VIEWPOINT: The lost generation of radio

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The Independent Online
There isn't anyone in charge of children's radio programmes at Broadcasting House. The dismantling of the original Radio 5 marked an abject and dismal abdication by the BBC of its public service responsibility to provide radio for younger listener s.

As the recent Broadcasting Standards Council review of radio showed, children are basically excluded.

As a result, even though Radio 4's Sunday evening half-hour children's slot has been reinstated, letters of protest continue to fill its Feedback postbag. Last month the subject was aired yet again. Why no radio for kids? What is the BBC doing about it? When will children's programmes be back on the air?

Caroline Raphael, now head of radio drama but once editor of Radio 5's prizewinning range of children's plays, stories and features, faced the microphone to field some of these questions. But behind her defence of the indefensible there seemed to lurk a cowardy-custard Liz Forgan, managing director, BBC Radio, thumbing her nose at the nation's kids and mouthing BBC management's stand-off "shan't, so there!" reply.

The ditching of children's radio production talent and expertise put in place during Radio 5's three years was not about cost. Rolling news and sport is far more expensive. Nor was it about audience, for, in spite of the unheard of (in the field of communications) lack of publicity at the time of its launch, Radio 5 had in its short life begun to build regular audiences across a wide population spectrum for its pick'n'mix schedule; audiences who in the case of children's programmes now feel let down.

It wasn't even about whether the BBC should spend a proportion of the licence fee on an underage minority. There is nothing in the charter that says it should. At the BBC, children's radio is simply an idea that does not have the support of the broadcasters. Controllers, editors, producers and presenters all condone the same unspoken "let's not" consensus. Short of legislation, there is small hope of anything for children appearing in the BBC Radio schedules.

What about the independent sector? At first glance, its formatted breakfast-time, drive-time, night-time, personality-led, ratings-driven programming offers little scope for developing slots for younger listeners. This is radio that sells and, even then,a three-minute children's phone-in, quiz spot, talk show selling cornflakes is not going to satisfy those who write in to Feedback asking for a return of quality drama and a children's Saturday morning radio club.

But maybe enlightenment can be seen at the end of the tunnel in the form of Viva the station that has won a licence to broadcast in London and the South-east, starting next May. Although the station is mandated to target women in the 25-44 age bracket, one of the strands Viva will be carrying is programmes for children.

Katie Turner, Viva's managing director, emphasises that children are a fundamental part of the target audience for the new station and programming will reflect the station's commitment to making provision for them.

For a start, Ms Turner is planning to bring back a daily, short programme for pre-school children. She was a fan of Radio 5's children's serial Wiggly Park. She is also setting up a project with schools to introduce a broadcasting award that will encourage children to get involved in making radio programmes and a vox-pop series for the 8 to12s, covering subjects ranging from bullying to beefburgers. Even if children's access is limited to five-minute segments in Viva's 50/50 speech-music for mat, the station looks set to introduce some fresh new ideas on children's radio provision in among its fresh new ideas on audience targeting.

This is good news for London and the South-east but not much use for the rest. A proposal for a national children's network is being put together by Sound Start, a company set up by Sue Stranks and supported by a group of parents, teachers, writers and children's television celebs. Ms Stranks is bidding for the 105-107mHz bandwidth announced by the Radio Authority earlier this year.

But whether a network dedicated entirely to programmes for children is the way forward is debatable. Children listening at home hear what's on in the kitchen, which is usually the station their parents, carers or elders tune in to. Radio 4's Sunday evening slot recognises this. BBC Radio's other national networks could do the same thing. Short weekly slots for children on Radios 1, 2 and 3, custom-built to match the network style and well-trailed by station presenters, might even be welcomed by the adult audience with kids at home (or in the car). Listening would be shared.

This is the Katie Turner approach. It accepts that people do not always listen to radio in convenient market researchers' age groups. Home listening is a mish-mash for the ratings number conjuror, so pretending that children don't exist as part of the listening public is a neat way to solve the problem. But it is a pathetic solution and listeners are right to complain.

Fifty years ago, a 12-year-old sat with her younger sister at a BBC microphone and broadcast a message on Children's Hour that was recorded and re-broadcast to children evacuees in Canada and the United States. Being heir to the throne helped. Today's equivalent would be Princes William and Harry doing a broadcast on BBC Radio to mark a Christmas appeal for children. It might have happened on Radio 5. Now? Not likely.

The writer is former editor of children's news magazines on Radio 5.