BBC Radio 3’s Free Thinking: The Speed of Light weekend hits Newcastle

BBC Radio 3 head of speech and presentation, Matthew Dodd, on how events at Free Thinking: The Speed of Light festival will open up the inner workings of the station as well as the minds of its audiences.

Sage Gateshead is a beautiful, Norman Foster-designed building of soaring steel and glass on the banks of the River Tyne in Newcastle, UK. But next week, BBC Radio 3 is bringing even more glass to the building. How could that be? Well, the glass in question is actually Radio 3’s pop-up studio, which will be taking up residence in Sage’s café as part of our Free Thinking Festival. This deceptively simple glass box contains a working radio studio, and for two and a half days Radio 3 will be broadcasting its programmes live from its transparent insides – open for all to see.

Sage Gateshead
Sage Gateshead

Our programmes are usually made in windowless studios tucked inside BBC buildings, but the glass box allows us to show audiences how our mixture of remarkable music and culture actually gets on air. In just a few short years the Radio 3 pop-up studio has become a crucial part of our outside broadcasts, with visits to Southbank Centre, the RSC’s Other Place theatre in Stratford and the Wellcome Collection in London.

The Free Thinking Festival – which we are busy planning at the moment – is itself a window onto the wide range of culture that is available on Radio 3. This year’s theme is ‘The Speed of Life’, with leading thinkers across science, arts, humanities and politics discussing how our idea of time has gradually changed, from the acceleration of technology to the shifting patterns of ageing. Throughout the weekend there will be live classical concerts, contemporary, jazz and choral music from top musicians, as well as vociferous intellectual debate, interviews, showcases of new academic talent – and much more.

Edwina Currie
Edwina Currie

Leading neuroscientist and circadian expert Professor Russell Foster will give the keynote speech, Sleep – Freedom to Think, about the evolution of the human body clock and how we can tackle our sleep problems. Elsewhere the theme is explored in a variety of ways, from a discussion about the best time of a woman’s life with Edwina Currie, Miranda Sawyer and Lola Okolosi, to tips on how to stay calm in hectic modern life with Buddhist Monk and author Haemin Sunim. There is also an exploration of adrenalin-fuelled fast decisions with Damon Hill and Lincoln Jopp, and a talk on enduring solitary confinement with Terry Waite and Erwin James.

Suzy Klein will host a live edition of Radio 3’s In Tune featuring performances from pianola supremo Rex Lawson, pianist Lars Vogt (with members of Royal Northern Sinfonia), and local jazz duo Diachronicx. Elsewhere, Ian McMillan will be bringing Radio 3’s ‘cabaret of the word’ The Verb to Gateshead for a look at woodland-inspired poetry and song.
You can’t put on a broad list of events in just two and a half days without a unique combination of people. We draw on the wide range of skills we’re lucky to have; for example, the event organisers who manage the Proms also look after this festival. Only when we’re working at a festival like this do we begin to realise the combined expertise of all our colleagues pulling together, from broadcast engineers to acclaimed performers. 
These ‘glass box moments’, getting out of those BBC studios, are a great opportunity for us to work with partners beyond the BBC; for me, this has been the key lesson I’ve learned from ten years of the Free Thinking festival. These partners range from the great facilitators of Sage itself, through the creative writing group New Writing North, to Sunderland University’s media students who will be creating programmes from the festival.
There are too many other partners to list here, but all of them bring a dedication to their creative field which is a testimony to how things actually get done. Indeed, as part of this year’s festival we’ve hosting the annual Voluntary Arts awards – which is a terrific added element of the weekend.
We’ve been bringing the Free Thinking Festival to Sage Gateshead for eight years now, and are delighted to return for another weekend of ideas, debates and music that will hopefully inspire audience members and listeners alike.