Listen without mother: Children still want to tune into youth radio

The BBC's decision to drop 1,000 hours of youth radio sounded like a death knell for the format.

Long ago, in a place not so far away, there used to be an appointment to listen called Children's Hour. But, for many kids today, radio's 60 minutes are up and the clock has stopped. "The notion of switching on a brown box in the corner of the room simply is not on the radar anymore," says Paul Smith, head of editorial standards across the BBC radio networks.

It's a conundrum for a medium that cannot afford to have a generation growing up with little sense of its relevance. But when technology is evolving at such a pace – and the youngest of us have such an instinctive aptitude to use it – children have so many alternative and more visual sources of amusement: from children's TV channels that were not available to their parents, to new inventions such as their Nintendo DS, PlayStation or the internet.

Earlier this month, the corporation decided to drop the children's programming – more than 1,000 hours of it – from the digital radio station Radio 7 after research revealed that there were hardly any children listening.

The BBC Trust found that the total audience for the CBeebies slot on Radio 7 between 6am-8am on weekdays was 125,000, of whom only 12,000 were aged between four and 14. The show's average age was 48.

Although Smith points out that half of British children do listen to some BBC radio, he concedes that they do not hit the on button themselves. "The key is that they don't choose it. That listening is all because somebody else has got the radio on and little of it is on demand from children. Most of it is what they hear as a result of normal family activities," he says, noting the success of a children's writing competition on the Radio 2's The Chris Evans Breakfast Show. "The notion of a child going to a radio and switching it on to listen to something specific is turning into a rarity."

The axing of CBeebies from the radio waves felt like the end of an era. But we have reached a similar point before. Two years ago, the Daily Mail signalled the "last children's radio show" on the licence fee with the demise of go4it, a Radio 4 show that was intended to interest an audience of four-to-14-year-olds in literature and poetry. The audience, in line with that for the rest of the Radio 4 schedule, was in its 50s. The Radio 4 Controller Mark Damazer said: "Over a long period it has been horribly clear that we are making a perfectly good programme but for an adult audience."

Go4it, a 1990s title that conjures images of middle-aged men with baseball caps on back-to-front, was probably doomed to failure. The name was supposedly chosen by an eight-year-old from north London and the show's executive producer Olivia Seligman said on launch in 1991 that "children are natural listeners so we are confident that it will be successful as long as we can grab their attention".

It didn't. Shown at 7.15pm on Sundays after The Archers it sometimes failed to register any listeners at all in its target group by the time it was dropped well into the era of Web 2.0.

But the BBC was anxious not to call time on a tradition that began with Children's Hour in 1922 and continued with Listen With Mother, which ran for 32 years from 1950. The first voice of Listen With Mother was that of Daphne Oxenford who was also an original cast member of Coronation Street. Its familiar catchphrase was "Are you sitting comfortably? Then, I'll begin."

Today's children are no longer minded to sit cross-legged in front of the wireless. Radio 7 was supposed to be a modern solution, transferring the successful CBeebies brand to the airwaves. Gregory Watson, managing director of commercial digital radio network Fun Kids, says the idea was flawed, scheduling children's output in the early morning on a network that also broadcasts "dusty old plays" from the 1960s. "How many children under five are waking up at 6am and thinking the first thing I'm going to do is switch on my digital radio which my parents have left by my bed. Of course they're not!"

Smith admits the show went out "at a time when not every child or parent is up for it". He says radio does not hold centre stage in a modern child's bedroom. "It's not just about TV, although that's a big part of it. The evolving environment now allows a child to not only talk on MSN or Facebook to friends but they can have radio on in the background."

But that flexibility, Watson points out, is radio's advantage over television in the eyes of many parents of young children. "I think there's a group of parents, a substantial element, who don't want their children to be watching television all day. They want to encourage their children to do other things. They might be listening to the radio while drawing or painting or playing a game."

Fun Radio has achieved weekly audiences of 136,000 children. Watson claims that it works because it maintains a child-friendly output throughout a schedule that runs from 6am-7pm, combining story-telling of favourites such as Horrid Henry and Fireman Sam with themed programmes supported by sponsors. So Wellcome Trust backs the biology-based Professor Hallux Builds a Body and the Co-Op supports a series on health, food and the environment. An estate agent chain has sponsored a new series teaching children about basic architecture, with the hope that they will find their parents' property-hunting trips a tad less tedious.

But most of all Fun Radio offers music, mixing popsters such as Justin Bieber and Jedward with artists such as They Might Be Giants who have recently specialised in making school-age music with recent albums aimed at teaching maths and science. Fun Radio has a bank of 5,000 songs. "It means parents quite enjoy it – they don't want to switch off after 10 minutes," says Watson.

But the BBC is still not ready to give up. It will continue to make audio output under the CBeebies banner, 20 minutes each day. It will not be broadcast at 6am but made available online so that parents can download and play it to the children at any time.

And there will be another radio show, this time on the soon-to-launch digital station Radio 4 Extra (the rebrand of Radio 7). Aired at 4pm as children return from school, the hour-long show is intended to fit in with the rest of the station's schedule, offering a magazine mix of comedy, quizzes and stories that will appeal to parents and children alike. There will also be serials of modern classics from authors such as Jacqueline Wilson. But if children are to "go for it", it will need a good name and Smith is still working on that. "What I'm scared of is having a title which has the number four in it just for the hell of it," he says. "It might be something just simple and basic." He's sitting a little uncomfortably, children, but he's almost ready to begin.

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