After decades of cosy stagnation, Great British radio is lurching towar ds a multi-station future of cut-throat commercialism with audiences and talent spread thin. Maggie Brown tunes in
The decision of the DJ Steve Wright to leave Radio 1 and the departure from Radio 4 of the presenter Gerry Anderson are related in one very real sense: they show how enormous the repercussions can be in the extraordinary cottage-industry world of Britishradio when key presenters walk out, or walk away.

Front-page prominence given to these BBC stories in the past few days reflects the interest in radio generated by the enormous changes imposed on the industry in recent years.

We are not exactly living through a radio renaissance, or a return to some pre-television Golden Age, when families sat round a Bakelite wireless with mugs of cocoa in their hands, but the Nineties have jump-started radio in a way that makes up for some of the stagnation of the past two decades.

Between 1973 and 1992 commercial radio was held back by regulation that confined it to local broadcasting. There were also severe recessions in that period which held back any growth in advertising. All this has changed since the second half of the Eighties with deregulation, and now, most crucially, with the impending launch of a third national commercial radio station, TalkRadio UK. Commercial radio's share of total advertising revenue is now 4 per cent and is expected to reach 6 per cent by 2000. Commercial radio stations can now earn a good living.

BBC Radio clearly has to respond to the challengers springing up around it, yet, as it discovered with the the introduction of Gerry Anderson's lightweight magazine show, Anderson Country, change is in many ways inimical to radio listeners, at least to the Radio 4 faithful. They expect thoughtful programmes thoughtfully produced, with a beginning and an end; with Anderson they had the distinct feeling that he was not "one of us".

Radio 4 listeners may be a special case, but change does not come quickly anywhere in radio. Unlike America or even South Africa, where political talk shows are influencing elections, no really fresh formats or programme ideas have sprung up to complement the phone-ins and music and chat formats that have comprised the vast bulk of output since the late Sixties - although commercial radio's ability to deliver terse news bulletins in breathless bites with drum rolls in between requires great energy and self-discipline.

There is a conservatism at the heart of the medium. Radio is very different from television. People listen to it most often when they are on their own - having a bath, shaving, going to work in their cars, drifting off to sleep; there is always an intimacy television cannot offer.

Listeners' attachment to presenters that they like is powerful. This bond, which should be one of the great strengths of radio, is something the BBC ought to understand well. But as the controversy at Radios 1 and 4 suggests, the bond is one the Corporation sometimes chooses to ignore.

Most organisations would kill for the kind of loyalty BBC listeners display. To have provoked the middle classes into threatening to march on Broadcasting House to protect a much-loved service from its own top managers sounds like an implausible achievement, but that is exactly what happened when the BBC threatened to remove Radio 4 from long wave.

Even the massive fall in Radio 1's ratings is partly self-inflicted: if popular and long-serving DJs had not been alienated or removed, BBC Radio would still command more than 50 per cent of the audience, instead of its current 48.6 per cent.

Even Simon Bates, the self-assertive but highly experienced DJ ousted in the Radio 1 shakeout, conceded that "to keep a radio station fresh it is necessary to change personnel and formats".

But, as he wrote with telling accuracy in his recent autobiography, My Tune, changes needed to be done "with more tact and sympathy, or attempted in [a] way to garner the support of the staff and audience".

Steve Wright's departure from Radio 1 is, in this context, a massive body blow. A talented presenter of immense experience, Wright epitomised the the sharp, irreverent, refreshed Radio 1 that the BBC's policy-makers wished to see putting first foot forward as it finalises agreements over its next charter and licence, due in 1996.

Wright was singled out by the Director-General, John Birt, as "the real voice of Radio 1". He was moved to the crucial (for ratings) breakfast show a year ago and was making Radio 1's risky strategy of a reduced music output work well.

The fact that he no longer wishes to be part of the network is an indictment of its managers: at the very least, can't they look after their top talent better?

The move also illustrates the shifting sands of the radio business, where stars are now, suddenly, in demand. Who would have expected that TalkRadio UK would so clearly bid to pick up youngish listeners from Radio 1, and woo them with the chance to chat with the star on their mobile phones?

In much the same way, Radio 4 received the shock of its life when the entire Gardeners' Question Time team upped sticks and transplanted themselves to the brave new world of Classic FM in 1993. Here was a station with a schedule full of classical music that was targeting not Radio 3 but Radios 2 and 4.

One of the key problems for all radio stations is that while total output sky-rockets, the number of listeners is virtually static and a significant minority of young people - 30 per cent - are not listening at all.

In London, where the market is at its most cut-throat and developed, people have 23 stations to choose from, but listening, at an average 21.5 hours per week, is little different from the rest of country's 20.8 hours where 10 stations is more the average.

While radio stations proliferate, the medium is not succeeding in extending its reach: 87 per cent of the population may listen every week, but this means that 13 per cent do not, and in this group are the younger people who supposedly form the future.

In this context, Radio 1's effort to attract 16- to 24-year-olds is sound strategically, even if it hasn't happened in practice. But it suggests that radio may not be as central to young people's lives as, say, Radio 4 may be to a Surrey accountant and his wife. The new waves of listeners attracted by bedroom trannies in the Sixties and the fast spread of car radios in the Eighties may be lost to small- screen bedroom TV sets and video and computer games in the Nineties.

To be fair to the BBC, the tough new times mean that no one is guaranteed success. Radio Luxembourg died in 1991; Jazz FM has become JFM and had to rewrite its schedules. London News is having to rethink its policies, while the Radio Authority said this week that it has a frequency now for another London station. Pay radio, delivered by satellite, is also about to be marketed, and digital radio will be launched in 1997.

But, while broadcasting is proliferating, the talent and the listeners are not.