Time was when if you wanted to watch a TV programme or listen to a radio programme you had to be around when it was on. You’d wait all week, and if you missed the bus home, you missed the programme too. That was that.
It seems incredible that this even needs saying, but on-demand and catch-up are now so woven into the fabric of modern life that we’ve forgotten what it was like to have a TV or radio experience that lasted only as long as the programme itself, and thereafter existed only in the memory.
On Saturday evening on Radio 4, the clock will be turned back. Or, to put it another way, listeners will need to live in the present for the full hour that a programme called Archive Fever airs.
Archive Fever is about the modern urge to archive — the piling-up of mountains of digital data that anyone who uses a computer or smartphone can hardly avoid — and it also explores archiving in the old-fashioned sense of people’s accumulation of papers, letters, photographs and general stuff that they might term memorabilia.
The programme is partly an in-joke. The 8pm slot on Saturday evening on Radio 4 is the one reserved for Archive on 4, the programme that draws on archive recordings in order to explore an aspect of history. But Archive Fever won’t contain any archive. Nor — and this is the really revolutionary bit — will it be available to listen to afterwards. You won’t be able to iPlayer it, download it, listen to it on a podcast. No archive for Archive Fever.
The programme is the work of producer Martin Williams and presenter Matthew Sweet (pictured above), whose voice is well known to Radio 3 listeners as the presenter of Night Waves and Sounds of Cinema. Williams, according to Sweet, had the idea of the archiveless archive programme, and then Sweet came up with the even more radical idea of “destroying” the programme once it had been broadcast.
Tuning in to the wireless
“In the old days radio was an ephemeral medium,” Sweet explains. “You spoke the words, and off they went into the ether. But that’s not been the case for many years. We wanted to ask, is it possible, in the digital age, to have just one programme beyond the reach of the archive? One that you had to be there for? The only chance of hearing it again will be if someone tapes it off the radio – preferably on a C60 cassette, flipped briskly over halfway through…”
Plenty of us remember doing that. I still have tapes of John Peel programmes from the early 1980s that were preserved that way.
The project resonates because as Williams identified in devising the programme, we now live in a world where everything is archived. Or as a contributor to the programme puts it, “one of the horrors of the digital age is that we can’t get rid of anything. It would be as though we lived in a world in which nobody ever died.” (Williams allowed me to hear some of the programme in advance on the basis that I “destroyed" it afterwards).
I am not saying who made that observation because I don’t want to give too much away. But what I will say is that from what I’ve listened to it’s a fascinating and important programme not just because it’s great radio in itself, but because it invites us to think about the stuff we have — both physical and digital — and re-evaluate it.
Indiscriminate archiving is a feature, possibly a curse, of the age. Technology has turned many of us into hoarders who might not otherwise be. And hoarders of physical memorabilia might listen to Archive Fever and find that they are asking themselves, what of it really matters? Why am I keeping it all?
Elements of the programme will go out live, including the moment at the end when, “if all goes to plan,” Williams says, “we’re going to smash the thing to bits.”
If you need any further incentive, Williams has revealed that Archive Fever includes “teenage secrets, a Chinese encyclopaedia and a fire alarm”, and there are contributions from, among others, the film director Mike Figgis, the critic Christopher Frayling, and the author Hanif Kureishi.
We’re always being encouraged to live in the moment, and this is a chance to do just that.
Archive Fever is on Radio 4 on Saturday 15 April at 8pm — and only then