Power & Influence in the Arts / Radio: The hostess with the mostest: When Liz Forgan took on the job of running BBC Network Radio, she picked up a poisoned chalice. A year on, it seems the poison has still to take effect

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The Independent Culture
Liz Forgan has a list of subjects she would rather not talk about just at the moment, headed, understandably enough, by 'lovely Brummie accents' and Gardeners' Question Time. But this would be like interviewing Radovan Karadzic about his poetry and ignoring ethnic cleansing - a comparison that seems to be justified by the outraged tone of the press coverage Forgan has had over the last 10 days.

On the first point, then, the official version is that the BBC's Managing Director, Network Radio never said she wanted to put Birmingham accents of any kind on Radio 3 - this was a journalistic conflation of three unrelated remarks, one of which wasn't even made by her. We know the official version is true because a BBC publicity officer taped that entire conversation - and incidentally is taping this entire conversation, too.

On the second point, the wholesale defection of the Gardeners' Question Time team to Classic FM, she has dug out a press-cutting (from the Mail on Sunday in 1982), which reads, roughly: Professor Alan Gemmell quits Gardeners' Question Time, death on pale horse seen over Broadcasting House, coming of Last Days feared. The circumstances are different - that was one man; now the defection is on a Cuban scale - but you can see her point: when she took on the job of running BBC Radio, almost exactly a year ago, she was picking up a poisoned chalice.

She freely admits that, 'It's a pain in the neck sometimes, because I can't cross the street or change a signature tune without people writing and ringing and jumping up and down.' But she also says - with perhaps a shade less conviction - 'Honestly, for any broadcaster, there could be no more rewarding compliment . . . because it's simply a product of the intensity with which people care about what you're broadcasting.'

BBC Radio listeners are, it's true, incorrigibly conservative; and while they may say 'Please' - as the campaigners to keep Radio 4 on long wave did when they demonstrated outside Broadcasting House - they don't often say 'Thank You'. But it's perhaps a little disingenuous of Liz Forgan to talk as though everybody's making a fuss about nothing, and she's just an innocent bystander. Her year at Langham Place has seen not only prolonged public controversy about the future of Gardeners' Question Time and the Radio 4 long wave campaign, but the arrival of Matthew Bannister as Controller of Radio 1 (and departure of DLT, Batesy, Whisperin' Bob Harris and around a million and a half listeners), and the announcement of the closure of Radio 5 and creation of the new news 'n' sport network, dishearteningly named Radio 5 Live.

By any standards, it has been an unusually active time at BBC Radio. But Forgan maintains that this is not radical change, just reaction to circumstance - new commercial competition, the approach of charter renewal, an income from the licence fee that will no longer be rising: 'Although it feels at the moment as if we're all tearing through the radio networks changing everything in sight, that is actually not at all the case. I am extremely cautious in my appetite for change.'

That sense of caution may be hard to detect in what's happening at the BBC, and also in Forgan's own career, which has been characterised by big jumps. From newspapers - editor of the Guardian woman's page in the late Seventies - she leaped into television when Jeremy Isaacs appointed her Channel 4's first commissioning editor for news and current affairs in 1981. She was promoted to the channel's director of programmes before taking another leap, to her present job.

She herself talks in terms of the continuity of her career, having always been in journalism of one sort or another - 'I've never been a lion tamer or something bizarre' - but the move to radio was surprising, not least because she had been hotly tipped to become Deputy Director- General, a post usually seen as a refuelling point on the way to the top job.

Her inexperience in radio was highlighted when she arrived by the circulation of her letter to staff, in which she said that she'd recently been listening to lots of radio and was astounded by the richness and variety of it all. This was mocked within the BBC, and outside, for implying that she had never listened to radio before (not the case, she says), and for its over- enthusiastic tone. Still, her enthusiasm is one of her assets - one thing that all the newspaper cuttings remark on is how energetic and cheerful she is; on the other hand, as evidenced by the tape-recorder and a heap of prepared cuttings and statistics, she is also determined not to be caught napping by punk journalists.

In any case, after that initial hiccup her image among BBC staff has improved enormously - the very fact that somebody so closely identified with John Birt had been given the job was, some felt, a vote of confidence in radio, and she is seen, in one producer's words, as 'batting for Britain'. It's been said, too, that she has acted shrewdly in promoting a younger generation of BBC insiders - such as Caroline Raphael, the new head of drama - when some had feared that she would be importing chums from television.

She herself suggests that this is her main role, making sure that the right people are in the right jobs. But in her view, the various network controllers are 'the key creative people', and once they are in place, she leaves them to their own devices - 'I don't put my hands in the pie.' You start to get the impression that 'Power and Influence' is not the subject we should be talking about; on the other hand, when I asked her how far Matthew Bannister was her choice for controller of Radio 1, she burst out 'Completely]', as if surprised that you might think anybody else had anything to do with it.

In the end, though, what is reassuring about Liz Forgan is her record of encouraging public accountability in broadcasting. Last year, she won applause for saying publicly that the plan to move Radio 4 off long wave had been a mistake. And at Channel 4 she set up the Video Box and Right to Reply. But she was also bruised, in the channel's early days, by market research that showed 'We had created around the channel an image that said, you know, 'There's a party going on in here, but for most of you, you're not invited' ' - something she hated. At the moment, some of the BBC's listeners are feeling perplexed - this isn't the party they thought they were going to. But if a hostess's good intentions mean anything, they ought soon to be having a fine time.

(Photograph omitted)