Is Radio 4 safe in his hands?

As controller of Radio 4, Michael Green is responsible for perhaps the last refuge of our national identity. Sue Gaisford met him
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YOU PROBABLY didn't know that Radio 4 is ruled from Yorkshire - from Barnsley, to be precise, which is the home of Mrs Green. Happily, she is a benevolent despot. She is prepared to overlook all manner of in-discretions, provided that she can be confident that some things remain inviolate. So, as long as Mrs Green is in charge, nothing at all can possibly threaten the regular daily broadcast of the Morning Service. It is the safest programme on air, and it will continue to be followed by some very nice religious poetry, because she likes it that way.

Technically, of course, it is Mrs Green's boy Michael who is Radio 4's controller. His, he says, is the best job in the world. The longest-serving controller of them all, he has been doing it since 1986 and intends to carry on as long as they'll have him. He is only 53 but has the air of something brought along to an Antiques Roadshow: something which may have been knocking around at home for ages, unremarked, serviceable and reliable, but which has recently begun to seem extremely valuable.

Compared with the likes of John Birt, Michael Green is not a particularly famous man. When I turned up at Broadcasting House, the receptionist hadn't heard of him and spent some time hunting through the Greens on her list before finding his number. But then, it wasn't quite eight in the morning and I suspect that neither of us was on top form. Michael Green, however, was. Every morning, he drives from his home in St Albans to be at his desk just about in time for Thought for the Day. From this comfortable office he preserves, protects and gently propels forward the awkward, unwieldy, solid, familiar and beloved old flagship that is Radio 4.

It is a weighty responsibility. When the monarchy and the established church seem to be losing credibility, people cling to Radio 4 as the last refuge of national identity: it is a security blanket, a companion, a teacher, a friend. If anything about it changes, consternation ensues. When Woman's Hour moved from afternoon to morning, cries of indignation rang out across the land: routines of ironing, of school runs, of production lines were uncomfortably - some would say irreparably - disturbed. Dark hints were dropped of a feminist coup; closet male listeners came out in sympathy; Jenni Murray was reviled. Yet people kept listening, and enjoying what they heard. A recent survey found that the main objection now is not to the programme's timing, its presenter or its sexual politics. No, people complain that it's too cosy.

People are always complaining about Radio 4. In the last couple of years, listeners have twice mounted huge campaigns, and they have won. The first was to keep the long wave frequency. Their victory led to the creation of the rolling news and sport network, Radio Five Live, now just a year old and securing nearly five million listeners a week - many of them young sports fans who had not previously listened to BBC radio. But it means that the Greens' holidays remain tricky, if they want to escape from the job. Last year in Brittany, Michael just thought he'd try the 198 LW frequency and lo, The Archers spoke to him. Luckily his wife Christine was very strict and banned all further busman's listening.

The second campaign was nasty. Gerry Anderson, a compassionate and perceptive radio journalist, was asked to present an hour-long magazine programme every afternoon, at a time when listeners were thought to be too busy to listen to anything long. It wasn't an especially revolutionary idea - the mixture of chat, feature and phone-in was, in fact, not unlike the Woman's Hour formula - but it started badly and annoyed people. Rapidly, Anderson Country became the critical bandwagon of the year, attracting accusations that Radio 4 was going down-market, and an amount of personal opprobrium that Green describes as grotesque.

The pattern of the programme was changed, but only slightly, and eventually the beleaguered presenter left and Afternoon Shift was born. Another recent survey shows that, at the end of Anderson's time, 80 per cent of listeners declared that they were completely satisfied with it - and, Green adds with ironic emphasis, they were all readers of the quality broadsheet papers. So much for going down-market.

How does Green weather all these storms? "Well," he shrugs, "as you can see, my shoulders are broad." They are: he is a burly fellow, genial, articulate and thoughtful. He loves the idea that some programmes stimulate people to anger - he gets angry himself -but when complaints build into outrage, he pays attention. Yet he says that he feels he has developed an instinct over the years that helps to give him a "feel for the tides . . . if the boat hits stormy waters, then a sense of purpose and a belief in what I do tends to keep me afloat. Besides, I am, in John Drummond's immortal phrase, tainted by experience."

That experience is long and hard-won. The son of a professional singer and musician, he won a scholarship to an Oxford choir school as a boy, which might explain the absence of any trace of Barnsley in his voice. He remembers the nervous tension of singing Thomas Tallis and Palestrina at the age of nine, in live broadcasts: after transmission, the choirmaster would shout, "Green, you were half a semi-tone flat!" but he is glad, now, of the discipline and musical knowledge it gave him.

His BBC career began with the launch of Radio Sheffield in the Sixties, where he did everything, from writing and presenting news bulletins to washing dishes. Then he moved to Man-chester and made his name producing such programmes as A Word in Edgeways. He remembers the astonishing delight of those days: "They actually paid you to invite interesting people in to talk to Brian [Redhead] about life and the world. Once, I spotted a text outside a church about lying, which I thought would make a good programme. We got Metropolitan Anthony in to talk about that one and it was wonderful." He knew they could never cover the whole subject, "but they got from A to C interestingly, in what Brian called an unrehearsed intellectual adventure, and that's what matters."

That remark is typical of Green. His enthusiasm for the power and scope of radio is boundless. He sees it as a magical medium. Television is necessarily constrained by the demands of pictures, but radio follows a whim: ideas are its currency, discourse, its very essence. He has a theory that in this country we enjoy the legacy of the close rapport between the people and the Home Service that developed during the war. It is an accessible medium, democratic and immediate, and he for one is not at all surprised that video failed to kill the radio star. Stars walk through the door every day, he says, and are eager to appear, even for a pittance, on his station.

Green is concerned to keep his audience, which currently averages eight and a half million a week. Listeners are a promiscuous bunch these days and there are other stations to tempt them. But nowhere else will they find the solid core of excellence that is Radio 4, the sacred legacy which Green inherited and intends to bequeath eventually, intact and enhanced, to his successor. Yet he is also concerned to attract younger listeners, and those who perceive the station to be forbidding - not by patronising them, which he would abhor, but by tempting them over the wall sometimes with a different tone of voice, a different style. And he accepts that people, like his mother, will turn off the experimental comedy that appears on Thursday evenings. But he asks for forbearance - and he's pretty sure they'll all switch on again for The Archers.

And the man whose proudest innovation is the excellent File on Four is not going to let intellectual standards slip. Soon we will have, he assured me, a stimulating new books programme on Sunday mornings and a mighty new history of the 20th century, presented by John Tusa. The captain is happy with the buoyancy of his ship. We should be happy with the captain. !