Radio's golden girl

Helen Boaden and her station, Radio 4, have just won the top Sony radio award for the second year running. Ian Burrell asks where she can go from here

After BBC Radio 4 was named Station of the Year for the first time in the Sony Radio Awards of 2003, the delighted network controller Helen Boaden asked herself: "Where do you go from there?" So when the station won the accolade for a second time last month it seemed only right to put the question to her again. If Boaden is allowing herself a moment's rest on her laurels she doesn't show it. "I'm very uncomplacent about our future," she admits.

After BBC Radio 4 was named Station of the Year for the first time in the Sony Radio Awards of 2003, the delighted network controller Helen Boaden asked herself: "Where do you go from there?" So when the station won the accolade for a second time last month it seemed only right to put the question to her again. If Boaden is allowing herself a moment's rest on her laurels she doesn't show it. "I'm very uncomplacent about our future," she admits.

Her concerns are two-fold. First, the growth of digital radio is making audiences "more promiscuous about their listening". Second, the long-running story of Iraq, which Radio 4 is obliged to cover fully, is proving a turn-off - or at least a turn-over - for many listeners who feel that they have had all they can stand of the war. "I have an instinct that as the situation in Iraq continues there has been a sort of weariness with the coverage," she says. "Because most people have made up their minds what they think about it and it's hard to find the rays of light for any side of the debate."

Boaden admits that in the last set of radio industry listening figures, "we saw some decline in audiences for our news and current affairs programmes and so did the World Service. We know that certainly some of our listeners were leaving us to go to Radio 2 where they absolutely get treated like intelligent adults but it's music, it's often very funny and it's just a lighter listen in the best sense."

As the number of digital radios in cars and homes increases and as more people listen to radio through their televisions and computers, so Radio 4 - with its intellectually-challenging content - will come under greater pressure to hold on to audiences, Boaden believes. "The one thing you can say about our programmes is that they do demand quite a lot of attention," she says.

Programmes that "require you to lean forward" might lose out in a market where channel-hopping is much easier than it used to be. Boaden admits: "In our house we used to listen pretty much to Radio 4 and Five Live. Now we are definitely listening to more Radio 2 and especially Radio 3 - and that's because it's so easy to turn over. And I know anecdotally that is what's happening."

In the last set of quarterly figures, Radio 4 saw its audience dip slightly from 9.51 million to 9.37 million. "There's nothing we can do about the news," Boaden says. "My one consolation in all this is that I'm pretty sure most of them are staying within the BBC radio family. But Radio 4 can never afford to rest on its laurels."

Boaden could be forgiven for wanting to blow her trumpet a little at the culmination of a 12-month period that began on 29 May last year with the fateful Today programme's broadcast on the Government's Iraqi weapons dossier. A year later, Radio 4 has not only retained its Station of the Year title - which Boaden says was "completely delicious" - but six other awards too, in recognition of the enduring quality of the network's content.

Boaden says of the past 12 months that they have been "incredibly difficult for news. I have such admiration for the way they just kept going, doing that very difficult thing of being the story, not just reflecting and interrogating the story. I was very proud of how we kept focused on serving the audience."

The publication of Hutton was "a very wobbly moment for the organisation," she remembers. "People were profoundly shocked and the shocks kept coming. To lose a DG and a chairman in the space of 48 hours was very difficult. But I wouldn't claim I had an especially difficult time compared to people in news, the legal teams and the people at the top of the organisation." But as controller of the station that had broadcast the crucial report, she was never fearful for her own position or for the future of the network.

The average Radio 4 listener is 53 and Boaden is conscious that people in what she describes as their "fabulous fifties" are "more affluent, they travel more, their health is often better and their tastes are conditioned by the rock'n'roll years". She says that the baby boom generation is "not instinctively deferential to authority" and that Radio 4 is becoming gradually more informal but she knows that casual blasphemy on the network will bring a deluge of complaints.

The network's comedy, she says, has "always been subversive", but adds that many Radio 4 listeners who "only listen to the Today programme" don't realise that the network has been the starting point for such television programmes as Little Britain, Dead Ringers, League of Gentlemen and Goodness, Gracious Me. Radio 4 also picked up Sony awards for the comedies The Now Show and I'm Sorry I Haven't A Christmas Carol, written by Graeme Garden and Iain Pattinson. Boaden's office is decorated with awards certificates, postcards of Scarborough - where she has a holiday home - and a Rasta flag from Bob Marley's wife Rita, who was interviewed on Radio 4 by Libby Purves. Indeed, a programme on Bob Marley, presented by Paul Gambaccini and covering a legendary concert at London's Lyceum theatre, won one of Radio 4's clutch of Sony's. Boaden described it as, "exhilarating to the point of bringing tears to your eyes".

The piece was an example of the diversity of Radio 4's output. Other prizes were won for features about reaching middle-age and about the legacy of the Vietnam war. Reporting awards were won by Hugh Sykes - who won news journalist of the year for his reports from Iraq - and Radio 4's foreign affairs programme Crossing Continents for its feature on the lot of women in India. Boaden is herself a distinguished broadcast journalist and won a Sony for best current affairs programme for her reporting on the growth of Aids in Africa.

Since she was appointed controller of Radio 4 in March 2000, her aim has been to encourage programme-makers from different parts of the network to work more closely. This will be exemplified by a D-Day weekend that will be a mixture of dramas, documentaries and discussions. Charles Wheeler will describe the circumstances that led to D-Day and later there will be What If the D-Day Landings had failed? - a debate with leading historians.

Boaden is a long-standing fan of The Archers and says she was "very proud" of the "quiet, careful way" the serial recently covered the issue of rural suicides with the death of Greg Turner. She adds that the programme manages to distance itself from the television soaps. "With The Archers we play things long and try to give a feel of what this is really like in life. People don't kill themselves in the way Greg did without a huge amount of pressure that as a listener you have to understand."

When asked what plans she has to take the network forward, Boaden invokes "revelatory journalism" but, perhaps aware of some of the "war weary" listeners, she says that her priority is to invest more in comedy. "It's important to take what you do seriously but you don't have to be solemn about everything," she says.

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