Auntie won't go bopping

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The Independent Online
SCHOOL'S out for summer, and the house has suddenly become much noisier. The children, 11 and eight, have discovered the radio. From morning to late at night, if they're at home they're tuned to commercial radio in their bedrooms.

I'm watching from the sidelines in astonishment as they personify much larger media trends: half of all children under 16 now listen regularly to commercial radio, spurning the BBC. I suggest they might try other, more improving stations, only to be squashed by the 11-year-old: 'We like pop music, adverts and competitions, the others have boring programmes.'

Commercial radio is, of course, a rite of passage for teeny-boppers into a more 'grown-up', exciting world dominated by Take That. But it was with this troubling domestic tableau at the forefront that I made a hot, thirsty journey this week to the Birmingham Radio Academy Festival (thirsty, because on the hottest day of the year British Rail closed the buffet car due to 'adverse weather conditions').

During the conference Liz Forgan, managing director of BBC radio spoke of the medium's enormous and traditional power which it goes on exerting regardless of the expansion of video and computer games. 'It will go on being McLuhan's 'hot medium', engaging not just the intellect but the imagination of listeners in a way that goes straight to the bloodstream,' she said.

At that, I began quietly to wonder why, if radio goes straight to the bloodstream, the BBC excludes children and teenagers from its audience and ambitions. After all, the revolutionised Radio 1, now supposed to be more cool, is geared towards people in their twenties and too old in tone for children and teenagers. The aborted Radio 5 experiment, with its half- hearted stab at attracting children, has been replaced since March by an uneasy blend of news and sport: this appeals mainly to the over-thirties, although some boys do tune in for the football.

The BBC's official position is that there is nothing they can do about it: Radio 5 didn't work and children don't listen to radio any more. There is, however, the unfortunate fact that they do listen to commercial radio. Liz Forgan replies that the BBC can't devise a pure pop and unsophisticated service for teenyboppers and call it public service broadcasting. So parents should encourage their children to listen to stories on tape and

at a certain point in their late teens they will start to turn back to Auntie. But will they? And should a publicly funded body turn its back on such an important and impressionable audience?

After the conference a senior BBC manager conveyed a rather different message, telling me that there is a great deal of anxiety at the BBC: children seem to be rejecting a range of BBC programming, regarding radio and television output from Auntie as not for them. There was something wrong with the tone - it was perhaps a touch too patronising. Further, this rising generation is the first to have themed cable and satellite channels at their fingertips. It was possible they might be lost to public service broadcasting and that the past would not prove a reliable guide to the future.

For parents who are interested, my advice is to watch what Channel 4 does. It is building its own new children's department from scratch, and commissioning programmes afresh. This weekend it is holding a conference of 120 children to hear what they have to say. The new thinking suggests that you have to have programmes in which children are presenters, and discussions and sequences that spring from the children themselves, rather than adults surmising what will be good for them. Who knows if Channel 4 can pull off something challenging and watchable but of more ultimate value than the Big Breakfast? Or whether it will be enough to woo them away from mindless pop?

It's my firm view that an educational charity or a benefactor should try to set up an experimental children's radio channel to pilot a variety of formats. The BBC clearly won't try it but there's no reason why someone else shouldn't. Why leave a medium that enters our children's bloodstream completely to the commercial sector?

I'M SURE two lesbians can bring up a baby satisfactorily. But I was still moved by Damon Hill's remarks after winning the British Grand Prix. They reveal a great deal about the powerful role fathers can play. He said he'd been inspired by his father Graham Hill, who died when Damon was 15 without winning this Grand Prix. 'I had a lot of motivation to win here . . . not least the fact that my father never managed it.' The often overlooked point about families where there is a mother and a father is that they can provide a variety of role models, influences and interests which can enrich and motivate children. In an age when the role of a father can be reduced to donating sperm, is it not cheering to see how a father can inspire his son to greatness?