RADIO / You say tomato and I say fanatic

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The Independent Culture
THERE are fanatics, and there are radio fanatics. The BBC provides a playground for them, called Feedback (R4). This week a woman hammered home a moot point about the pronunciation of 'schedule', and a man wailed about Radio 3's infatuation with Britten: 'So yet again darling Benjy is Composer of the Week.'

The wrath extended to Feedback itself, which was attacked as ineffective and hypocritical - a safety valve rather than an instrument for change. To reinforce the point, there was an item on the difficulty of getting through to Call Nick Ross and Any Answers?. A senior BBC engineer told us: 'It's exactly the same as phoning anyone else.' Sheena McDonald, standing in for Chris Dunkley, neatly shot him down: 'So you've got one line?' But instead of action, there was BBC flannel: 'The question of improving access to the programmes is under discussion.'

Little wonder that listeners are taking the law into their own hands. Last weekend Feedback ran a letter from a 29-year-old maths teacher at Winchester College, which was a call to arms to stop Radio 4 losing its tuner-friendly long-wave signal to the news network, Radio 6, planned for 1994. The Wykehamist and the BBC have since been receiving about 500 letters a day supporting the stand. Publicly, the corporation is toughing it out. Privately, it is relishing the publicity - as it focuses attention on the value of Radio 4.

The vehemence of the campaign - threats of sit-ins and calls for resignations - does not guarantee the justice of its cause. The smallest change to Radio 4 is always met with disproportionate outrage: witness the storm over the rescheduling of Woman's Hour - now blown over. To improve its service to the many, the BBC has to inconvenience a few. By the time Radio 6 comes on air, the BBC claims 98.3 per cent of the population will be able to get Radio 4 FM. People living on the Continent won't, but then they don't pay a licence fee; nor will those in prison, but you could argue that it's therefore a deterrent.

The campaigners will argue back that 98.3 per cent reception means that one in 60 people - almost a million - will miss out on Radio 4. But if you accept that a news network is a good idea (as I do, but they don't), the only solution would be to replace Radio 5 with a news and sport network (worth considering, but likely to cause a similar storm with the education lobby, as schools programmes would be axed), or, best of all, turn the 98.3 per cent into 100. The fanatics are likely to be disappointed, while the majority benefits.

Feedback also sportingly ran a plaudit for Classic FM. My own postbag has been swollen with tributes to the station. Alienated by the austerity of Radio 3 or the inanity of Radio 2, many seem to have found it a haven, where, in the words of a woman from Derby, there is 'no switching off boring pieces, as you know there will be something better soon'. The feature programmes are still unlikely to challenge for the Prix Italia, but make nice aural wallpaper. Celebrity Choice is a more relaxed Desert Island Discs: the musical extracts are longer and Paul Callan as interviewer is more Plomley than Lawley.

The pitch is blatantly, but endearingly, middle brow. The presenter of Book Browse advises us on 'books that are worth browsing through in your nearest bookshop . . . What better way of spending 15 minutes?' John Tolansky, genial host of Close Encounters of a Musical Kind, drowns his subjects (this week Claudio Abbado) in a gush of adjectives and a stream of 'really's.

The expected drama highlight of the week, the first national broadcast of the late C P Taylor's Walter (R3), was the dampest of squibs. Peter Kelly played a self- centred, successful Jewish entertainer who retires to Loch Lomond to die, surrounded by querulous relations. At times his ramblings looked like igniting into a debate on Jewish character: generosity ('What is Jewish is good - like my father said to me') versus self-hatred ('This bloody Jewish thing of making a tragedy out of everything'). But mostly you were left reflecting on the falling off from Taylor's classic study of the insidious allure of Nazism, Good, from the banality of evil to the banality of ego.