The BBC's problem is not that it changes too much, but too little

The BBC is made timid by the yatterings of those who know little about broadcasting
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
LATER TODAY, when the latest figures for radio listening are published, open season will be declared on the head of Radio 4, James Boyle. Columnists in deerstalker hats will aim elephant guns at him from the safety of the opinion pages; anonymous editorials will recommend his soul to hell; more substantial figures (who have appeared on many a radio programme in their time), will add their ponderous expertise to lengthy, meretricious features about the "crisis" at the BBC. Boyle will be indicted and found guilty - in much the same way that his boss, Matthew Bannister, was when in charge of Radio 1 - of changing things that didn't ought to be changed, and losing audiences as a result. He will be judged both a fool and a knave.

I remember from somewhere in my distant past being told by a gloomy marketing man that the big problem with marketing was that everybody was an expert in it. While he deferred to the engineer because of her particular knowledge, or to the accountant because of his ability with figures, no one returned the compliment and deferred to him. They all understood his job as well as he did - probably better. Marketing was about selling, and because the whole world bought stuff, the whole world knew how to sell stuff.

Except, of course, that the whole world doesn't. Any more than the queue forming up in the line to shoot James Boyle really has any but the vaguest idea of how to run a radio station. But because broadcasting enters the home and the car, catching us shoeless on the sofa or knickerless in the bathroom, we mentally democratise it. It belongs to us much as our furniture does, and we are entitled to think what we like about it. Even if what we think is a load of bollocks.

"I could do that," we say to ourselves. Whether this democratic argument completely excuses well paid commentators and distinguished MPs from talking bollocks about broadcasting, I'm not so sure. Nevertheless, that is what they do. Of the dozen or so articles I've read about the BBC this week, only two or three rise above a basic level of broadcasting literacy. Likewise, the accusation made on Tuesday by Tory MP, David Faber, that BBC bosses were "lazy and arrogant" about sport, and that this had led to the BBC's losing the right to broadcast Test cricket, has nearly no substance at all. Mr Faber spoke as he did because he was cross.

Let us return to Mr Boyle. When first he rose to power at Radio 4, and surveyed his new domain, he discovered much that was superb. There were wonderful analysis programmes, comedies, news sequences and dramas. Then, gradually, he will have started to notice some of the less beautiful things: clapped-out specialist programmes, snobby arts shows, poorly made and poorly presented features, lazy magazine shows. Worse, the schedule in which these things were set was far more a product of historical accident than it was of any conscious decision; shows aimed at particular audiences were being put out at times when that audience was simply unavailable to listen. Mr Boyle was also faced by a competition problem. In a rather intemperate article this week the usually reliable George Walden described Radio 4's audience as "captive". This is an anachronism, for there is no such thing as a captive market for broadcasting in 1998, any more than there is a captive market for Kellogg's cornflakes or Ben and Jerry's ice-cream.

Some of Radio 5's increased audience, for instance, will have been former Radio 4 listeners who liked the new station's informal style. There is choice throughout the spectrum, and pre-set buttons make station hopping a much easier business than turning the old dial did. Everyone is battling for audience, George, everyone.

So Mr Boyle wanted change. Part of his problem, however, is that Radio 4 is regarded by some of its listeners as being a grade one listed building, under the protection of the National Trust. These heritage listeners are loyal, influential and represent the most stubborn streak of old English conservatism. When they look around the house they have occupied for so long, they see only the "original features": the dadoes, the architraves, the tiled fireplace surrounds. Their senses no longer register the dead mouse, the leaky boiler, the threadbare carpet and the unpleasant smell coming from the downstairs loo. Mr Boyle's revolution, when it came, was a mild affair. It was not a dumbing-down, or a thinking-up. Favourite shows did not disappear, the best broadcasters were not killed off. The new arts programme, fronted by Mark Lawson and Francine Stock, is a quantum leap forward from the sterile elitism of Kaleidoscope. John Peel's Home Truths is a brilliant success in creating a magazine show about the family. George Walden may hate it, but he might reflect on a generation of men for whom family has been of too little, not too much importance.

And yet the contract is out and the assassins are examining Mr Boyle's daily routines closely. Even some of his defenders are flailing around them desperately, lashing out with arms and pens to ward off the critics. The broadcaster and columnist, Libby Purves, wrote this week that there was indeed a problem with radio. It was, she said, all because radio was subordinate to telly; telly got all the money and plaudits and it wasn't fair. It was perhaps time, she argued, for radio to go its own way (presumably financed directly by the treasury, rather than TV licence fees).

If she is right, she's right for the wrong reasons. There is no bias against radio in the BBC; that's just one of those little paranoid fantasies that those working for the corporation enjoy. Most TV execs are Radio 4 listeners themselves, a radio man (Matthew Bannister) is one of the BBC's big four, and I can assure Libby Purves that radio is not alone in feeling the pain of squeezed budgets. Let me declare an interest here - I do quite a lot of work for both.

But the one aspect of the Boyle reforms that did bother me was their seeming reliance on scheduling and audience research, rather than on Mr Boyle's own instinct for what makes good radio. Paradoxically, as commercial radio and TV with their large budgets, buy up much of the existing talent and invest heavily in already successful formats, it must fall to the BBC to take greater risks with programming and presenters.

The BBC will have to be the home of the new and the risky. Yet the corporation is often timid, and made more timid by the scribblings and yatterings of newspaper folk, pressure groups and MPs who know little or nothing about broadcasting. The precarious nature of the licence fee adds to this anxiety, and it was for that reason that Ian Hargreaves, both a former head of BBC News and a former editor of this newspaper, mused that it might be better for the BBC were it to be privatised, and let off the hook.

I think Ian now allows (having tasted the dubious delights of the untrammelled market) that putting the BBC in the hands of purely private interests might be a mixed blessing. But the rest of must learn to accept that the necessarily anomalous position of the BBC - its vulnerability to competition combined with its difficulty in responding to that competition - requires from us a more sophisticated response than that of putting a gun to a channel controller's head every time his figures drop.

Comments