the sixty seconds are up an alarm goes, and the rest of the panel has a chance to raise objections and explore ramifications; the ideas are usually chosen more for their ability to provoke thought and debate than for their practicality. After the debate, the host reads out the reactions of a few viewers to the idea from the previous week. This part of the programme has its own web page and podcast where you can listen to the latest ideas, but oddly they disappear after a month even though you can download every episode of the Forum in its entirety in the BBC's extensive archive.

For all my love of music, the written word and screen media, I have been getting a great deal out of the spoken word lately - especially since I started actively downloading podcasts, rather than just listening to whatever happened to be on Radio 4. For a while you could have been forgiven for thinking that radio was a dying medium, but that is looking less and less likely: it may be enjoyed more and more over the internet, rather than by broadcast, but there will always be a place for a medium that we can tap into while cooking or going for long walks. I love the opportunity to chew over new ideas when I have just enough attention to spare, and I have yet to find anything that works better for that than the Forum.