Media: News at any price

Possibly, in an imperfect world, changing Radio 5 into a mass-market news and sports channel aimed at youngish males is a reasonably good idea, writes Maggie Brown. Sport and news are a more compatible mix than sport, youth and children's programmes.

But the suspicion with which the news has been greeted speaks volumes about the BBC's low public standing. Its misguided attempt to switch Radio 4 long wave into a rolling news service last year has created a huge wall of mistrust.

Liz Forgan, the managing director of BBC Radio, said yesterday that the public should allow broadcasters to be creative, to have a free hand in devising new services. But, on past performance, why should they be trusted? It rings hollow when Phil Harding, anexecutive who spent eight months studying how to retrieve the BBC from the rolling news mess, confirmed that research showed the project would make Radio 4 inaccessible to 1.5 million long-wave listeners - 17 per cent of its audience.

Only last December, John Birt, the director-general, was adamant that he would not back down from rolling news, despite the public outcry. Why didn't the BBC do its number-crunching first? As the nation's premier broadcaster, it can behave in a surprisingly amateur manner.

And can we be sure that the research commissioned by Mr Harding, which has led to this latest shake-up, points the way to success? The BBC has not published the findings, but we are told that only one in nine Radio 5 sports listeners are women.

The second worrying aspect is the way children's radio has been abruptly brushed aside. It is true that Radio 5 did not score large audiences. But the BBC, which manages to cross-promote everything else under the sun, never put its marketing muscle behind children's radio programmes.

At best they could have been complementary to children's television, by running in the early evening when prime-time television squeezes out kids. Radio requires different skills of concentration from television. It develops a love of language. I am amazed that the governors did not try to salvage more than a short daily morning story for toddlers (at a time when many are at nursery school or playgroups) and a Sunday classic serial.

I doubt whether the changes will be fully implemented. There are peculiar attempts to spread the pain, including an hour each weekday of schools programmes on Radio 3. Wasn't Radio 3 supposed to be the premier channel for classical music and culture? What better way of encouraging licence-payers to become even more hooked on Classic FM?

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