Media: The first year of living dangerously

After all the outcry, listeners are finally returning to Radio 4. Sue Gaisford appraises its highs and lows
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The Independent Culture
JAMES BOYLE introduced his new schedule for Radio 4 a year ago, to considerable dismay. Yet, however you massage them, the Rajar listening- figures suggest he is at last winning. People are coming back.

They have to. Radio 4 is the only aural equivalent of a broadsheet. Certainly, other stations sidle occasionally into its purlieus but, mostly, the rest are either specialist publications or tabloids. And, as with a favourite paper, there is a trusting expectation among consumers that Radio 4 will get it right. So, is such confidence justified? For the listener, what has changed?

Mostly, it's the timing. Boyle believes that we all needed a better sense of what is on when. In general, he keeps to the hour and the half- hour throughout a day that was previously divided more whimsically. This is a reasonably good idea. At 6am now, we can expect Today; at 9am, a serious (and often seriously good) discussion programme; at 10am, Woman's Hour; at 12noon, You and Yours... and so on.

This has, at least, the comfort of predictability, but there are hidden problems. For example, Today's early start means that Farming Today has slipped back into the sleepy hours before dawn - and lost listeners. There is an attractive theory that the British, however urban their lives, see themselves as displaced country-dwellers who relished a moment of nostalgic agricultural concern before the heavy news. Too bad. And Today, now extended backwards and forwards into essays and phone-ins, has lost its edge, along with its rural and political bookends.

The Archers' move to 2pm caused outrage to those with limited lunch- hours, but they can, at least, catch the Sunday morning repeat. To achieve the shift, The World at One was truncated and a new quiz-slot introduced. While not a bad idea in theory, this became, unfortunately, the worst innovation of all. Who can forget the moment when, in front of a live audience of six, teams of zany accountants and dingbat bankers slogged out the details on Tricks of the Trade? There are other contenders for the worst quiz: Guess What? was dreadful, but probably worse was I'm Glad You Asked Me That. No we weren't. We switched off.

To be fair, Boyle is willing to learn. Most of those fearsome quizzes have recently been replaced with more stimulating fare. And then, at 2.15pm we have a 45-minute daily play. This has, mysteriously, provoked hysterical rage. Yet the regular demand has stimulated more innovative drama on Radio 4 in the last year than ever before.

Comedy has been patchy - but it's a case of what turns you on. You should book a doctor's appointment if you laugh at, say, King Stupid or Five Squeezy Pieces - but World of Pub, Dan and Nick and The Very World of Milton Jones were sublime.

Some old furniture has been replaced for the better - Front Row, particularly when Francine Stock is in charge, is much better than the old Kaleidoscope - and some for the worse: it was mad to replace the Woman's Hour serial with such an execrable daily drama as Under One Roof (featuring the first and, I hope, the last radio bikini-wax).

Good broadcasters have been given a welcome chance to do more: Peter White's excellent Blind Man on the Rampage was followed by his fascinating series about disabled American achievers, No Triumph, No Tragedy. And John Peel's phenomenally successful Home Truths recently won a coveted Broadcasting Press Guild award and is up for several Sonys. But you win some, you lose some. Jim Naughtie's interactive Bookclub and Diana Madill's A Hard Act to Follow are both very good; Matthew Parris and his mum's oedipal Mothers and Sons proved to be hilariously dreadful - there should be a Sony Syrup award for mawkishness.

Whatever the clangers, Boyle is still willing to take risks. He'll give prominence to pure, dazzling, inspiring science in Frontiers and he'll air Edi Stark's brilliant series from a Scottish jail, Managing Life. In this first year, we've also had marvellous new plays such as Lesley Bruce's Vox Bopp, arresting readings such as Ann Wroe's Pilate and innovative classic serials such as Enyd Williams's Hound of the Baskervilles, or John Dryden's remarkable Bleak House. And - particularly now that he's beginning to show signs of changing his ways when he's obviously been wrong - I don't think it would make much sense to expel him. He might yet become a memorable head boy.

James Boyle: Report Card

Name: James Boyle, Class R4

Maths: Hopeless.

Science: Improving - interesting new ideas.

History: Plodding, but good work, notably on HMS Windrush.

Religious Education: Shows a thoughtful, at times multicultural, approach.

Current Affairs: Very good. Shows wide grasp of political and international politics.

English Literature: Excellent. Fine interpretations of poetry and the classics, as well as interesting readings of contemporary authors.

Creative Writing: Signs of effort, though easily led.

Art: Much improved.

Drama: Tends to work in short, regular bursts, but has produced some outstanding plays.

Musical Appreciation: Must pull his socks up.

Physical Education: Worse than useless.

General Report:

James has made a fairly good start. He is orderly and punctual, though his attempts at humour are often out of place. His presidency of the Debating Society introduced excellent speakers. But he needs to get out more into the fresh air.