Radio 4 shaken by storm in a teabag

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The Independent Online
THE wrath of Radio 4 listeners has found a new focus, amid fresh claims that the station is being dragged downmarket.

Thousands wrote to have the daily afternoon show Anderson Country taken off air last year, claiming that it insulted their intelligence. Now some are saying the same about the light-hearted series No Job Too Small.

"Crass, trivial rubbish" is how one listener described the quirky show, which ended its four-part run on Thursday. Thanks to the virulent audience reaction, it looks unlikely to return.

Chris Dunkley, presenter of the Radio 4 access programme Feedback, said there had been a "chorus of complaints" about No Job Too Small. On last week's Feedback, due to be repeated today, one correspondent asked: "Are they still smarting about our comments on Anderson Country, and so punishing us with this?"

Others describe the show as trivial, dreadful, and "a load of drivel". Presenter Stuart Maconie, who also broadcasts on Radio 1, is patronising and flippant, they say. There are complaints about his Wigan accent, and one woman writes: "I thought I'd accidentally tuned to local radio, it was so inconsequential and banal."

Feedback regularly provides a voice to listeners convinced Radio 4 is letting itself and them down by chasing a younger, "hipper" audience. The show received an unprecedented 16,000 letters of complaint about Anderson Country during the latter's year-long run, which was brought to an end in January 1995.

Compared with that, the uproar over No Job Too Small is "a drop in the ocean", according to one BBC insider. But the criticism the show has received is still likely to be a major factor when the subject of a second series is discussed in late March. BBC schedules mean there is no chance of it returning this year.

No Job Too Small has included a history of the teabag, and two linguists discussing research into why the glove puppet Sooty is silent. It also commissioned an advertising agency to come up with replacements for the chants used at public demonstrations; the solution was an attack on the Government to the tune of the national anthem.

"People complain about everything on Feedback," said Nick Barker, producer of No Job Too Small. "They have a relationship with Radio 4 that they don't have with any other medium. They care deeply what happens."

He has received more than a dozen letters of support, including ideas for items. He defended the show's approach: the teabag item, for example, had been "quite a deep, intelligent investigation into where the teabag came from and how it has affected the tea-drinking habits of Britain. One person's trivia is another person's fun."

Mr Barker said he was glad to have regional accents on the show because "this idea that everyone is still walking around speaking received English is simply not true". He denied that the BBC had cancelled the show: "They commissioned four and they got four."

Mr Barker's company, Testbed Productions, has been responsible for more highbrow Radio 4 favourites. It also makes Feedback - providing exactly the kind of conflict of interest that worried listeners when the BBC put Feedback out to independent production last year.

No Job Too Small turned out far more downmarket than its original proposal, said a spokeswoman for Radio 4. Listeners were usually fascinated by minutiae, but the presentation and format had upset them. While it was a tradition on Feedback not to reveal the number of letters, she added: "Sometimes a "flood" of complaints to Feedback is no more than a dozen, it must be said."

Mary Sharp, commissioning executive for Radio 4, said No Job Too Small had not yet been reviewed, but audience reaction would be taken into account. "The fact that Feedback gave it a drubbing is not necessarily a death- blow."