Greg Dyke on broadcasting

My advice to Mark Damazer: mess with Radio 4 at your peril

Any day now, Mark Damazer will abandon a life spent working mainly in television, to take on one of the most dangerous jobs in the British media - running Radio 4.

The job is dangerous because Radio 4 listeners are the most powerful audience group in Britain. Upset them, and a controller is in real trouble.

I've never met anyone who defines their whole way of life as being a BBC1 viewer, a Capital Radio listener, or even a Sky viewer. But many of the people who listen to Radio 4 are just that. They are Radio 4 devotees who use their listening habits to describe their very existence. Being a Radio 4 listener is a badge they wear with pride.

I have a friend who lives on the west coast of Ireland who, when she was buying a new house in a remote area, took her portable radio with her to check that she could receive a decent Radio 4 signal in all parts of the house and garden. If she couldn't get a signal, she wouldn't have bought the house. That's a Radio 4 listener for you.

Of course, most of these people live in the south of England - Radio 4 is the most popular single radio station in London - and any attempt to interfere with their radio station is likely to bring the wrath of God down upon whichever controller is proposing the changes.

Ask James Boyle, who announced something like 45 changes in one go. He never recovered from the battering he got over proposals that included moving Woman's Hour and The Archers from their regular slots; getting rid of Breakaway; and shifting Yesterday in Parliament on to long wave.

The fact that most of his plans were quite sensible was irrelevant. Radio 4 listeners don't like change.

By contrast, the last controller of Radio 4, Helen Boaden, announced almost no changes, and anything she did change was done with great subtlety. She was seen as a great success and is now running the whole of BBC News.

But the best illustration of the power of Radio 4 listeners came back in the Nineties, when someone within the BBC hierarchy had what seemed to be the good idea of taking Radio 4 off long wave and giving the wavelength to a fledgling Radio Five Live instead. The Radio 4 listeners were outraged. When they couldn't get the decision changed, they came in their thousands from right across the south of England to march on the home of Radio 4, Broadcasting House in London.

Despite not being natural demonstrators, the marchers decided to chant as they had seen other protesters do over the years. But being Radio 4 people, they decided that they should be polite. Their chant went like this:

"What do we want? ... Radio 4!"

"Where do we want it? ... Long wave!"

"What do we say? ... Please!"

The BBC backed down within days, and Radio 4 is still on long wave.

Now, I've know Mark Damazer since he worked at TVam in 1983. Although brilliant, he was an unlikely employee at a populist TV station. Even when he joined the BBC, he was seen as too cerebral. But he's the perfect choice for Radio 4, unless his enormous intellect convinces him that he has to make radical changes. Then he'll be in real trouble. Mark - you have been warned.

Some you lose, some you lose

The thing about running the BBC is, as I've often said, that it is one of the few jobs in the world where you get crap for winning and crap for losing.

A couple of years back, BBC1 became the most popular channel in Britain, overtaking ITV after more than 40 years. It was achieved not because BBC1's audience was growing rapidly - it wasn't - but due to the rapid decline in ITV audiences, especially in daytime. The media's response was that it was proof the BBC was dumbing down, and wasn't it disgraceful. That was the BBC getting crap for winning.

Roll forward to last week, and the BBC is being accused of not getting big enough audiences for its new digital channel, BBC Three. Strange because, when Three was proposed, opponents, led by Channel 4, said that it would be too successful and undermine their ratings. So, at the Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell's instigation, minority programmes were added to ensure ratings weren't too high.

Unfortunately, Jowell forgot to tell this to Patrick Barwise, who was asked to review the channels for her department, about this. So he criticised BBC Three for not being populist enough. That's the BBC getting crap for losing.

Comments