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Radio 4 fans claim victory

Campaigners fighting to keep their favourite BBC station on long wave until FM reception is improved believe they have won their case. Nick Cohen reports
CAMPAIGNERS fighting to prevent the BBC cutting off hundreds of thousands of Radio 4 listeners claimed victory yesterday and called off what had promised to be a remarkable demonstration by middle-class England outside Broadcasting House.

Last Thursday, the BBC governors backed their managers' plans to put a rolling 24-hour news

service on long wave and confine Radio 4 to one FM frequency. But they imposed a severe practical restriction on the project by adding that the change would not be introduced until they were 'satisfied that the transmission arrangements (for Radio 4 on FM) meet the listeners' need throughout the UK'.

After talking to senior BBC figures, the 'Save Radio 4 Long Wave' campaign decided yesterday that the governors' statement was a cast-iron guarantee that listeners who cannot receive FM would not be forced to tune in to rolling news - nicknamed 'rolling bollocks' by BBC journalists convinced it will consist of little else but 24-hour waffle and punditry.

BBC insiders said the ruling was a setback for supporters of rolling news within the corporation.

The service was originally due to start in the autumn of 1993, they said. As late as last Tuesday, Tony Hall, the BBC's director of news and current affairs, was saying the channel would begin 'no later than January 1994'. But the governors said that all they were prepared to authorise was an

'operational planning date' of 5 April, 1994 for the launch.

Nick MacKinnon, a maths teacher at Winchester College, who organised the campaign, said: 'This looks like a victory. The key concession is that listeners' needs will be met 'throughout the UK'. That means the BBC must ensure that all homes receive a good FM signal without being forced to buy special equipment.

'If BBC managers try to wriggle out of this, we will go to the High Court and seek an injunction against them for going against the governors' orders.'

Mr MacKinnon said that the several thousand listeners he had called on to march through London next Saturday should abandon their silent demonstration.

Listeners should instead telephone Broadcasting House (071- 5804468) and ask the engineers' department how it intends to provide clear FM reception in all parts of the country.

Mr Hall has claimed that 96 per cent of homes in Britain can already receive Radio 4 on FM.

But Martin Charman, a former BBC technician, who is now chief engineer for the London local station Jazz FM, said this figure should be treated with caution.

BBC engineers tested signal strengths by setting up an aerial on a 10-metre pole on top of a van and pointing it towards a transmitter, he said. 'What they mean when they say 96 per cent of homes can receive Radio 4 FM is that 96 per cent of homes with radios plugged into an aerial on top of a 30ft pole can receive FM. They are not talking about listeners who like to wander round their house with a tranny.'

Radio 4 long wave gives national coverage because the signal is on a low frequency which passes through obstacles such as mountains, he added. By contrast, FM signals are weakened by obstacles. They cannot reach remote communities in valleys unless hundreds of expensive booster stations are built. Even in big cities an FM signal can be fuzzy because it follows a 'multi-path' - bouncing off buildings.

The governors said that medium-wave frequencies could be used to supplement the deficiencies of FM in England. European listeners, who are also threatened with losing Radio 4 when rolling news comes to long wave, could have the Radio 4 signal beamed to them via the Astra satellite.

If rolling news is delayed until a national FM service is in place - and there are many in the campaign who do not trust the governors' promises - it will be a triumph for Mr MacKinnon, 29, a Radio 4 addict, and the listeners whose anger he tapped.

The campaign began at the end of September when Mr MacKinnon, who did 'not even protest against the poll tax', had a modest letter read out on Feedback - a programme which highlights listeners' complaints. 'I am willing to act as a temporary secretary for a campaign to save Radio 4 long wave,' it said, and the presenter gave his address.

The next morning a bundle of letters about the thickness of a cornflake packet arrived. Every day since, Mr MacKinnon's postman - fortunately a vigorous opponent of rolling news - has had to drag a sack of mail to his door.

By the end of last week, Mr MacKinnon, who had expected 300 replies, had received 10,000. Friends and neighbours were called in to help but could not cope. Mr MacKinnon was reduced to bribery. His pupils at Winchester received cans of beer for answering the letters.

'The BBC was showing contempt for its listeners. Whether you think rolling news is a good or bad idea is neither here nor there. The point is, it is profoundly

immoral to cut off hundreds of thousands of lovers of quality

radio. I was furious and so was the rest of the audience,' he said.


These extracts are taken from some of the 10,000 letters written in support of the Save Radio 4 Long Wave campaign:

My new radio will not receive FM in West Sussex, unless I stand holding the aerial - J Blakemore,

West Sussex

As a night worker, I go to sleep listening to Today and wake up to The Archers. I would be devastated to lose the one real treasure this country has - Margaret Wild, Cheltenham

There is nothing remotely similar to Radio 4. Where do we go if we cannot get it? - Alison Chandler, Gravesend

Current news programmes are already tediously repetitive -

C and Z Bellow, south London

Who wants 24-hour news anyway? Life is depressing enough - B F Smith, Northants

(Photograph omitted)