What now for Radio 4?

Ian Burrell reveals the names in the frame to replace Mark Damazer, and asks leading figures their hopes for the station's future
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The Independent Online

On the BBC Radio 4 message boards and the micro-blogging site Twitter, not long after The Independent broke the story of the unexpected departure of the network controller Mark Damazer, the cry went up: "Can we have the Radio 4 UK Theme back please?"

It was Damazer who, barely 18 months into the job, axed the medley of patriotic music which for nearly three decades had welcomed in Radio 4's day, a prelude to The Shipping Forecast. Composed by Fritz Spiegel, the arrangement included bursts of "Rule Britannia", "Men of Harlech" and "What Shall We Do with the Drunken Sailor?"

The Radio 4 audience – like that of BBC Radio 3 – is famously resistant to change but the UK Theme appears to have had its time. The controversy that its demise attracted four years ago did not translate yesterday into a 2010 Twitter storm, nor any sort of campaign on the BBC website.

The consensus seems to be that, as with much else during his time as Radio 4 controller, Mark Damazer got this decision right. "While we're at it, let's bring back cylinder recordings and radio presenters dressed in evening dresses and dinner suits, which we can listen to on our crystal sets," was one sarcastic response to the call for the return of the medley.

Damazer has built the Radio 4 audience to record levels with a policy of subtle and gradual reform, without frightening off his core listeners. In a blog posting yesterday in which he expressed the hope that he had left the network "in good shape" he explained that he was leaving in October to take up a role as head of St Peter's College, Oxford, because "I wanted a complete change and I have always had a profound respect and interest in academic life and academics".

He also expressed a fear that by staying too long in the job he might become insensitive to the creative talents of his colleagues. "I did not want to run the risk of my ideas drying up," he said.

A double first graduate at Cambridge, Damazer released a further statement through St Peter's College in which he expressed the view that there were cultural similarities between the institution and Radio 4. "I look forward to furthering St Peter's reputation as a community of scholars and one characterised by real friendliness. I am moving from one great British public institution to another. Although there will be many differences, they share a common belief in creativity and excellence – and I can think of nothing more stimulating than being surrounded by people in pursuit of knowledge."

By moving into academia, Damazer follows a similar path to former BBC colleagues turned Oxbridge principals Tim Gardam (St Anne's College, Oxford) and Patricia Hodgson (Newnham College, Cambridge).

Mark Thompson, the BBC director general, yesterday paid tribute to his friend's record as being "characterised by integrity, total commitment to depth and quality, and a dedication to serving audiences".

Inevitably, speculation has started about who will be Damazer's successor. Among the names being put forward are the senior BBC radio executive Graham Ellis, the controller of the digital television station BBC4, Richard Klein, and the former head of Newsnight and now Google communications executive Peter Barron.

Change the station? Experts give their view

Melvyn Bragg Presenter of In Our Time

I thought Mark was a first-rate controller. He has got a good news background and I think the news bulletins on Radio 4 are tremendous, they keep me better informed than anything else. People have their likes and dislikes about certain sections of the output, and talent comes and goes, but I think Mark has been a very good leader. A History of the World in 100 Objects and that sort of thing – he is prepared to go in for event radio. He did four programmes before anybody else on Darwinism, which we did at the beginning of last year. At the start of this year on In Our Time we did a history of The Royal Society and it took me four days on the trot to do it, which is bold I think. He does that for other subjects as well. Anybody taking over that job clearly has to do some reshaping – I wouldn't comment on the decommissioning of The Friday Play because I just don't know enough about it. He's clearly an extremely intelligent man and going to head an Oxford college, if he was going to leave broadcasting, that's where you think he would end up.

Trevor Dann Chief executive, The Radio Academy

I think the station has never been healthier. I think Mark has done a brilliant job of what you should always do on Radio 4, which is to sustain it. It's such a great cultural icon and controllers who have tried to change it over the years have always suffered. All he has done is strengthen its strengths – the figures show that, because the audience numbers are as high as they have ever been. He has made it a little bit younger without frightening anyone, he has moved a few pieces of furniture around, but it's still a place everyone feels comfortable. He's a man with several brains and The History of the World in 100 Objects is a very Mark Damazer idea, very intellectual. But it's also a really popular idea: Radio 4 at its best is both intellectually demanding and popular. I think he grasped that from the day he walked in. He was a man who came into the job without much experience in radio, which is often a recipe for disaster, but he took time to find out how radio works – he didn't just say "I'm from television, I know how to make this place better." He nurtured the place.

Hedli Niklau Managing director of Archers Addicts, the official fan club of The Archers

He has been very freeing and has enabled the show to go ahead. You are never quite sure when you have a change at the top, if they don't listen to the programme it's really tough. When we met Mark he knew who we were – he actually knew the storylines. He's very bright but he did have the emotion with it, it wasn't all cerebral. As The Archers is pretty visceral, it was nice to have that connection. It will be interesting to see what happens now.

It's a big job, they have a lot of programmes to look after. Everyone is so accessible and contact is very immediate – I can only imagine that adding to the pressures of the job.

I think The Archers casts a lure. You can get somebody who comes in who doesn't listen to it but they attend the meetings and then they get involved. It's one of the extraordinary things about The Archers that we all get seduced into it. Whoever we get as controller – partly because The Archers is a flagship for the station – they will get drawn into it. If something has gone on for nearly 60 years it could very easily become moribund and just lie fallow, but in order to keep it going for the next 60 years you do have to tackle contemporary themes. I think Mark was very aware of that.

Tim Luckhurst Professor of Journalism at the University of Kent and biographer of Radio 4's Today programme

Mark Damazer was one of the very few survivors of the Hutton inquiry at the BBC who came out on top. He had been very much involved, as deputy director of news in everything that went on. He was investigated as part of the BBC's internal kangaroo court and I think it left a very permanent mark on him. He was appointed to restore confidence at Radio 4 and that essentially means restoring confidence at the key network news programmes which are the audience drivers. Without the Today programme, The World at One, PM and The World Tonight, the audience would be pretty small.

Under Damazer, the journalism has become careful, meticulous, sometimes entertaining but it hasn't been agenda-setting. He is a very good journalist and understands the BBC's power to investigate and set agendas for the nation, but the consequence of his experience with Hutton was that he recognised R4 was going to have to restore its reputation. Fairness, balance and creativity have thrived under him, but the investigative ethos has been entirely abandoned.

Can his successor revive that excitement? Mark needed to modernise the main news programmes – Evan Davis as a presenter of the Today programme was a fantastic appointment for which he deserves huge credit. Eddie Mair too. But Today has too many male presenters. Mark has found a replacement for John Humphrys in Davis, but the question for his successor is who will be the other main presenter? Radio 4's audience is driven by news and current affairs, and if the Today programme doesn't hold up it doesn't leave a legacy for the programmes that follow it. I think it's crucially important that his successor is a journalist. When Mark Thompson was looking to replace the previous controller he only looked at journalists. Radio is being gradually undermined at the BBC by increasing investment in television and online. It's really important that the BBC invests in radio journalism.

Jez Nelson BBC Radio presenter and head of Somethin' Else, producers of Gardeners' Question Time

Mark Damazer is that rare beast who is reknowned as a great intellect but he also has this fantastic sense of what his audience wants. He has the Radio 4 equivalent of the common touch. He has got the ability to combine high thought with excellent broadcasting instincts. Somethin' Else is a company with a background in music production and programmes for a younger demographic, yet Mark Damazer and his team have taken a risk on us. Inevitably he knows more than you do about the subject you are professing to be a specialist in. He will interrogate and challenge your ideas intensively and yet be enormously supportive. Gardeners' Question Time is one of the crown jewels on Radio 4 and you mess with it at your peril. We were given the contract nine months ago and Mark saw an appetite in us for a very gradual renovation of the programme. He has done a good job of creating standout moments in the schedule which don't lack intellectual rigour but have a populist touch to them, entertaining as well as informative.