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`Dumbing down' looks to be the least of BBC Radio's worries - its increasingly urgent problems are technical. By Robert Hanks
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The Independent Culture
LAST YEAR, during the back-slapping that marked the 40th anniversary of Today, it was cited as evidence of the programme's importance that it had been used as a marker of extremity by our Polaris submarines: in the event of an ominous loss of communication from the UK, they would try to pick up Radio 4 at 8am GMT. If the Today programme wasn't there, it would be deemed that Britain had suffered a devastating nuclear attack, and the subs should should respond by launching their own warheads.

I believe this practice has lapsed. I certainly hope so, because while Today has not yet failed to appear, just about everything else that can go wrong, has gone wrong.

In the last few weeks, listeners have been treated to Thought for the Day delivered against a constantly trilling telephone; Thought for the Day delivered down an ordinary telephone, with sound quality roughly equivalent to battlefield dispatches from Kinshasa; just-interviewed politicians mumbling "Was that all right?" in front of microphones that were supposed to have been switched off; taped features erupting into Pinky and Perky gabble; and God knows how many interviews having to be abandoned midstream because of inadequate communications.

Last Friday, we were promised Tony Benn talking about American missile attacks - instead, we got the Mongolian throat-singers from the Edinburgh Festival, who had been on the day before. If the decision to start an all-out nuclear war still depended on the technical competence of the Today production team, our chances of lasting past Christmas are not much better than even.

It is not fair to pick on Today alone, though: the same sorts of problem are rife at BBC Radio right now. News has suffered the most. Among a number of incidents: on Tuesday 4 August, the Six O'Clock News on Radio 4 fell off the air quite spectacularly, leaving an embarrassed continuity announcer to play trailers and, eventually, CDs of soothing classical music (even the CDs weren't cued up properly - we were promised Tchaikovsky, but had to settle for Massenet). The whole mess took something like five minutes to sort out. When the link to the newsroom was finally restored, the listeners could plainly hear Laurie McMillan, the newsreader, plaintively saying, "Lucy, I've got two cues".

Two days after that incident, six o'clock chimes from Big Ben were followed first by silence, and then by an apologetic continuity announcer and another batch of trailers. At least listeners are getting to know Radio 4's new schedules thoroughly.

Some of this has been put down to "teething troubles" following changes in the way BBC news operates - specifically, it has been shifted out of Broadcasting House and moved to a new building in White City. But teething troubles can't account for some of the other technical gaffes that have been going on elsewhere. At the beginning of June, a session by Willy Nelson, on Andy Kershaw's Monday night show on Radio 1, simply vanished about 10 minutes before the end, to be replaced by dance music; and no apology or explanation was offered to listeners.

On a Sunday afternoon in mid-June, a feature on Andy Warhol, part of Radio 3's Centurions series, suddenly jumped back several minutes and repeated itself. An acquaintance at the BBC reports a conversation with an ashen-faced features producer, who had been listening at home to one of his own (pre-recorded) programmes when he heard the presenter addressing him directly: "I'm sorry, Bob, I didn't like the way I did that - I'll read it again." Meanwhile, recent editions of Radio 4's programme of listeners' comments, Feedback, have been dominated by complaints about wildly fluctuating sound levels.

There are several reasons for what is going on here - or, if you prefer, there is just one. To take the several first: "Producer Choice", the BBC's ludicrous internal market system, has made it prohibitively expensive for producers to employ sound engineers and studio managers - in any case, a freeze on recruitment means that there are no longer many of them about.

At the same time, digital technology has offered the potential for desk- top editing of programmes, which is liberating for some producers, but an addition to an already strenuous workload for others. Programmes are being edited in un-soundproofed booths, using headphones and meters - inherently unreliable - to check sound levels, and not listened to properly before they go on air. In any case, digital technology has its own snags, including a tendency for tapes to jump backwards if disturbed.

The one reason is this: the stupidity of management - a management that puts its own convenience ahead of making programmes. Hence, as one bitter producer told me, after the multi-million-pound refurbishment of Broadcasting House: "We're being moved out to White City, so the suits can be near the restaurants."

The current regime at the BBC is too stupid even to realise what it is doing: in wrecking the BBC's basic competence, it is destroying the Corporation's authority, the world-wide trust it has built up over three-quarters of a century.

Technical glitches are simply the most audible sign of this process. More insidiously, the BBC is losing its memory. Libraries are being dispersed - a rumour inside the BBC, which I would love to hear disproved, is that 50,000 books were sold off to a dealer for a mere pounds 4,000. Over at White City, books are considered a luxury, and news staff have been told to do their research over the Internet - as any computer user knows, the most inefficient, time-consuming and unreliable source of information imaginable.

A producer doing research on a business corporation went to check facts with the BBC's cuttings library (now removed from Broadcasting House to Bush House, the other end of central London from White City). He found the relevant files sitting in a skip outside.

The BBC Gramophone Library, one of the world's great sound archives, has been priced out of the market - producers now find it is cheaper to nip down to HMV to get a record. So has the Pronunciation Unit: now, faced with a difficult foreign name, presenters just take their best guess.

BBC management is constantly offering reassurance that it is not dumbing down. But if it can no longer check its facts properly, what is the difference? So be warned: you can no longer trust everything you hear on the BBC. That's assuming you can hear it at all.

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