Radio 4 inspires a loyalty in its listeners that, applied to other institutions, might count as fanatical or fundamentalist. If last year's extraordinary brouhaha over the abolition of Fritz Spiegl's tritely clever UK Theme isn't illustration enough, David Hendy starts his 40th anniversary history with a couple of supporting anecdotes: a woman who travelled by bus from Blackpool to Broadcasting House in London and fired a gun (loaded with blanks) at a BBC commissionaire to protest at poor reception of Radio 4; and a retired vicar in Surrey who bludgeoned his wife to death with a radio in a row over the choice of music on Desert Island Discs.
The loyalty is unquestionable; but loyalty to what? Radio 4 is surprisingly hard to pin down. In institutional terms, Hendy notes, it is a chimera, employing only a network controller and a band of commissioning editors – the people who make the programmes are employed by autonomous departments such as Drama or News. While listeners may have a strong sense of Radio 4's tone of voice and what it's for, such certainty has never reigned long within the BBC.
Hendy's history, in fact, is largely a saga of internecine strife, of controllers trying to impose their sense of the network's mission, producers resisting, listeners complaining, and politicians sticking their oar in.
What's striking is how little the terms of the arguments have changed over four decades: worries about being too metropolitan, too Westminster orientated, about the under-representation (or overrepresentation) of women, about a lack of appeal to younger listeners, about left-wing (or right-wing) bias, about misplaced populism or stodgy intellectualism.
Hendy, a former producer of Analysis and The World Tonight, investigates all these rows and the personalities behind them with extraordinary thoroughness, and is mostly very judicious. But he doesn't step outside the bureaucracy often enough, forgetting to tell us much about the programmes – which is a shame, because when he does he can be penetrating.
Spotting omissions is easy, and perhaps unfair; all the same, it struck me as bizarre that Stop the Week, a mainstay of weekend schedules for the better part of 20 years, rated only three sparing mentions, none of which made reference to the fact that Robert Robinson presented it and gave it its peculiar character; while Brain of Britain seems to have been airbrushed out altogether.
The book is also marred by the reduction of social history to a series of clichés (1960s: drugs, Summer of Love, sexual freedom; 1970s: Oz magazine trial, strikes, arrival of Thatcher), accompanied by a tendency towards the teleological, an assumption that things turned out as they did because they had to. In the 1990s, a trend for more "personal", confessional programmes prompted large numbers of complaints; but, Hendy says, "The BBC could not ignore the therapeutic sensibility of the age."
Why couldn't it, if a lot of listeners were asking it to? The BBC is big enough to shape culture, not just follow it, which is why some Tories so resent its adherence to a liberal consensus. Radio 4 could have been very different: it could have ended up like a British version of American talk-radio, or the speech equivalent of Radio 3; or it could have aimed itself squarely at youth.
In shutting out these possibilities, Hendy ends up writing the establishment version, winner's history, even when he's straining to be impartial.
And Now on Radio 4 has more about the programmes, and is undoubtedly more congenial – chatty, a little bit personal, light on bureaucratic detail, a tad short of critical bite.
I can't for the life of me think who would be interested in an appreciation of Nigel Forde's humorous verses on Midweek. But Simon Elmes, one of the longest serving features producers in BBC Radio, knows the ground.
Not only does Elmes have several pages on Stop the Week, he has even got a separate section on Robert Robinson. Short of a Charlotte Green nude calendar, it's hard to imagine what more a Radio 4 fan could want.
Life on Air: a History of Radio 4, Oxford £25 (518pp) £22.50 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897
And Now On Radio 4, RH Books £12.99 (264pp) £11.69 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897Reuse content