Ian Burrell: The Damazer years: serious and popular

"Drama on BBC Radio 4 is in rude health," wrote the station's controller Mark Damazer on his blog last month as he sought to reassure listeners over his contentious decision to decommission the Friday Play. No other network, he told them, could rival Radio 4's output of 650 hours a year of original plays and readings.

Now Damazer has placed himself at the centre of the drama, with his unexpected decision to leave Broadcasting House in October, after six years in his current post, to become master of an Oxford college.

When Damazer was appointed controller in 2004 he was warned against introducing radical change by colleagues who advised him he was the "keeper of a Ming vase". Yet he has been a modern curator of the network, his approach symbolised by the ground-breaking and successful A History of the World in 100 Objects – which featured a Ming banknote at number 72.

Damazer has a double-starred first from Cambridge but while studying at Harvard he developed an appreciation of American popular culture, manifested in a love of Bruce Springsteen and support for the Boston Red Sox baseball team.

Some of his changes have attracted controversy, such as the scrapping of Radio 4's "UK Theme", an early morning medley that included "Rule Britannia". He was also criticised when the Today programme dropped presenter (and Damazer's old friend) Edward Stourton. It was suggested Stourton was axed for being "too posh", although Damazer has resisted pressure to make the network more populist. Nonetheless the audience has grown, rising to 10.22 million in the latter part of last year, an annual increase of more than 8 per cent.

When Damazer summoned journalists to Broadcasting House in February to discuss his plans for the network, he gave no indication that he was to leave but reiterated his oft-stated desire to bring the most famous names to the schedule. As he once told me: "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." The month before the controller leaves Radio 4, Pope Benedict XVI arrives in Britain – and the corporation is in talks with the Vatican. Damazer will be a hard act for the BBC to follow.

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