Radio 4 doesn't require a preservation order slapped on it but it does need a creative conversion - which is what James Boyle promises
Monday 21 July 1997
James Boyle never expected to be feted by the metropolitan chattering classes like his namesake and fellow Glaswegian, Jimmy Boyle, the murderer- turned-sculptor. But he wouldn't be human if he weren't feeling wounded by the abuse heaped on him last week.
His radical blueprint for refreshing Radio 4 does not go to the BBC's board of governors until tomorrow, but already he has been demonised by the Mary Whitehouse brigade and by most media pundits in the press.
Brenda Maddox, an elderly American who plainly cherishes the broadcasting wing of English Heritage, has called on the governors to resign if they dare not block Boyle's plans. "To take a way one old favourite from listeners is to inflict pain; to snatch away as many as 20 is to inflict a trauma, an assault on habits and expectations that leaves people shocked, grieving, destabilised."
Ray Snoddy of the Financial Times, moonlighting in Marketing Week, fumed: "This is the work of a madman called Boyle. I don't feel warmly enough disposed to call him either James or Mr. He has got to be stopped in his tracks."
The doyen of metropolitan media correspondents was careful not to accuse Radio 4's controller - as some rent-a-quotes did in The Sunday Times last week - of "dumbing down" the BBC's most highbrow network. That particular jibe is not open to you when you're just about to take Murdoch's shilling and join the Wapping payroll of the blatantly dumbed-down Times.
Boyle's portrayal as a Caledonian clone of Birt is unfortunate because, both inside and outside the corporation, there is deep resentment at the almost Maoist permanent revolution ushered in by this DG. Radio producers and listeners feel they are on a rollercoaster.
Snoddy and co have set aside all journalistic objectivity and detachment to march with their middle class, suburban neighbours behind the banner of a hastily convened conservation campaign. Radio 4 is the red phone booth of British broadcasting. No Scottish technocrat is going to replace it with a characterless modern contraption.
The Radio 4 conservation lobby is, like most such movements, a motley crew made up mainly of educated professionals, aspiring students and old folk with time on their hands.
Conservationists are not to be knocked. Much that is still green and pleasant in this land is so because of their resistance to change. But excessive conservation can ultimately endanger that which it seeks to preserve - as James Boyle well knows from living in Edinburgh, whose refusal to adapt to changing transport trends since the Sixties has culminated in crippling city centre congestion.
Boyle's blueprint for Radio 4 is driven by a determination to ensure that the network anticipates social changes and reflects new lifestyles. The way we access information and entertainment is going to change dramatically as the digital revolution unfolds. There is going to be an explosion of choice in a much more crowded media market-place.
Many enterprises in both the electronic and print media will seek to retain or expand their market share by dumbing down, but Boyle's stewardship of Radio 4 will be marked by scaling up. As well as being a Hard-Boyled Egghead, he detects a real craving for intelligent, even intellectual, debate and discussion, not least among what has been dubbed the Anxious Class.
That class includes, incidentally, people such as downsized middle-managers who have been left shocked, grieving and destabilised by the very real traumas inflicted by two decades of Thatcherism combined with rapid technological change (traumas Brenda Maddox has not been moved much to write about).
It is a scandal that apart from Start the Week there are few places in British broadcast media where you can hear a new thought or idea - and a sad reflection, I would say, of previous controllers of Radio 4.
James Boyle would get get a bigger cheer from me and many others if he took steps to ensure that intellectually stimulating material started to pop up more frequently across the entire Radio 4 schedule. Why don't we have numerous "Thoughts for the Day" on the Today programme, and not just from assorted clerics but a range of secular opiners?
Radio 4's flagship news programme might also, occasionally, take a leaf out of the broadsheet press and occasionally invite poets to reflect upon current affairs. How pleasing to see Tom Paulin pop up in The Observer yesterday with his reflections on recent events in his home province of Ulster.
And isn't it high time Radio 4 followed NPR (National Public Radio) in the States by putting its transcripts on the Internet?
Radio 4 has the greatest collection of radio professionals in the world. If they tune into changes in our post-industrial society and globalised economy and take full advantage of the new digital technology at their disposal, they can ensure that Radio 4 truly lives up to its proud billing in the latest BBC annual report - "the home of quality, intelligent speech radio"n
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