BBC: Digital upstarts, ageing listeners - the challenge that confronts Radio 4

Life after Boaden won't be easy, says Tim Luckhurst; while, right, Steve Bloomfield meets the corporation's Mr Complaints
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The Independent Online

The BBC's new director of news, Helen Boaden, was a fortunate controller of Radio 4. She inherited the job from James Boyle, the former controller of Radio Scotland, whose period in charge of the favourite wireless station of the Establishment south of the border caused unprecedented discomfort.

The BBC's new director of news, Helen Boaden, was a fortunate controller of Radio 4. She inherited the job from James Boyle, the former controller of Radio Scotland, whose period in charge of the favourite wireless station of the Establishment south of the border caused unprecedented discomfort.

Boyle upset staff by demanding changes that should have been made long before. He infuriated listeners by installing logic into a schedule that owed more to serendipity, made Today longer and exiled Yesterday in Parliament to long wave. He also commissioned successes such as the Sunday morning treat, Broadcasting House.

Much of what James Boyle did worked but was not appreciated until he had departed. It freed Helen Boaden to pursue her desire to "focus a bit more on the pleasure principle". The results included a radio version of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone and a gripping series to mark Bob Dylan's 60th birthday.

Boaden's choice of Fi Glover to replace Eddie Mair as presenter of Broadcasting House was astute, as was her decision to move Mair to PM. She gets less credit for her handling of Today presenters. Since Sue MacGregor's retirement Today has struggled to identify a convincing replacement. Carolyn Quinn has proved more comfortable in the role than the official incumbent, Sarah Montague, but that dilemma awaits a permanent solution. So does the bigger question of who will replace John Humphrys, 60, when the veteran chooses to retire.

Boaden recently told an audience at the London School of Economics that Radio 4 has reconnected itself with "the rock'n'roll generation." She certainly used her £90m programme budget to make it less stuffy. But the bigger truth is that Radio 4 still depends, overwhelmingly, on older listeners, almost all of them tuning in to hear news. A huge proportion of the Radio 4 audience listens to just one show - Today. Substantial numbers return for World at One and PM but listen to nothing else in the Radio 4 schedule. The result is that Radio 4's listening figures fluctuate according to world events. Controllers need brilliant ideas if they are to make a discernible impact. Jenny Abramsky, controller of radio, plans to advertise the post next week with a closing date for applications at the end of August. She hopes to make an appointment by the middle of September.

There is no preferred candidate but Roger Mosey, the head of television news, Bob Shennan, controller of Five Live and Stephen Mitchell, head of radio news, will be serious contenders if they choose to apply. A BBC source says, "The likelihood is that it will be an internal candidate. It is quite hard to come from outside the BBC to one of these jobs. The natural gravitational pull means that most people who really understand Radio 4 already work there or have spent long periods working there."

The winner will face a tough task. Helen Boaden's record-breaking audience of 10 million listeners in 2003 was largely based on coverage of the Gulf War. The weight of serious news, together with the immense publicity generated by the Hutton inquiry, helped Radio 4 to successive Sony Station of the Year awards in 2003 and 2004. But total listening has slipped back to 9.4 million this year and 500 hours of original drama and 400 of comedy have not attracted enough fans to compensate. Even the omnibus edition of The Archers struggles to achieve the same effect as global conflict.

At the same time BBC7, the speech-based digital station that Boaden launched, has started to chip away at Radio 4's audience. So has the digital television station BBC Four and the now established blend of news and sport on Five Live.

Creative innovation is essential if the dominance of the news programmes is to be matched in other parts of the schedule, but change will provoke howls of fury. Radio 4 stalwarts do not suffer in silence. They make their feelings felt as only opinion-formers can. Boaden soothed their nerves after a period of turmoil. The new controller is faced with the task of improving on the record of a golden girl.

Steady as she goes is not the complete answer. Radio 4 has a fight on its hands if it is to convert the new generation of listeners required to secure long-term strength. It stands unchallenged as the station of the establishment, but must fight for every listener from younger generations, and to refresh its audience for arts and drama. Good comedy is important too, but, as Boaden discovered, it is hard to find and television pays bigger fees.

In the BBC's internal pecking order the director of news is senior to the controller of Radio 4. The news budget is larger and individual television news programmes such as the six o'clock news win audiences comparable with Radio 4's entire listenership.

But Radio 4 has incomparable influence. That is why a couple of words uttered in a pre-dawn interview led to the resignation of the BBC's director-general and its chairman. It is also why running it is among the most demanding jobs in the BBC.

'We have been too defensive. If we're wrong, we're wrong'

It's always been a convoluted business getting a complaint dealt with at the BBC - almost as convoluted as the journey that the visitor to Television Centre has to make to the office of the man who might be described as the Corporation's Mr Complaints. But once tracked down, Steve Pollock - the Head of Information to give him his official title - says he is determined to change the way that complaints are handled.

The BBC last week announced an overhaul of its complaints procedure which, along with Richard Sambrook's move from director of news to head of the World Service, was seen as an attempt to draw a line under the fallout from the Hutton report. A new web page has been launched - uk/complaints - and a promise made to deal with complaints within 10 days. But a new structure on its own won't necessarily change anything, admits Mr Pollock, whose team deals with the million plus complaints and comments that licence-fee payers make to the BBC every year.

"There needs to be a culture change," he says. "In the past we have been defensive about some things. I'm not implying dishonesty. We just need to be able to adopt a position where we say, 'OK, we got it wrong.'"

Despite his workload, the 51-year-old Mr Pollock appears laid-back. He has been in the post for four years, previously working in the BBC's Factual and Learning department. During his time on the front line, he admits that there has been "a lot of input" from viewers, but not enough by way of responses or explanations as to how their complaint had been dealt with. Post-Hutton, Mr Pollock claims that complaints about the news output haven't "risen appreciably", though some 20 per cent of the overall complaints are about news.

The rest cover the whole range of the BBC's output, and sometimes throw up interesting social issues. "There was a recent one about a female weather presenter who was pregnant and wore a very tight T-shirt," Mr Pollock recalls. "There was a noticeable blip of people, mainly older, who said they didn't like it."

Licence-fee payers, Mr Pollock says, need to realise that the BBC cannot please all the people all the time. "We have not been particularly good at educating the audience in understanding what it is we do and how we do it. They need to understand the sort of constraints that we're working with and the ways in which we're trying to improve the way we do things."

A log book records all the comments that viewers and listeners get off their chests. Mr Pollock points out a recent news item about commercial whaling in Iceland that caused one viewer to ring to complain that the BBC hadn't made it clear whether they meant it was occurring in Iceland the country or Iceland the supermarket.

The test for Mr Pollock and the new complaints system will be the bigger issues. The only way they will know for sure that it's working depends on what happens the next time an unscripted "two-way" takes place on an early morning radio show.

But Mr Pollock is adamant that if another Andrew Gilligan-style report provoked the ire of the Government with as much intensity again, the new system would be able to deal with it. "That situation with Alastair Campbell would not have happened if the new process had been in place," Mr Pollock says. "It just would not have happened."