On Air: Give us what we don't want

Radio 4 has responded to its audience. Is this a good thing?
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The Independent Culture
Of course, you remember the heady days of 1991, when the people arose as one and marched in their thousands on Broadcasting House, crying "Save Radio 4". Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, and to be middle- class was very heaven. You do remember that, don't you?

Well, possibly not, because it did not actually happen. What did happen that year, when there was talk of taking Radio 4 off long-wave altogether, was that a middling-sized crowd - Radio 4 thinks it was about 500 people - strolled up Langham Place politely chorusing: "What do we want? Radio 4 to stay on long-wave. What do we say? Please!" And, just as you were told when you were a child that you are far more likely to get what you want if you ask nicely, Radio 4 did stay on long wave.

It does not do to exaggerate the effect of popular protest on Radio 4. It has become more or less a ritual now, whenever change of any sort on the station is announced, for the press to talk of middle England in revolt. It does not really happen.

Since the "Save Radio 4 Long Wave" campaign, itself a much less dressy affair than the coverage might have led you to suspect, we have seen the Anderson Country putsch - when the brilliant Irish broadcaster Gerry Anderson, given a slot wildly unsuited to his talents, became the object of what amounted to a hate campaign in the press and on Radio 4's own Feedback.

And we have also had such minor spats as the Free Susan Carter campaign, when self-indulgent Archers fans decided to go public with their silliness. But there has been no really big protest; and when James Boyle, the station's new controller, announced at the end of last year that there would be a grand shake-up of the schedules, what was most remarkable was how meekly the public took the news.

But that is not to say that the middle-classes are not worried about Radio 4. People take radio very personally and can get very proprietorial about it; and with Radio 4, class solidarity plays a part - no other institution binds the middle-classes together quite so firmly.

To mess with it wantonly may not lead to quite the level of popular discontent that the press likes to suggest, but it can lead to some unpleasant publicity.

So James Boyle has treated the Radio 4 audience with kid gloves. Before April's schedule changes were finalised, he undertook a lengthy consultation process, with questionnaires, public meetings, focus groups and all the paraphernalia of modern democracy.

Last week, he announced that, in response to listeners' opinions, aspects of the new schedules were being changed: instead of a quiz every day at 1.30pm, there would now be a feature two days a week. And he would be "restoring" the two-minute news bulletin at 9am (a nicely Orwellian touch this - it always used to be a five-minute news bulletin at 9am).

So, the views of the listener are being respected; and really, we should start to get worried.

What we now have on Radio 4 is a schedule tailored to fit what we have told marketing surveys we really want: the programmes have got shorter, the serials have fewer episodes, the serious analysis of current affairs has been trimmed, and in some cases (like the once- excellent Consequences, unique for looking at the social effects of legislation) turned into weedy sociology.

No doubt we really did say this was what we wanted, but that is no excuse. Getting what you want is awful. As TS Eliot said in 1962, giving evidence to the Pilkington Committee on the Future of Broadcasting: "Those who aim to give the public what the public wants begin by underestimating the public taste; they end by debauching it."

Or put it this way: don't you hate it when the only presents you get for Christmas are the ones you asked for? It is surprises that make Christmas worthwhile; it is the things that you did not ask for that make life worth living.

So if it is really true that Radio 4 is now responding to the opinions of its audience, then that audience knows what it must do: march in our thousands on Broadcasting House, and demand as rudely as we like that James Boyle will start giving us programmes we do not want.

You know it makes sense.

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