Mark Thompson, the director-general of the BBC, ducks whenever he claps eyes on Mark Damazer. It's Thompson's black humour, a reference to the fact that since Damazer took over as controller of Radio 4 four years ago, he has rarely been out of mourning, as one much-loved presenter after another has passed away, many of them quite unexpectedly.
For the head of a network that is often compared to a Ming vase, a cultural icon of such heritage that you tamper with it at your peril, this is a significant problem. "Mark Thompson tends to duck on the grounds that I have a really bad reputation for bringing mortality," Damazer says. "Since I've been the controller, a seriously unpleasant number of deaths have taken place, and not all of the people who have died have been remotely at an age where you thought they might have done.
"Off the top of my head, we have lost John Peel (presenter of Home Truths), who was seemingly functioning in his prime, Linda Smith (a regular on The News Quiz), at 48, Nick Clarke (presenter of The World at One) who had always seemed incredibly healthy, 57. Then there was Ned (Sherrin, presenter of Loose Ends), 75. Humphrey Lyttelton (chairman of I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue) is slightly different: 86. None of this is particularly welcome at all." He later adds Humphrey Carpenter (the presenter of Great Lives until his death at 58) to this grim list.
This is not to suggest that Damazer is gripped by morbid depression, for he is still celebrating his network's triumph as Station of the Year at last month's Sony Radio Awards. And he is buzzing from a recent night out to see Bruce Springsteen at London's Emirates Stadium before hurrying home to the computer to watch Manny Ramirez, of his beloved Boston Red Sox, attempt to hit his 500th home run (to his dismay, Damazer fell asleep at 2.15am, five minutes before the baseball legend's historic slug).
Besides, Damazer, 53, thinks the Ming vase is the "wrong metaphor" for Radio 4, and that his audience of more than nine million is not resistant to change. "They are intelligent, articulate, prepared to be challenged, much more than any other mass audience," he says, while conceding that certain things in the schedule are sacred. "Were I to move The Archers or Woman's Hour again I would have to take out an insurance policy, tell my bank manager, take out mortgage protection schemes and all that stuff. But contrary to mythology, you can do things here."
The tragic loss of some of his finest broadcasters has presented Damazer with opportunities to introduce or amplify fresh voices. So Matthew Parris, with his "sharpness, cleverness, wit and brio" has replaced Carpenter on Great Lives. Sue Lawley's retirement from Desert Island Discs allowed Damazer to hire Kirsty Young, whom he had "long admired as a broadcaster", and he has enhanced the profile of Eddie Mair. "He seems to me to encapsulate many of the virtues that Radio 4 should have: an ability to be serious about serious things but, when the occasion presents itself, show a degree of zest and lightness of touch and the occasional flash of stiletto."
Damazer, who is sitting in his office alongside a portrait of George Washington and a model of Big Ben, his chosen symbols of democratic values, also has a view of the way not to present on the network. "Radio 4 is at its weakest when, and I hope it is quite rarely, there are moments when seriousness and earnestness get confused. Radio 4 has to be serious in its purpose – or what's the point? – but you don't want to feel that every programme-maker or presenter has Lord Reith on their shoulder ticking them off and giving marks out of 10 for propriety, split infinitives and the rest of it."
He says he wants to introduce "a broader range of tones and encourage more spontaneity in the way material is presented". That means less airtime devoted to what Damazer describes as the "Radio 4 rep company", the usual suspects that crop up as guests across the schedule.
"I think there's still a danger that there are a group of people who are fantastically good coming on to programmes – whether it's Today, or Start the Week, or Front Row – and they just know how to do it. You can end up recycling them, these 100 people, endlessly. And the plan is to give [opportunities to] other people who can do what Radio 4 requires, which isn't difficult to define... It's not about class or accent – it's just about being able to make intelligent speech fly off into the living room, the home or car radio and make people feel stimulated by it. I felt that we were in danger, on occasion, of just having slightly too narrow a funnel."
So he lured Scouser Jane Garvey across from 5 Live to Radio 4's Woman's Hour, only for her to deride her new employer with the observation that "there is a massively middle-class bent to every programme on Radio 4". Damazer says that Garvey has "something really valuable to give to a Radio 4 audience" and that the work of her former 5 Live colleague Fi Glover, as host of Radio 4's Saturday Live, "has been very thrilling... because it didn't begin with vast amounts of applause".
His tinkering does not threaten any of the network's big guns, he says. "Keeping the central heavy cast of characters who are incredibly valuable – Melvyn, Andy, Jenny, all that crowd, Jim, John, they are all absolutely there, Libby, that's all fine." It's just that he does want to bring in some more youthful voices. "You want to have people a little younger," he posits, before immediately introducing context to appease the Ming Vase Preservation Society: "Let's not get obsessed here – Radio 4 is not going to be a young person's network, and I'm not trying to make it into a young person's network."
The average age of the Radio 4 listener is 54. Channel 4, which is about to launch a rival speech-based radio station, has mocked Damazer's network for sounding like "a shop... full of old people knitting". The Radio 4 controller is braced for a buffeting. "They will come up with stuff that we hadn't thought of, and I will be sore for a while," he says. "But I don't think we are going into this with a feeling that we are weak or insipid or frightened. We are OK – I like to think we are better than OK. They will come up with stuff because it's a strong brand and good luck to them, but not too much good luck to them – I don't want them to destroy what Radio 4 is, nor do I want them to take vast chunks of the Radio 4 audience."
He argues that the idea that Radio 4 only caters to old fogeys is a myth that Channel 4 is exploiting for commercial reasons. "I could reel off 50 Radio 4 programmes which do not conform to the mythology of people sitting there with decorated piano legs in case they give offence, tea cosies, woolly jumpers and open-neck sandals. It's just not like that. But it suits Channel 4's purpose, and gives it greater brand potency, if they can define Radio 4 as something it demonstrably isn't. The age issue does not define Radio 4, because there are more than 9.25 million people listening for about 13 hours a week. These are very different people, not an army of people all responding the same way. It's a mass audience, and not a niche anything."
Neither will he be railroaded into tokenism, as a response to criticisms that his attempts to broaden Radio 4's range of voices are inadequate. "I'm not interested in diversity unless people are interested in intelligent speech, so I have to accept, with some reluctance, that there is a bit of the United Kingdom that will be very hard to get to, because they won't be interested in intelligent speech. Either they will be interested in music, or they will be interested in less intelligent speech."
He suddenly breaks into a Cockney accent to imitate a phone-in caller berating Gordon Brown. "What can I do with that? It's got to be more than that, or it's not worth having. So, complete representative diversity of the United Kingdom? No. Do I think Radio 4 could do more to reach out? Probably. There's more work to be done there. But I don't think we are doing badly, and the last thing I feel is any middle-class guilt around this – what's the point?"
He has not applied for Jenny Abramsky's job as director of audio and music, saying he is enjoying himself too much in his current role. Having been the editor of Newsnight and of BBC Television News, as well as the corporation's head of current affairs, he says the top job at Radio 4 is "infinitely more fun" than working in a newsroom. "By the time you get to the Budget for the 15th time, you think, 'I don't know that I can get worked up about the red box.' There's a lot of repetition in news, and it became less interesting."
Radio 4, he says, has a wider diversity of programming than BBC1 or BBC2. "We can get Helen Mirren, Toby Stephens, David Suchet or Anthony Sher walking here perfectly merrily" to take part in the network's drama output. "We are adapting big classics miles more than TV, and doing things for audiences of 900,000 a day, which television no longer does. Not all of it is great, but on the whole it's good, and the best stuff is wonderful."
Damazer went to Harvard after achieving a double starred first at Cambridge, and still watches the Red Sox online for $80 a season – but he thinks the potential for increasing Radio 4's presence on the web is a "long game", with rights issues complicating his ambition to make the network's archive (a "tremendous resource") available online.
He praises radio's enduring appeal. "Twenty years ago, you would have predicted a far worse outcome. With massive extra consumer choice in television, hugely different means of dissemination in technology, why would radio hold on? Well, it's done more than hold on."
Not that he is complacent. Indeed, he says he will not be happy until he has achieved his dream schedule. "I'll know I've cracked it when Bruce Springsteen does Desert Island Discs, the Pope does Thought for the Day, and Tom Stoppard does a new full-length play for Radio 4. In every genre, without exception, there's something to aim for."