Comment: I know just the woman to save a great English tradition

IT WAS depressing news that Radio 4 has gained, or regained, 260,000 listeners, thereby winning back most of the audience who fell away in the previous quarter. We do not know, of course, who these 260,000 are. If we did, our response could be more exact. Are they the old Radio 4 listeners, who gave up what they probably called the wireless in favour of more reading, or silence? Or are they bright thirtysomething professionals, whose idea of an entertaining evening would be to watch Sex and the City on television?

Libby Purves, herself a Radio 4 presenter of distinction, has publicly opined, "The figures are quite encouraging, but I don't have enormous faith in statistics." Miss Purves, or The Colonel as she used to be known by those of us who admired her, seems to believe, as so many do, that the more Radio 4 listeners there are, the better. Presumably this is also the belief of James Boyle, the much vilified Scottish Controller of Radio 4, who had promised that if audiences continued to plummet (following his controversial reforms) he would resign.

It was hard not to feel slightly sorry for Boyle when he was under fire. Of course, he seemed like a perfectly ghastly person, but he was in a situation where he could not do right. On the one hand, there were the supposedly "traditionalist" Radio 4 listeners who feel as aggrieved, when the broadcasting schedules are altered, as members of the Latin Mass Society forced to attend the modern liturgy. On the other hand, a figure like Boyle, who has made his way up the management hierarchy of the BBC, can only think in marketing terms. To ask him to do otherwise would be completely unreasonable. He thinks more means better, even though, logically - there's no advertising revenue from Radio 4 - one would not have thought it mattered what this licence-funded public service of superb and varied quality achieved in terms of audience figures.

I met Boyle only once, at the party for the 50th birthday of that Radio 4 hardy perennial Any Questions? and he seemed like the sort of middle- aged exec you overhear on trains talking into his mobile phone. I made the mistake of saying how much I'd enjoyed a mildly absurd television programme about Radio 4 listeners, which had selected a deliberately "wacky" or eccentric crossbreed of English "characters" to express their fondness for The Archers, quizzes, etc. Boyle felt that the programme had been quite the wrong sort of publicity. It was, he suggested, disastrous if you gave the impression that Radio 4 was the preserve of old ladies in woolly hats who wanted to be on quiz shows, and nerds who had taped every single episode of I'm Sorry, I Haven't a Clue.

Of course, once you have met someone, you realise that they are much nicer than their public persona. I should have liked to discuss the silly telly programme and the Radio 4 audience at greater length. His detractors have accused Boyle of "dumbing down". He, with his Young Executive, market-led approach, points to the listening figures. And as soon as someone attempts a portrait of the listeners themselves, he twitches.

Of course, the television programme was a caricature. But what I thought it was trying to say was that Radio 4 is a companion to a very wide range of people. But not an infinite range of people. At present one is told that about 7 million people listen. These will presumably include huge numbers tuning in to the Today programme for their morning fix of news, and a more various and select band of addicts of particular programmes. Not all Gardeners' Question Time fanatics will feel aggrieved if they miss Dr David Starkey giving some poor "witness" a mauling on The Moral Maze. Some of us can bear it if we miss Midweek, but would kick ourselves for missing Any Questions?, and so on. But all these programmes do appeal to people within a certain limited statistical sphere. I suppose, without using the term in a Blairite, aspirational sense, you could say that they were all middle-class.

There is also, and always has been, an endearingly leftish slant to the BBC. Of course its news reporting is impartial, whatever the politicians may tell us. But it is leftish in the sense that Anglican vicars tend to be leftish. The chairmen of its discussion programmes (Michael Buerk, Jeremy Paxman, Melvyn Bragg, Jenni Murray, Libby Purves) would surprise us if they came out with right-wing opinions. They seem to belong to that decent English liberal-leftist tradition, which may occasionally be priggish but which assumes a certain level of social responsibility alongside a certain level of literacy. If you do not understand that Radio 4's constituency is middle-class, and on the whole English and liberal, you start getting it wrong when you approach questions such as listening figures and programme reforms. The deplorably low level of the afternoon plays is one danger signal. The number of cheap-to-make phone-ins is another; the disastrous attempt to include "alternative" comedy into the network is a sign of a programme-controller who does not know his audiences.

The quality of programmes on Radio 4 is still astonishingly high. More Classic Serials than not, on Sunday afternoons, are of a standard which knocks spots off television. The Moral Maze is simply the most intelligent discussion programme in any medium. The news, though it comes too frequently, is well-presented and, especially in The World At One, padded with just the right levels of interviews and editorial matter.

Some of the innovations have been excellent - I would single out for special praise Saturday Morning's Home Truths, a programme which deals with a whole range of family issues, from sex to ageing parents to how fathers get on with sons - all amiably and humorously presented by the Radio 1 disc jockey John Peel.

Many of us who fear for the future of Radio 4 tend to say that this or that reform is a step too far. But it is a much more delicate matter. The Controller of Radio 4 really ought to be English, and I suspect that in today's climate, in order to have a finger on the pulse of the crucial 7 million, she ought to be a woman. If Scotch Boyle succeeds in attracting any more viewers of Sex and the City to tune into Gardeners' Question Time, he should be made to resign. Colonel Libby Purves should be appointed in his stead.

The girl-guidish good humour with which she heaves her way through Midweek would guarantee, while having no sense of humour in the strict sense herself, that she would save all the harmless funny programmes like Just a Minute and keep the alternative comedians at bay. Her innate sense of decency would permeate the news and current affairs, so that the liberal tradition would remain. Her toughness would fight off the spin-doctors, the vulgarisers, and those who wanted her to swap Zoe Ball for John Humphrys and Sue MacGregor. Above all, she would frighten away any but the hardened 7 million. And that is the way to save Radio 4.

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