`You forgot to blame me for the death of Lord Reith'
Despite the loss of DJ Steve Wright and the axing of `Anderson Country' , Liz Forgan, MD of BBC Radio, argues that the network is in rude health
Sunday 22 January 1995
Nothing, insists Liz Forgan, managing director of BBC network radio. Or at any rate, nothing to warrant the "crisis at BBC Radio" speak doing the industry rounds this week. "I would utterly refute any suggestion that there is a generalised problem. Thereis generalised vigour and energy, I think, in response to change."
Since her big money transfer from Channel 4 nearly two years ago, Ms Forgan has been dodging flak: she has faced violent criticism and petitions over Anderson Country; the decision to suspend normal play on long wave Radio 4 for Test Match Special; and the uprooting en masse of the Gardener's Question Time team to the national commercial station, Classic FM.
Radio 1 has, meanwhile, displayed all the adhesive quality of Teflon, losing more than 4 million listeners after the radical shake-up of its output and line-up in autumn 1993, and contributing to BBC radio's share of listening falling below commercial radio for the first time last October.
"You forgot to blame me for the death of Lord Reith," she adds with a smile.
Ms Forgan's main interest outside work is singing soprano in churches with a chamber music group. At the office, praising the Corporation comes first.
"I was born listening to Radio 4. I came to the BBC because I love the way BBC radio is, not because I hate it and want to destroy it." And she means it. In fact, Ms Forgan is arguably the corporation's most articulate ambassador - an excellent politician and intellectually rigorous. Her defence of the BBC's radio strategy is robust. Take Radio 1. In autumn 1993, Matthew Bannister, the station's controller, set in train an overhaul of the schedule that led to the departure of ageing DJs Dave Lee Travis,Simon Bates and Gary Davies - and a growing emphasis on speech and youthful vigour.
With more live music, new bands, factual and comedy output, many would contend Radio 1 is more lively, intelligent and distinctive. But not everyone.
Some decline was inevitable, but the scale has alarmed many at the BBC.
Their anxiety was hardly allayed last autumn when Stephen Dorrell, the Secretary of State for National Heritage, said, in direct reference to Radio 1, that as audiences fell then so the case for the universal licence fee diminished. But Ms Forgan argues:"Success or failure for Radio 1 can never be measured solely in terms of numbers . . . it's to do with quality as much as quantity.
"Don't forget that Radio 1 is still twice the size of its nearest rival. Because it's supported by the licence fee, it's free to be more ambitious in what it offers that young audience than commercial radio can ever be - in terms of range of music, experimenting with comedy.
"It's actually in extremely good shape. It has a real sense of forward momentum."
Ms Forgan denies that decisions to end the attempt to integrate news into a drive-time slot, or replacing Danny Baker's Sunday morning show with an oldies format represent U-turns in strategy. Instead, they are "fine-tunings". A similar distinction between strategy and execution applies to the changes at Radio 4. There has been a concerted effort by Michael Green, controller of Radio 4, to make the network more appealing to younger people.
Getting more regional accents on air became the convenient shorthand, although Ms Forgan insists she has never "declared an affection for lovely Brummie accents".
The Brookside-isation of the Archers with more challenging storylines, comic innovation in On the Hour, the feisty post-breakfast debate of Start the Week and Moral Maze, and the transplanting of Woman's Hour to coffee-time all represent successful attempts to invigorate the schedule while remaining true to Radio 4's programming integrity.
However, it was Anderson Country, probably the most reviled programme in radio history, that came to symbolise the apparent mugging of the station by a bunch of cultural hooligans.
Ms Forgan believes that the programme was a "triumphant success" as demonstrated by "rock solid" listening figures. Judging from last week's events, the problem was not the programme, but the presenter - the laid-back Ulsterman Gerry Anderson - and his drawly delivery.
On why the BBC has lost ground to commercial radio, Ms Forgan says it's "not because we're not producing terrific radio stations that people love . . . you can't move from a virtual monopoly to a position of having 150 competitors without losing market share."
Ms Forgan believes increased competition has purged the medium of its "patronising backwater" image in favour of something "fizzy and exciting".
Perhaps. But the question remains, how many listeners can the BBC lose before it stops being interesting and is accepted as a problem?
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