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How to present puzzles on the radio

It's not just the content that matters. It's how you tell it.

The BBC Today programme has just published a book of puzzles from its daily slot.  In it you will find four puzzles that I submitted to the programme. Three of them were broadcast, but the following puzzle never made it onto the airwaves:

The Bathroom Mirror Puzzle

 When Eric stands upright in front of his bathroom mirror, he can see down to his navel.  If he takes a few steps back, can he now see:

   (a) More of himself

   (b) The same amount

   (c) Less of himself?

I was surprised this one was never broadcast, because it's a rare example of a puzzle that is well-suited to breakfast-time radio. The question can be understood in a single listening, and it relates to an activity that is very appropriate to getting up in the morning.

But what's the answer?

You've had plenty of experience standing in front of mirrors, so with a bit of thought I expect the answer is obvious to you.  If you think it's (a), that you can see more of yourself, then you are in good company.  About 75% of people think this is the answer.

And that's fine, you can now go off and do something else.  Except that (a) is NOT the correct answer.  It turns out that when you step back from a vertical mirror, the amount of yourself that you can see remains the same.  You can test it with a real mirror if you don't believe me.

But for this puzzle to work effectively, you do actually need to discover that you got it wrong. The interesting part of the puzzle is the surprise in the 'reveal', and the discussion that follows.

Unfortunately, the way that the Today programme puzzle works is that a puzzle gets read out once, and is then never referred to again.  In order to find out the answer, you need to wait until the following day, and then go and look up the answer on the BBC website.


How other radio programmes have presented puzzles

There have been many 'mathematical' puzzle slots on radio before.  For example, Chris Moyles used to pose occasional brainteasers on Radio 1.  For a brief period I used to set brainteasers for Absolute Radio, with Christian O'Connell.  And in the USA, for many years an NPR chat show called Car Talk had a weekly 'Puzzler' that listeners adored.*

All of these puzzle slots had several things in common:

-  The puzzle was posed by an enthusiastic presenter who took an interest in it

-  A second presenter would then ask questions to check - on behalf of the listeners - that they understood what the question was (it's hard to grasp all of the details of a puzzle the first time you hear it)

-  After a suitable gap (anything from 15 minutes to a week, depending on the programme) the answer was revealed and discussed, often with an Aha! or a Doh!  It was always a listener who wrote in or phoned in with the answer.

-  And there was plenty of laughter in the presentation of the whole thing.


Now compare this with how the Today programme presents puzzles.

- A presenter (a serious journalist) reads out a puzzle from a script, often with an air of contempt ("what kind of saddo would be interested in this?")

- There is no repeat, and no checking for understanding of the conditions of the puzzle.

And worst of all

- The solution is never discussed, so there is no proper closure.

I like the idea of a regular puzzle slot on radio.  Done properly it can be entertaining, educational and inclusive.  But it also has to be self-contained.  There's little point in presenting a puzzle on radio if the listener then needs to visit a website to read either the puzzle or its solution to get the full effect.



I think there are a few ways that the Today slot might be improved.  Here are my suggestions:

(1)  Have a broader mix of puzzles.  Most of the puzzles on Today are mathematical.  This is great for those of us who like maths, but we are a minority, and these exclude many puzzle fans who like mind-stretching word puzzles.  Variety is the spice of life.  (And some of us like word puzzles AND maths puzzles).

(2)  Reduce the frequency.  Quality is more important than quantity.  Maybe the puzzle could be a Monday morning thing.  Or Saturday, which is more of a leisure day.   The solution would be discussed with the setter a week later, or at the end of the programme.

(3)  Only broadcast puzzles that work on radio.  This means that the task should be clear after hearing it read out once.  Unfortunately this would exclude about half of the puzzles that are currently broadcast - but maybe that reveals a flaw in the way the slot is done at present.

(4)  Recognise that for most listeners there is a crucial difference between a 'puzzle' and a 'maths question'.  See my old blog on the subject: What's the difference between a puzzle and a maths question?


* 2020 update: For six weeks during the coronavirus lockdown, Andrew Jeffrey set a daily puzzle for Radio 5Live, in a slot called 'Learner Drivers'.  This was a model example of how to present puzzles on radio.