Formats Unpacked: Desert Island Discs #1

How a lighthearted interview format became the 'greatest radio show of all time'

Hi All,

Writing about today’s format has been difficult. A format can be successful for many reasons. But for the sake of brevity, the brief I usually give to writers is to pick just one thing that they think makes the format work, and write about that. I think keeping it to one thing is what makes this format work.

Of all the formats I’ve written about, this has been the toughest. There is so much magic in the format that choosing one was really tough. The irony of the fact that I was struggling with my choices, whilst writing about a format that is all about having a limited number of choices, was not lost on me.

So, in the future, if readers want to share different perspectives on the magic of Desert Island Discs I’d be happy to publish them.

Here’s my unpacking…

What’s it called?

Desert Island Discs (radio show)

What’s the format?

Each week a guest is asked to choose eight records, a book, and a luxury item that they would take if they were cast away on a desert island. In between the music the guests - or castaways as they are referred to - talk about their lives and their reasons for choosing the records. 

In February this year, Desert Island Discs celebrated its 80th birthday. Over 3000 shows have been recorded, yet it has only had five hosts. Roy Plomley, who devised the show, was the first, followed by Michael Parkinson, Sue Lawley, Kirsty Young, and Lauren Laverne. In February 2019 a panel of broadcasting industry experts named it the "greatest radio programme of all time". In May 2022, a panel of one Formats Unpacked editor voted it the “greatest format ever!”

What’s the magic that makes it special?

Desert Island Discs is an interview format with a twist - it comes with its own soundtrack.

The absolute genius in the format is in how guests are asked to shape their life narrative around their music choices, rather than a set of questions. Ask someone a question and they’ll give you an answer. Ask someone to play you some music and they’ll tell you a collection of stories, each one remembered like a movie scene replaying in their heads, wrapped up in a bunch of emotions that perfectly fit the soundtrack. Joy. Pride. Grief. Love. Happiness. Heartbreak. Fear. Contentment. Satisfaction. Excitement. Regret. Loneliness. Peace. Compassion. Acceptance. Whoever said there are only 6 emotions clearly hasn’t tried to choose 8 pieces of music to take to a desert island. 

The format was conceived during WWII as a lighthearted music show to distract listeners from the darkness of the times. But over the years it has become something much more thoughtful, thanks to how the guests have responded to the format. Music has a magical ability to unlock deeply hidden stories our conscious minds might otherwise struggle to surface. In a 2011 documentary about dementia, Alive Inside, Dr Oliver Sacks demonstrated how unresponsive elderly patients in a nursing home temporarily remembered who they were after listening to music. For the briefest of moments, it reconnected them with people, places and moments they had forgotten. 

The show’s five hosts have all been brilliant interviewers, but none would have got the gold we’ve enjoyed over the years without the music doing the heavy lifting. For example, the episode featuring footballer Ian Wright really is an incredible piece of radio. The moment where Ian talks about his former school teacher is so moving and attracted a lot of attention at the time. But the story he tells about the abuse his mother suffered at the hands of her partner really is one of those “I had to stop the car to pull myself together” moments. It’s truly heartbreaking stuff that we wouldn’t have got to hear without Tina Turner’s River Deep, Mountain High acting as the emotional can opener.  In retrospect, the first five minutes of the George Michael episode are quite remarkable, given what we now know. After choosing his first song George says to Kirsty “I’ve never said any of this before. It’s odd. I’m just ready to say these things.”

Desert Island Discs isn’t a show about music. It’s a show about connection. You don’t really listen to the show for music recommendations. You’re not likely to fall down a musical rabbit hole just because writer Michael Lewis chose Dire Straits. You listen because you want to feel connected. The songs are the connectors, the hooks for guests to hang their stories on. Hooks for the listeners to attach their memories and associations to. Hooks that pull listeners closer to the guests - even the ones we didn’t think we’d like. It’s funny how music helps us put aside all our biases about people when we realise they like the same artist as we do. 

This brings me to identity, another huge factor in the format’s success. Appearing on Desert Island Discs is an offer few people can refuse. Not just because of the show’s history and the audience size, but because music offers guests an opportunity to establish their identity in a powerful way, whether it’s a politician choosing an indie band to appear more in touch with young voters, or a footballer choosing a piece of jazz or classical music to counter stereotypes.

There’s something about music that trumps most other ways we have of establishing our identity, and unless you’re a musician or DJ, very few people get the opportunity to do it this way. This makes Desert Island Discs a great play-along format. Be honest, who hasn’t compiled their own list at some point? Who hasn’t used it as a conversation starter? And who hasn’t considered their own choices far superior to those of others? You’ve all heard the Jimmy Wales episode, right? 

BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs host Lauren Laverne sits in front of a branded microphone the in the studio. Her blonde hair is centrally parted. She is wearing a brown shirt with pictures of storks on it. She is wearing a gold chain.

Favourite Episode

Choosing your favourite episodes is almost as difficult as choosing your 8 pieces of music. Anyway, here are my 8 desert island - Desert Island Discs:

How do your choices compare?

Similar Formats

Jude Rogers’ new book The Sound of Being Human: How Music Shapes Our Lives is like a Desert Island Discs in paperback form. Similar formats don’t just limit themselves to songs. Off Menu is a podcast in which people are interviewed whilst choosing their favorite meals. Room 101 is a format where people choose their least favourite objects. But if you’re looking for an interview format with a soundtrack that does good music discovery, I’m currently enjoying Are We On Air?

If you’re interested in the relationship between music and memories you really should give Jude’s book a read. It’s filled with brilliant stories about life and growing up in the 90s, as well as fascinating studies about our brains on music. Here’s an extract from The Guardian to give you a taste.

Just reply to this email if ever want to unpack your own favorite format or want to share your own insights about Desert Island Discs. There’s so much more to say about identity, the importance of restrictions, the wide-ranging choice of guests and more. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Thanks for reading.

Hugh

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