Radio: The sword of Damazer
Radio 4's boss has already shown - by axing 'Home Truths' - that he is unafraid of upsetting one of the British media's most varied audiences. He wants to modernise the station, so what's next for the chop?
Sunday 08 January 2006
It doesn't wear tweed. Or brown suits. Or play golf. So what does the Radio 4 audience do? And most importantly, how can the new controller, Mark Damazer, deliver what it - and he - both want?
Addressing the Broadcasting Press Guild in July, Damazer said that Radio 4 must adapt to satisfy listeners who no longer "wears brown suits and tweed and plays golf". He believes that Radio 4's core audience, the British middle class, "is an incredibly vibrant group with a wide breadth of interests and passions. Sex and strong language are not something for Radio 4 to be frightened of." In pursuit of their mutual satisfaction, he promised "dissent, excitement, thrills and fun".
So far, most of the dissent has arisen from the axing of Home Truths, the Saturday morning show which John Peel presented from 1998 and made his own before his death in October 2004. Home Truths, which relates diverse personal experiences from listeners (model rocket flying, sniffing your pets, children caring for sick parents), has staggered on with a series of guest presenters. You either love its homespun cosiness, or loathe it. Damazer, who took over from Helen Boaden in the same month that Peel died, obviously believes that too many potential listeners are of the latter persuasion. It will end in the Spring.
Most of the fun came just before Christmas, when nine-times Sony Gold award-winning Radio 3 broadcaster Andy Kershaw launched into a coruscating attack on Radio 4. Asked on the Today programme to discuss the axing of Home Truths, he couldn't stop himself pulling the whole station apart.
"There's a lot of dead wood," Kershaw, a former radio critic for The Independent, told John Humphrys. "A number of programmes are long past their sell-by date." Woman's Hour, Money Box and PM came in for a bashing. Kershaw later added Sandi Toksvig's travel show, Excess Baggage, consumer programme Shop Talk and Veg Talk, which according to a BBC spokeswoman will be "rested", to his hit-list.
It would be invidious to suggest that all the programmes Kershaw hates are on borrowed time. Yet Kershaw, as a veteran radio-man and, at 46, a relatively young and trendy Radio 4 listener, is better placed than many to gauge the temperature. Damazer has made no secret of his plans to change the station, to make it more "reactive". One radio insider indicates that the atmosphere at Radio 4 is a peculiar mixture of fear and a smug attitude that it has survived worse. Another points out that You and Yours, the butt of much criticism, has responded by reducing the "quirky" items to concentrate on serious issues such as Alzheimer's disease.
"The object of every new Radio 4 controller is 'how can I attract new listeners without alienating the old?'," says broadcaster Roger Bolton, presenter of Radio 4's Feedback programme. "And the added problem is that a lot of Radio 4 listeners are opinion formers."
The average age of a Radio 4 listener is 54. The station pulls in 9.6 million listeners, and has an 11.5 per cent share of the audience (Rajar figures, July to September 2005). In comparison, Radio 2, the nation's favourite, has 12.9 million listeners and a 15.6 per cent audience share; more than 3 million more regular listeners.
Radio 2 has achieved several seemingly impossible tasks, not least the transformation of a constituency of Jimmy Young fans into Jeremy Vine devotees; Vine was rewarded with the Speech Broadcaster of the Year gong at the Sonys in May. Radio 4 is in a more complex predicament; its natural, middle-class listenership is undergoing tectonic social changes and, as Bolton points out, "Radio 4 needs competition and cross-fertilisation from other networks. It is hampered because it is unique. It suffers from all the virtues and vices of a monopoly. But it is still a treasure."
The problem is exactly that. Radio 4 is regarded as "a treasure", and as such deemed untouchable. Remember the national outcry when Woman's Hour moved from the afternoon to the morning slot in the early 1990s? Damazer's first challenge is to tackle this level of resistance to change. His major challenge, however, is to come up with the "excitement and thrills" which will ensure the station does not eventually disappear up its own importance.
Wireless old timers - are they treasures, or just plain tired?
'In Our Time'
This mind-expanding series, fronted by Melvyn Bragg, proved a surprise hit when it formed part of BBC Radio's experiment in downloading programmes using MP3 players. In the first month, in November 2004, there were more than 70,000 downloads of In Our Time, proving that somewhere out there is an untapped appetite for ancient Greek myths and Wittgenstein. It is worth noting that Radio 4 is doing well on new platforms: a source confirms that almost three million hours a month are listened to online, or on demand through "listen again". The most requested show is The Archers.
Radio signal: technological breakthrough
Survival prospects: (out of 10)
'The Afternoon Play'
Like the Crown Jewels, The Afternoon Play is one of those much-talked-about relics that isn't half as exciting when you get close up. The line on the BBC Radio website is: "Dramas which delight and surprise". The last time The Afternoon Play did that regularly was when the world was black and white. Innovative ideas like last year's Archers spoof by Victoria Wood could give the dear old slot the kiss of life.
Radio signal: Are they still using those 1950s mikes?
Presenter Libby Purves always sounds like a paranoid dinner party hostess desperate to impress you with her placement. Recent complaints that she lets in too many B-list celebs flogging their books seem to have sent her several octaves up the shrill scale. Purves scored Brownie points with her deft handling of the Joan Rivers/Darcus Howe scrap, but needs to bring it on every week.
Radio signal: high-frequency interference
Likely to be on its way to the great allotment in the sky. Damazer is "resting" the show, presented by cheerful cockernee barrow boys Gregg Wallace and Charlie Hicks. A half-hour slot all about vegetables really is Radio 4 at its most eccentric. The rumour was that Damazer was planning something on obituaries to replace it; a BBC source explains that the obituaries show is indeed a new venture, but it will not be taking the place of Veg Talk.
Radio signal: dying off
Andy Kershaw says of the 59-year-old Woman's Hour: "... There are two basic assumptions running through it: 1) all men are bastards; 2) all women are mesmerised by their own reproductive organs." The format, presented by veteran Jenni Murray, does sound weary some mornings. Woman's Hour is capable of deeply moving radio, such as last week's item on stillbirths. Time for a makeover?
Radio signal: subject to occasional hot flushes
A news programme, followed by, er, another news programme at 6pm. The back-to-back scheduling of the in-depth PM and the evening news is a prime example of how Radio 4 is governed by its established commitment to news. Potential drive-time listeners are thought to be turned off by all this heavyweight stuff, and don't bother to turn on Radio 4 again later in the evening.
Radio signal: muffled and confused
Ooh, it just hasn't been the same since John Peel died. Presenters, including musician Tom Robinson, have given it their best shot, but it's all over bar the shouting and will end in the spring. Andy Kershaw suggests that the Home Truths slot be filled by "debates", which, at 9am on a Saturday morning, could be even more trying than hearing about Uncle Bert's lumbago.
Radio signal: fading away
Survival prospects: none
'You and Yours'
Listening to this is like being stuck on a coach trip full of disgruntled pensioners: tons of knowledge, well meaning, but it does go on, and on, five times a week. Surely in rip-off Britain there is scope for a sharper consumer issues programme. And it is a tragic waste of Winifred Robinson, whose Scouse vowels were once deemed too common for Today.
Radio signal: intermittent fault
Survival prospects: on a good day...
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