Media: There's a pitbull inside Auntie's lapdog

The UK's first listings magazine is more famous these days for making the news. Not bad for a 75-year-old. By Meg Carter
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
In recent months Radio Times has made a habit of making news. Headline-grabbing editorial includes Ben Elton's rubbishing of Cool Britannia, Fay Weldon's claim that rape is not the worst thing that can happen to a woman and Anna Ford's criticism of BBC bosses.

Such stories have sparked surprise at the apparent transformation of Auntie's listings lapdog into a rabid hound unafraid to snap at its mistress's ankles. But, the magazine insists, it's just doing what it always has done - embodying many of the BBC's core values.

Such as? Honesty, trustworthiness, authority and reliability, says Nick Brett, publishing group director of BBC Worldwide, and a former editor of the magazine. "Both are national institutions people still believe in," he explains.

"Although I think that often we understand and portray BBC values better than the BBC does itself. We are far more focused and speak with one voice."

That voice, however, has undoubtedly changed in recent years. True, Radio Times's purpose is the same as always: to tell viewers what's on and when in an entertaining way.

But, as the magazine prepares to celebrate its 75th birthday later this month - the same week that Sky launches digital TV in the UK - it is eager to show that it is anything but over the hill.

Not that that takes much proving. Radio Times, you see, is the most profitable magazine in Britain- and the BBC's richest single source of revenue after the licence fee.

With a weekly readership of 1.4 million people, it turned over pounds 90m last year. The figure is all the more staggering when you consider that this is five times the amount 10 years ago, when the magazine's sales were twice as high.

"Radio Times has always been the BBC's cash cow," Brett explains. This, however, was almost its downfall.

Radio Times was created by Lord Reith a year after the launch of BBC radio broadcasting. Newspapers were offered programme listings for the fledgeling service but claimed that they would publish only for a fee. "They saw radio as a threat and were eager to strangle it at birth," Brett explains. Reith responded by launching his own publication, the UK's first listings magazine, a year later.

"Hullo everyone!" declared the director of programmes, Arthur R Burrows, in true Cholmondley-Warneresque style, in the first edition in September 1923.

"We will now give you the Radio Times." Issue one featured a heady mix of listings, listeners' letters, gossip about "artistes" and "wireless humour".

Alongside advertisements for valves and crystal sets nestles a book promotion for Manhood - The Facts of Life Presented to Men (topics include "Father's Responsibility" and "The Moral Training of Youth"). Meanwhile in the Wireless Wisdom column is the following entry from the Rev BWB Matthews: "Have you ever known an effeminate man who had lots of men pals? I haven't."

Until the birth of ITV in the Fifties, Radio Times enjoyed a listings monopoly with sales topping 10 million copies a week. But even when the young ITV companies developed their own title, TV Times, Radio Times held the upper hand. Newspapers were allowed to carry only one day's listings, or two on a Saturday.

While TV Times had exclusive rights to publish commercial television's weekly schedules, Radio Times retained the exclusive rights to publish the BBC's schedules - so the poor old consumer had to buy both magazines.

The years of Thatcherism brought things to a head, however. By the late Eighties, the threat of listings deregulation and new competition was looming. In anticipation of this, the BBC recruited Brett from The Times to turn the title around. It meant a fundamental culture change.

The magazine that he inherited in 1988 had just 10 pages of colour, rambling listings and a preponderance of advertisements for such things as haemorrhoid treatments and stair-lifts.

Until then it had been managed by BBC mandarins with content agreed by committee and covers decided by whichever programme that week needed a particular push. Programme producers had copy clearance.

For the first time, the editor was given editorial control although, Brett admits, it took some people a little time to get used to. "It felt like Mao Tse Tung and the long march," he smiles. "One famous drama producer said: `I am going to rattle the bars of your cage, young man.' " And Brett's offence? To run his own choice of picture on that week's cover.

New aims were agreed: to do the best listings; to develop "an attitude", and to make the overall package as good as any consumer magazine. And, above all, to put the reader first, says the current editor, Sue Robinson.

High-profile columnists were quickly signed up - including Polly Toynbee, Barry Norman and Andrew Duncan. And the decision was made to move Radio Times away from being "all things to all people" in favour of an unashamed pursuit of upmarket, above-average-income readers.

The strategy paid off when, in 1991, the TV listings market was deregulated - all titles could carry all listings, and a variety of young contenders entered the field. As its competitors fought for the mid-market, Radio Times clung on to the higher ground. It lost readers, but was able to charge higher rates to advertisers wanting to reach its more affluent readership.

In spite of this, perception of the magazine lags behind reality, Robinson claims: "We've long stopped being the BBC's house organ." She's not joking. For the past year, Radio Times has employed its own full-time press officer to promote upcoming features to the national press, including, at times, those which are critical of BBC bosses. "Management has no direct impact on what we do now," adds Brett. "We've brought home the bacon - they have a profitable, award-winning magazine they can be proud of."

Independence, however, is relative. While Radio Times is now directed by editorial instinct honed by regular reader research, cover shots are reserved for BBC productions. "While we provide listings for many different channels, our readers are those most likely to watch BBC-style programmes," Robinson explains. "It's a natural bias." Even so, she admits that BBC channel controllers would be less than happy to run promotional trailers if issues sported cover shots promoting ITV. Attentions are now focused on developing the next generation of readers and meeting the challenges posed by the rapidly expanding broadcast arena. The year-old website includes a club for budding journalists aged under 15 - there are now 70,000 members. Meanwhile, Robinson and Brett are fine-tuning the title's digital strategy.

While the magazine will remain a selective guide catering for the specific tastes of upmarket viewers, the Radio Times website will be positioned as the definitive TV listings guide. "We don't want the magazine's coverage to race too far ahead of its readers," says Robinson. Next month sees the launch of Radio Times-branded Behind The Scenes of... books - the first is on Vanity Fair - and a Radio Times TV comedy guide. Meanwhile, work is under way to compile a database of Radio Times-originated movie information to be published as a film and video guide. Radio Times's masthead TV programme returns to the satellite channel UK Style in the new year. And discussions continue with broadcasters over a planned Radio Times-branded electronic programme guide.

"When I stop and think, I can't help being amazed at what we have achieved," says Brett. That a BBC magazine can advise viewers that the best thing to watch on a particular night is on ITV or Channel 4 is a precious achievement, he believes. "The day we're gagged and not allowed to say what we want to say, I'll go back to working for Rupert Murdoch."