Jenny Abramsky: The listener

She has presided over a remarkable series of launches at the BBC and doggedly pioneered digital radio, but Jenny Abramsky's success, Raymond Snoddy learns, will not tempt her to leave behind her beloved radio for television

As a girl, Jenny Abramsky desperately wanted to be a ballerina, but at only five foot tall the odds were always stacked against her. But she still studied with Ballet Rambert in London and tried to join the Royal Ballet. "I thought I was good enough - it was my great dream, but I clearly wasn't good enough," Abramsky admits.

As a girl, Jenny Abramsky desperately wanted to be a ballerina, but at only five foot tall the odds were always stacked against her. But she still studied with Ballet Rambert in London and tried to join the Royal Ballet. "I thought I was good enough - it was my great dream, but I clearly wasn't good enough," Abramsky admits.

What she turned out to be really good at was radio and, instead of becoming part of a corps de ballet, she became the BBC's director of radio and music, and one of the most powerful figures in the British radio industry.

Although it is many years since she has worn a tutu, her footwork remains impeccable and she has presided over a remarkable series of launches at the BBC - Radio 5 Live and five new digital radio channels, while also, as head of continuous news, managing to fit in the launch of BBC News 24, the television news service.

"I think one of the great stories of broadcasting is the resilience of radio and I believe radio has the ability to remain resilient," insists Abramsky, who was repeatedly told by senior colleagues that by the year 2000 radio would have become a marginal medium, swamped by the power of television. "I was twice offered some quite powerful jobs in television and twice decided to stay," says the formidable lady, who is nonetheless given to long and loud peals of laughter.

In a tone of voice that most people would reserve for describing a love affair, the BBC executive adds: "I stayed because I really love radio. I really love radio."

She also decided to stay because she thought the medium needed people who believed in it to stay and show that you could make a career there - that the best talent didn't inevitably have to migrate to television.

"I just remember people saying in the 1980s that you didn't have a future in radio - even telling production staff they didn't have a future and that, in fact, all talent ought to move across to television," she recalls.

There is still sometimes a feeling of exasperation when the BBC makes a presentation on what it does, and clips from television dominate and radio gets a small mention at the end, almost as an afterthought. "The BBC at times forgets how important radio is," is how Abramsky puts it.

But why has the power of radio not gradually faded, as many people expected? First, Abramsky believes older audiences have a personal relationship with radio and they have remained loyal. Then, by making radio truly portable, the Walkman attracted younger people, as has listening online through personal computers.

Apart from its personal, individual impact, it is radio's secondary nature, she believes, that has saved it as a mass medium - you can do other things while listening to radio, in a way that is difficult with television. "Radio is constantly reinventing itself in the same way that I think newspapers have," she says. "Newspapers are constantly evolving and The Independent has done a revolutionary thing in terms of newspapers [by going compact]."

But the BBC director believes that radio would have been doomed to a slow death if it had not gone digital in line with the rest of the media. Within the BBC, Abramsky reveals, it was touch and go whether the corporation would make the necessary investment in digital audio broadcasting (DAB). In the absence of affordable receivers, many in the BBC thought that DAB was never going to happen. Others wondered why the BBC should fund a venture that would lead to the BBC becoming a smaller player in a much bigger market.

"In the year 2000, if I had stood up and said the BBC did not believe that DAB was ever going to work, I would have killed DAB stone dead," she says. "Manufacturers - such as Roberts and Sony - would not have come into the market." Abramsky insists she never quite got round to threatening to resign, saying: "I did at times want to bash my head against a wall, thinking, 'What do I have to do to convince people that we have to do this?'"

She won the day with the support of Greg Dyke, who was then director-general, found the money to launch new services and formed a strong alliance with commercial broadcasters such as Ralph Bernard - the executive chairman of GWR, owners of Classic FM - to promote digital.

Now she believes that digital radio will make its big breakthrough this Christmas, when total sales of digital radio sets are expected to reach at least one million. The latest industry forecasts suggest that by 2008 more than 13 million digital radios will have been sold in the UK; that nearly one in every three homes will have a set; and that the market will be worth £500m a year.

With more than 100 different types of set now on sale, Abramsky is particularly delighted by a recent sighting of a £39 digital radio, the cheapest she has seen so far. "Clearly it's an offer, but it's bloody good," says the BBC executive, before asking for the word "bloody" to be deleted. "The radio audience likes the use of proper English," she explains.

In leading the charge for digital radio within the BBC, Abramsky went one stage further. She insisted that, like television, radio had to be on all the available platforms - cable, satellite and Freeview, as well as through radio sets. "If you combined those three things, then that's how radio would go digital, and that was what in the end convinced me. If it had just gone over to DAB, I would have got people to back me. I have been astonished at how right we were," says Abramsky before dissolving in more helpless peals of laughter, her grey garb softened by a blue scarf.

It may seem a strange development, but hundreds of thousands of television viewers are now listening to digital quality radio broadcasts through their digital TV receivers. Technology is also making listening more personal and flexible. The BBC's Radio Player system allows listeners to tap in to programmes that have been broadcast. Early last month, more than 500,000 listeners heard The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy through their personal computers.

Abramsky's new digital channels have - with a few provisos - recently received a clean bill of health from an independent report for the Government by Tim Gardam, the former director of television at Channel 4 and principal of St Anne's College, Oxford.

Gardam decided that the five services - 1Xtra, 6 Music, BBC7, BBC Asian Network and Five Live Sports Extra - which cost about £20m a year, had gone "above and beyond" the general requirements to be distinctive. But Gardam wanted to see more current-affairs documentaries on the Asian Network, targets for British music on the black music station 1Xtra, and more original children's programmes on BBC7.

As part of the review of the BBC's Royal Charter, Gardam would also like a review of the BBC's approach to radio sports-rights negotiations. The call for a review is a reference to the huge row between BBC Radio and Kelvin MacKenzie's talkSport station. MacKenzie, who complains that the BBC has used licence-fee money to pay many times the market rate to buy Premier League football rights, has retaliated by broadcasting sports commentary taken from television.

Abramsky, who denies overpaying for football rights - but will not say how much she did pay - took Mac- Kenzie to the High Court. Now the commercial radio station has to inform its viewers that its commentators are in front of a television set and not at the game, and listeners also hear a recorded tape of football-ground atmospherics. "The sound from the ground is different," she says. "You hear the crowd as Rooney gets nearer the goal. You actually can hear the anticipation in the crowd. Part of what radio is about is painting pictures with sound, and when you are commentating on a football match the sound of the crowd is part of the way you paint the picture."

As she talks in her modest office in Broadcasting House, a photographer is snapping away. Suddenly she removes her feet from the low, glass table standing in front of the blue sofa she's sitting on. Rather like her carefulness in not using the word "bloody", Abramsky does not want to be pictured with her feet on the table. "I'm taking my feet off here because my father would be upset," she explains.

She describes her father. Chimen Abramsky is a former professor of modern Jewish History at University College London and a specialist in socialist history, and was a fellow of St Anthony's College, Oxford. "He's 88, and a wonderful person who was working until five years ago," she says.

Jenny Abramsky clearly had a culturally privileged background: she saw Olivier as Coriolanus at Stratford-upon-Avon when she was 10, and later attended Beethoven concerts conducted by Klemperer.

But she horrified her father by bringing home The Beatles and The Everly Brothers, and once passed up a Klemperer concert for a trip to see Spurs play at White Hart Lane. It is an eclectic approach that has served her well in her career.

She joined the BBC in 1969 as a lowly programme operations assistant after reading English and history at the University of East Anglia, and became a producer. The breakthrough came in 1974 when she was unexpectedly appointed editor of the PM programme by the then director of radio, Aubrey Singer. She went on to edit The World at One and the Today programme until John Birt, who was director-general at the time, appointed her the editor of BBC Radio news and current affairs.

But, by remaining one of the "radio people", did Abramsky in effect undermine her chances of becoming director-general of the BBC? "Yes," she says, "but is that the job I would have wanted more than anything? Answer - no. Actually, the job I wanted more than anything else is to be managing director of radio."

But she was one of those in the frame for the director-general's job following the departure of Dyke over the Gilligan affair - although she was not a favourite. Dyke, asked privately how he rated her chances, surprisingly replied that he should have fired her ages ago. It wasn't that he didn't respect her ability, but he was clearly irritated by the ferocity with which she stood up for her radio empire and for public-service values.

In his book, Inside Story, Dyke wrote of her: "Jenny is an infuriating person. Some days she is charming to deal with and reasonable; on others her paranoia that radio is a second-class citizen to television within the BBC makes her difficult to deal with. She believes passionately that inside the BBC radio is unloved and, as a result, is underfunded."

Dyke believes that BBC Radio is very well funded, but he acknowledges that Abramsky was instrumental in breaking the stalemate with the radio manufacturers over the production of digital receivers.

Dyke also claims that Abramsky threatened to resign - although not directly to him - if the BBC moved Radio 5 Live out of London to Manchester. Did she? "No, I didn't say that in that way to anybody at all, and what we were doing was having some quite robust discussions - as we still are," she says. Her relationship with Dyke was clearly robust. "Greg and I agreed that we are both very similar," she says. "We are both tempestuous and we feel very strongly about things. We argued very strongly and there were times when we got on terrifically and Greg gave me enormous support."

Because people in radio care passionately, disputes and rows are relatively common (once culminating in a protest march on Broadcasting House in opposition to plans to phase out Radio 4 on long wave). The most recent row was over a speech Abramsky gave at a government seminar on radio during the current Royal Charter period, when she delivered a review of the past eight years of BBC radio.

Speaking of the time in 1998 when the then controller of Radio 4, James Boyle, made dozens of changes at the same time - including the introduction of lots of new quizzes - she described some of them as "painful". The remarks were portrayed in the media as an attack on the current standards of Radio 4. "I was referring to 1998, where James Boyle himself would admit that he brought in far too many new [quizzes] and they take time to develop," she says. "I can't tell you how upset I was [by the coverage]."

There has also been controversy over the death of the radio legend John Peel, amid allegations by his friend and fellow DJ Andy Kershaw that his music programme had been sidelined by the BBC into late-night radio and that he had had become exhausted partly as a result.

Abramsky has paid generous tributes to the achievements of Peel, and she believes that "he epitomised what we are and should be about". She declines to comment on Kershaw's remarks, other than to say that everyone was still shocked by Peel's sudden death. "At a time when his family are in deep mourning, out of respect for them this is not the time to make these remarks or for us to comment on them," she says.

For different reasons, Abramsky is cautious about commenting on the Gilligan affair or the Hutton report. Although she sets the strategic direction for news programmes such as Today, she is not in control of their day-to-day running. "I do think it is time we moved on. In the past we did some very tough programmes, but I do believe it is absolutely essential that you get it all right," says Abramsky, who insists that the Today programme has not lost its nerve and is still striving very hard to do original journalism.

The battle to prevent Radio 5 Live moving to Manchester, as part of the plan to move more BBC production outside London, has clearly not yet been won. Abramsky is also fighting radio's corner in the continuing reviews into the future structure of the BBC. Overall, thousands of jobs could be lost. "Radio will be affected like everywhere else in the BBC," she says. "I think that is inevitable. It is not immune from value-for-money reviews, nor should it be."

So, if there are thousands of job losses, radio will have to take its share of the pain? "Absolutely," replies Abramsky, who will also be putting up a strenuous fight to protect her empire.

She has just celebrated her 58th birthday and, given that the retirement age at the BBC is usually 60, how long can she be expected to stay and fight the good fight for the radio people? "The BBC makes its own judgements on who it needs," she says, noting that the corporation brought Sir Paul Fox in at the age of 62 to be the managing director of television. The observation is made with a smile, suggesting that Jenny Abramsky isn't planning to go anywhere anytime soon.

LIFE AND TIMES: THE RADIO QUEEN

THE FAILED BALLERINA

Jenny Abramsky's childhood dream was to be a prima ballerina. Foiled by her height - she stands just 5ft tall - she went on to study English and history at the University of East Anglia, hoping to direct plays, before getting her first job at the BBC as a programmes operations assistant (studio manager). Asked in the interview, "Why do you change a plug?" she successfully replied: "To get the electric fire going."

THE JOURNALIST

Abramsky has proven journalistic credentials as a producer and editor. She produced The World At One in 1973 and in 1974 jointly produced a special programme on Nixon and the Watergate scandal. She went on to become editor of PM, The World At One and Today, where she persuaded John Humphrys to join the presentation team. In 1987 she became editor of radio news and current affairs, setting up Radio 4's News FM network for the duration of the Gulf War. In 1996 she became head of continuous news.

THE FOUNDER

Abramsky was the founding controller of Radio Five Live, launched in March 1994 amid concerns it would be too highbrow - leading to the moniker 'Radio 4 and a half'. The station went on to win the Sony Station of the Year Award in 1996 under her tenure, and now has 6.47 million listeners. As director of the Beeb's continuous news she launched rolling news channel BBC News 24 and BBC News Online in 1997.

"MRS RADIO"

Abramsky was seen, even by cynics within the BBC, as the perfect person for the job when she became director of radio and music in January 1999. Her energy and passion for radio are renown and she has presided over the success of Radio Five Live and Radio 2, wooed back listeners to Radio 4 after an unsuccessful modernisation, and seen Radio 1 begin to turn its fortunes after a steady decline in listeners. The BBC holds 54.4 per cent of Britain's radio audience.

THE STRAIGHT TALKER

Abramsky is respected within the BBC for her frankness and ability to heal rifts. She admits to being opinionated and forceful; a colleague once described her as "thrillingly tyrannical". After experiencing difficulties taking maternity leave, she has worked on the BBC's equal opportunities policy. In 1999 she described taking over the radio and music portfolio from Matthew Bannister as "like going into an atmosphere where a messy divorce had taken place and giving marriage guidance." Recently she is said to have criticised plans to move sections of the BBC to Manchester as proof of the corporation's commitment to the regions in the run-up to charter renewal. In April she was one of three executives to confront acting DG Mark Byford about the post-Hutton report disciplinary process, because it was "tearing staff apart".

THE CANDIDATE

One of three internal applicants to be shortlisted and interviewed for the director generalship after Greg Dyke's departure, Abramsky was beaten to the post in May by Channel 4 director Mark Thompson. A tough operator with a low profile, well-liked by staff, her lack of TV experience is thought to have disadvantaged her.

Oliver Duff

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