Media: This man is not fit to be hanged

James Boyle has overcome the fear R4 audiences traditionally feel towards the station's reformers. By Paul McCann
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The word "gallus" is best explained to the English as a Scottish version of the Yiddish word "chutzpah". It derives from "gallows" and once meant "a man fit to be hanged"; now it usually means "impertinent", "cheeky".

You do not often think of 52-year-old James Boyle, the serious, headmasterly controller of Radio 4, as cheeky, but there is that side to him.

Sitting in his office after hearing last week that his controversial changes had brought 100,000 new listeners to his station, Boyle knew he was not a man about to be strung up outside Broadcasting House.

But he reaches for "gallus" to try to explain some of the reactions he has received since he started to make his changes. The press has used words such as "arrogant", "single-minded" and "driven" in their profiles and descriptions of him. None of which he exactly denies.

"I think sometimes you do have to be abrasive and to be very direct. There comes a point where I've just got to say that I think this is what we ought to be doing, so get on with it. That's the point at which I tend to provoke charges of directness."

Now that his directness has forced through the launch of 53 new programmes and a new schedule since April, the next stage is about getting them right. Boyle admits that programme-makers were rushed when making some of the new shows, and that many do not work. He declines to name the failures, but hints that Saturday morning's Broadcasting House news magazine will be radically altered. Some of the many new 9am shows which had small runs to test them out may never be back.

"We commissioned so many shows," he says, "because we are looking for new classics." Which is one way of describing the saccharine Mother and Son show currently being hosted by Matthew Parris.

In May, Boyle told listeners of Radio 4's Feedback that if his changes resulted in a wholesale loss of listeners for Radio 4 he would resign. In his "gallus" way, he now shows no relief at the fact that numbers are rising, the dips in Radio 4 listening he set out to flatten are disappearing, and his job is safe. "I always thought it was safe. The exhausting care we took constructing the schedule and the exhausting care in going out to tell people what was going to happen gave me the confidence to say 'well, I don't really see this going wrong'."

To English ears this kind of confidence can sound like arrogance. Boyle, like many Scotsmen, has never learned, or bothered with, a faked, middle- class English diffidence - the kind that sees self-deprecation as polite. Instead, he comes from that post-war, working-class generation of Scots who, thanks to an improved education system and their own intelligence, were able to lift themselves from their background. These Scots pepper the media and the political world and they don't feel that they have to apologise to anyone for their success.

Radio 4 used to be quite different: "The only time I ever saw the Cambridge- background, middle-class BBC in operation was when I got this job," says Boyle. "Somebody said I was the first person to get the job who had not been at Oxbridge. I thought yes, so what? It apparently matters to some people, but it never matters to me."

Boyle comes from a tenement on the south side of Glasgow but refuses to play the chippy Scot: "My dad was an electrician, I went to a comprehensive and I lived up a close. Do you want me to do the full 'We lived in the middle of a lake and had to lick it clean every morning' routine?"

He attended Strathclyde University and then the University of East Anglia, where he was a Dickens scholar. Dickens "Office of Circumlocution", from Little Dorrit, was good preparation for the BBC, he claims.

After university he lectured at Glasgow College on what he describes as "typical new Seventies courses" such as media and foundation subjects for science students. He was a lecturer for five years and wrote for the Times Higher Education Supplement. After writing a number of "vituperative" pieces about the way the BBC dealt with education, he got the newly created BBC post of further education officer for BBC Scotland.

This involved liaising between the BBC and the world of higher education and he believes that the communication skills learned when lecturing and being a liaison man have stood him in good stead: "I used that mercilessly when changing Radio 4. If you are going to carry out projects, you had better involve those who are taking part in them, and Radio 4 has been the biggest project I've ever had."

The reputation of Radio 4, the heritage of its programmes and the natural activism of the audience had made the schedule virtually untouchable. Past controllers were lambasted for daring to move Woman's Hour or bringing in Anderson Country.

When Boyle joined Radio 4 in 1996, fresh from revamping Radio Scotland, he was charged with reversing a slow decline in listeners and getting the half of the audience who only ever listened to the news and The Archers to listen more.

Boyle, like the college administrator he could have been, sat down and set out a plan of action. The first stage meant modernising Radio 4's commissioning process. Out went the common-room chats between the producer and the commissioner. In came books of audience research and background information that allowed producers to pitch programme ideas that would fit with the whole of the schedule.

Next came a process of listening to producers and audiences about what they liked and then fitting that to a plan that involved smoothing out the troughs in Radio 4 listening by applying modern scheduling techniques. This means putting on programmes at the day's natural listening junctions - after breakfast and lunch - that will hold people to the station through the following hours. It also means flagging up what is coming next, integrating programme types and keeping a flow of listeners throughout the day.

The third stage was the one that most observers acknowledge Boyle played to a T. He toured the country telling people what to expect. Disability groups, academics, the Voice of the Listener and BBC worthies were all shown Boyle's seemingly endless charts and research. By the time media reporters were searching about for "rent-a-quotes" to get all worked up about Boyle's proposed changes to the station, most - though not all - people had already been brought on side.

Some who met him seemed to think that he would act on their complaints, about ending children's drama or banishing Yesterday in Parliament, for example. In fact, that was never the intention of his wide consultation. "You have to keep leading the audience," he says. "I don't want to be led by audiences. I don't think they would thank me for that, so I was telling them what we planned to do.

"I really do listen to listeners and I really do talk to them and I mean it. And I can do that because I've never been afraid of listeners. Maybe that is something to do with what we were talking about earlier - the 'gallus' business.

"It's to do with that tradition in Scotland of going out and standing up for yourself and being used to advocacy. There is a great tradition of advocacy in Scotland. You see it coming out, not just in the law, but in the church and in science. People are not afraid to advocate ideas. If you are used to advocacy you are used to the business of engagement with folk, and I think that's something I brought to these changes."

As well as describing himself as gallus, Boyle now happily admits to being a BBC apparatchik - although he once bridled at being described as "McBirt" because of his management charts and his reforming zeal. Now he is more sanguine: "Maybe I do open myself up to a two-dimensional description, but I can't pretend to be other than I am. Those are perhaps only mildly derogatory terms."

But he insists that a love of change is the only thing he shares with Sir John Birt. Despite pulling off a major coup with the reform of Radio 4 he is not looking for anything new to reform: "My next ambition is to spend more time with my bartender. I'm not being coy; I've no further ambitions. It's honestly not posturing. I'm just not interested. I do things because I like them, and I'm bone idle."

If there is one thing that even his critics and supporters can agree on, the new Radio 4 is not the product of idleness.