Talking about a revolution

Watch out folks, BBC head of radio Jenny Abramsky is thinking big: five new multi-genre, multi-racial digital stations.
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The Independent Online

What does the woman who launched Radio 5 Live do next? The answer of course is create Radios 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10. While the BBC story to grab the headlines has been the debate over changes to the time of the television news, a significant story has been taking shape rather more quietly in radio.

What does the woman who launched Radio 5 Live do next? The answer of course is create Radios 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10. While the BBC story to grab the headlines has been the debate over changes to the time of the television news, a significant story has been taking shape rather more quietly in radio.

Jenny Abramsky, director of BBC Radio, last week announced five new digital stations. They don't yet have names, but she says she is not ruling out giving them numbers that will take her empire into double figures. They don't come on air until next year, and much more progress will have to be made on manufacturing and bringing down the price of digital radios if we are ever to hear them. But there is little doubt that both those things will happen, and that the energetic and forceful Ms Abramsky is about to bring a new dimension to the BBC.

She has already brought a new dimension several times. The 53-year-old who joined the BBC in 1969 has launched Radio 5 Live, BBC News 24 and BBC News Online in her various roles in the corporation. And when she was editor of the Today programme in 1986 she was the woman who brought in John Humphrys. Actually, a Humphrys-Abramsky interview would be one to treasure. The man who interrupts versus she who will not be interrupted. When Abramsky is in full flow, Humphrys and Paxman in tandem wouldn't get a word in.

This is partly because she is passionate about radio. And it has to be said that in her lengthy perorations, delivered at breakneck speed, she does not resort to the sort of waffle or evasions she wanted Humphrys to cut through on the Today programme. Unlike many at the corporation she admits to a private life, and is happy to talk about what her family thinks of the radio stations she runs. She has interests outside the all too claustrophobic world of broadcasting (in 1990 she received the accolade of "Woman of Distinction" from Jewish Care, one of the country's major voluntary social welfare organisations). She is also not afraid to be honest about what has been wrong with Radios 1,2, 3 and 4.

Of the James Boyle era at Radio 4, she can be particularly scathing, even though Abramsky, appointed head of radio by John Birt in January 1999, was Boyle's boss in his last year at the station.

"In that first year of changes," she says, "there were quite a number of programmes that weren't good enough. The quizzes were terrible, as were some of the new comedies. The Today programme wasn't good enough, particularly the first half hour and last half hour. But Radio 4 has now improved no end."

Abramsky admits that she can get "emotional" in the job; colleagues say she can shout. But both she and they were highly irritated by a recent piece in The Daily Telegraph which said she would burst into tears at BBC meetings. That is something she has never done. "It was a highly sexist thing to write," she says.

Abramsky is widely recognised in the corporation as a powerful and effective force whose regime could stabilise BBC radio after some years of ill-received changes, and restore the faith of many alienated programme makers.

Of the networks themselves, she gets angry at the suggestion that Radio 2 is ageist, exclaiming "What! It is welcoming and companionable," spanning the generations, attracting devotees of Frank Sinatra but also devotees of folk, classic rock and Jonathan Ross. Radio 3, like 4, is much improved, she says, defined in her view by Late Junction, the nightly eclectic mix of classical, jazz and world music (Paul Merton started doing trailers for Radio 3 because he had discovered Late Junction). Abramsky believes that one programme "can almost change the perception of a network". Radio 1, she seems to have no problems with. Or maybe she is canny enough to leave that to younger heads.

Her new digital stations are a classsic rock station which will raid BBC archives for performances by and interviews with, legendary groups and solo artists; a spoken word service built on Radio 4's tradition - with the emphasis on family listening - offering drama, comedy and unabridged readings; a national BBC Asian network, which will build on an existing service operated by BBC Leicester; a black music, news and speech service aimed at young people; a sports service which will be an enhancement of the existing Radio 5 Live.

Abramsky is keen that the Asian and black services bring in new audiences and indeed new talent as broadcasters. News in partiular will be tailor-made for the different audiences. "I don't believe there is just one news agenda," she says. "Radio has always had a tradition that its news services were tailor-made for its networks. Look at what Newsbeat has done for Radio 1. It happens in newspapers. With the Telegraph, Guardian and Mail there are a number of news agendas going on."

Greg Dyke's appointment as director-general clearly gave a lift to both Abramsky and the perception of radio in the BBC. "Greg has put radio on the top table," she says. "For the last four years radio wasn't on the executive committee of the BBC. Therefore the people running radio didn't have direct access to the director-general and the governors."

She now wants to bring controllers more into contact with programme makers. "You have to have controllers who listen, who inspire, who form partnerships. Unlike television, we didn't have a compulsory 25 per cent of programmes from outside, yet we have in-house departments who are insecure, in-house departments who were at war with each other."

Abramsky was educated at Holland Park comprehensive, where fellow pupils in that school's famous early days included Tony Benn's son Hilary. She recalls going on an Aldermaston "Ban the Bomb" march just as she recalls rarely leaving school before nine in the evening, staying for debates and drama workshops. And she was always a radio addict. "At university, groups of us would sit down to listen to Shakespeare on the radio."

Her own children, a 23-year-old son and 20-year-old daughter, often prove her sounding boards and toughest critics. But they also prove one of her links to what young people are listening to (some of her son's friends dip into Radio 2) and how important they think radio is.

At last week's press conference to announce the arrival of the new digital stations, one journalist questioned whether the young people some of these stations were aimed at, would listen. Abramsky retorted triumphantly: "My daughter has just returned to university. And the first thing she has done is buy a new portable radio."