You listen to Radio 4, but will Radio 4 listen to you?
Monday 09 February 1998
A radio roadshow conjures up images of seaside resorts and Steve Wright trying to get a teenager to do her Madonna impression in front of a screaming bank holiday crowd. It does not usually mean a Moat House Hotel on the Oxford ring road on an overcast February day.
But last week The Independent visited a roadshow with a difference. The Radio 4 roadshow. For unknown to the metropolitan media, James Boyle, controller of Radio 4, and a small army of the station's staff have been touring the country for the past six months. They are trying to by-pass a largely sceptical press and get the message across to listeners about the changes to Radio 4's schedule that are coming in April.
To this end Boyle has been carting around his audience charts and his overhead projector from Aberdeen to Bristol and from Birmingham to Bradford.
Like a revivalist preacher for middle Britain, he has lost count of the local Rotary Clubs, disabled groups, theatres, environmentalists, and Citizen's Advice Bureaux he has performed in front of. And like a preacher he has his belief.
"I have faith in the new schedule," he tells the 50 concerned worthies at the Oxford Moat House. "I believe that it will remain a valued and intimate part of your lives."
But he explains to them that apart from news and The Archers, half of Radio 4's audience is not listening to the Kaleidoscopes, the children's serials and the Moral Mazes. In short, the programmes everyone at the Oxford Moat House loves. He tells them that in a Britain with 188 cheap- to-produce music stations, Radio 4, and the money it receives, looks like a "disproportionate oddity". He says he wants to protect that oddity and its inheritance by getting those who listen rarely to listen a bit more. He is not chasing younger listeners and he is not making the station dumber - Boyle nowadays refuses to use the phrase "dumbing down".
According to his handlers, the controller of Radio 4 is nervous before these meetings but it does not show. He comes across as articulate and concerned. But how far the audience - which was invited specifically because it is sceptical - is convinced is to be established in "listening" sessions after his speech.
The audience is split into smaller seminar groups according to their interests: disability and consumer affairs; education, science and health; religion and moral issues and the arts. Each group gets a producer and Radio 4 executive and someone from that oh-so-Nineties profession, a facilitator.
The controller and The Independent tour the groups, listening to snatches of concerns. At first things do not go quite as planned. In Birmingham the ending of dedicated disability programmes like Does He Take Sugar had been the big contentious issue - "They just think I'm lying," says Boyle. "They think I want to strangle disability shows" - but in Oxford the disability seminar is being dominated by two people who happily admit that they don't listen to Radio 4. What they are doing here is not immediately clear and the station chief and The Independent head off for more interesting territory.
Boyle's body language in the seminars is interesting. He creeps into the rooms so as not to disturb the flow of conversation. In each room there are bowls of boiled sweets and in more than one he picks up the bowl and rather endearingly offers them to the person nearest to him. In one seminar there are no free chairs and the controller of Radio 4 hunkers down on the floor, cross-legged and at lap height to the rest of the room.
In his old job as the head of Radio Scotland, charged with overhauling that station, he was demonised by the Scottish press as a Birtist technocrat. He was repeatedly portrayed as ensconced in BBC Scotland's headquarters fiddling with the station while listening to no one.
This image is difficult to reconcile with the sight of him sitting crossed- legged at the feet of his listeners. And it does not seem to be a put- on for the press. Boyle has already refused to allow The Independent's photographer to take pictures in the seminars or of the invited audience because he doesn't want them to think they are being used for a publicity stunt.
The input he gets from these groups varies in quality. Many of them are being dominated by one or two highly opinionated men - and they are always men. Many of their concerns can be characterised as kind of aural Nimbys: not in my listening back yard. People who complain that arts coverage will be moved to the evenings while they are out at arts events - but who ignore that by putting the replacement for Kaleidoscope on after The Archers Boyle will at least double its audience. Others claim they won't be able to listen to their favourite programmes if they move because they do such-and-such at that time.
But in one session a listener articulates listeners' concerns perfectly: "We don't care about how many listeners a show gets," he says direct to squatting big chief. "That is your problem. Our concern is just about the quality of the programmes."
This is repeated, in different forms, in a big question-and-answer session after the seminars. Having practised on his underlings the whole group gets together to grill the controller. Many tell him they don't care for his audience charts and his research and their concerns crystallise around programmes for children.
The new Radio 4 schedule will have no regular children's drama on Sunday nights. The Moat House audience sees this as an abandonment of their children to the evils of TV and computer games. But Boyle repeats and repeats that children are not listening to this slot - indeed some adult programmes such as You and Yours get better children's ratings - but the assembled audience does not seem to think this matters. Boyle tells them he has to react to the real world, not the world that listeners think they want.
Which at the end of the day is the crux of the matter. Radio 4 considers these sessions as listening exercises. Its spokesmen maintain that they do not have to take anything on board after them. Insiders say that Boyle, for all his sincere willingness to listen and affable manners, has his mind made up.
So in fact the point of the Radio 4 roadshows seems more for the listeners to listen to him, than for him to listen to them. Radio 4 knows newspaper media journalists find nothing easier than whipping up a storm of protest over the smallest changes to Radio 4 and will have a field day come April. After the roadshow meetings the station gets a mailing list of all the members of the groups represented on the day. They will get their own version of the new schedule - complete with Boyle's rationale - in March. Millions more schedules will be printed and distributed before the press can stick its knife in.
The American satirical cartoon Doonesbury once lampooned a press conference in the Eighties where journalists were quizzing Ronald Reagan about the flaws in his tax and spending policies. Reagan picks up an apple and a tennis ball and launches into a homily, telling America to imagine one is the federal deficit and the other the defence budget. The journalists react with horror: "Oh no, he's appealing over our heads direct to the American people again."
After watching the Radio 4 roadshow, there seems no doubt James Boyle could qualify as another Great Communicator.
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