Fans of In Our Time, BBC Radio 4’s history-of-ideas programme, will readily acknowledge that its existence in the schedules is surely one of the greatest justifications for the continuation of the licence fee. And now the entire archive of broadcasts, some 517 editions dating back to 1998, have been made available to download for free.
Each week presenter Melvyn Bragg takes on the role of curious layman, guiding his panel of scholars through topics as diverse as microbiology, the Holy Grail, Robin Hood and - in the most recent edition that kicked off the latest series this morning - the Hippocratic oath. The result is erudite but accessible listening that regularly nets an audience of two million.
In 2004, In Our Time became the very first BBC programme to be made available as a podcast, but this is the first time that its complete back catalogue has been offered to the public for keeps.
Says Lord Bragg of the decision: “We are asking people to come in and talk whose work furnishes the great written encyclopaedias, and who themselves are salami-slicers of encyclopaedias, and they are now being recycled into a soundipaedia. Can we claim that as a new word? The wizards of the website have divided these programmes into different categories (science, religion, history, culture, philosophy) so that they're easy to sort through.
“When I look at the range and see the way that the work has built up, I can, in an unwary moment, kid myself that there was some purpose at work in the early days. I'm afraid it wasn't so.
“The basic idea, among those of us who did it, was to educate ourselves and to find subjects which tested us - therefore we needed to be at full stretch; or baffled us - therefore we were looking for clarity. Others were part of an initially loose but increasingly resolute attempt to lasso areas of knowledge not very often brought to a wider public.”
For the full list of available episodes, head over to bbc.co.uk/radio4/features/in-our-time