As the number of people over 65 exceeds the number of people under 16, a briefing paper from Help the Aged plops in my desk, followed by the BBC's brand new, shiny mission statement, full of uplifting terminology designed to impress the Government as the corporation enters a critical stage in its pleas for charter renewal. Help the Aged's report is the latest part of its valuable work, focusing our attention on how under-valued the elderly are in our society. We are approaching a time when a quarter of the population will be drawing a pension, but it's worth noting that the BBC, on the other hand, is still pretty obsessed with all things youthful, especially when it comes to the radio.
Radio 1, in spite of declining audiences, is still branded as the station playing "great new music for the young", ie everyone under 20. A horrible blokey attitude, expressed through presenters like Chris Moyles and "ladette" Sara Cox, prevails. Some people might say that Radio 1 has a particularly narrow view of what appeals to young people. I don't see any depth or intelligence in a lot of the output - it assumes its audience is under-educated and fun-seeking too much of the time for my taste, but then I only helped to invent youth TV so I can't know what I'm talking about.
The transformation of Radio 2 has been fascinating. It has been spectacularly successful as it has re-branded itself as the station for the thirty-somethings fleeing from Radio 1, featuring Jeremy Vine as Jimmy Young's replacement and Steve Wright, who both do an excellent job of combining music and topical conversation. But after reading through a few pages of the BBC's policy statement you start to feel the dead hand of worthiness infecting every page. What happened to the idea that a radio channel could be unique, distinctive, quirky - and not have to be all things to all listeners?
In its desperate bid to crawl on all fours to Tessa Jowell, retain the licence fee and get the charter renewed, the BBC has sprinkled ludicrous intentions throughout its brochure in a way most travel operators would baulk at. There is no way the BBC can live up to the lofty aspirations expressed in this document, nor should they.
Why does every radio channel have to promise learning, world culture, world music, and news and current affairs? Why does every channel seek to attract the young? What's wrong with deciding that you can serve one audience well, and maybe that audience is over 55 - in other words, the majority of your licence payers, the majority of the population and the majority of your available listeners, certainly during day-time? At times like this, I think the BBC might dream up documentary series about ageing, but they are like small sticking plasters on the corporation's wilful refusal to acknowledge the audience it is truly under-serving - and that is the elderly.
It is not racist or politically incorrect to question the growing amount of world music throughout all the radio channels. I remain to be convinced that it is the job of Radio 3 to tell me about music from Zaire or Timbuktu. It's not what I expect from the premier classical radio station in the world. And in the current climate of desperation, exemplified by this document, poor Radio 2 has to write a mission statement promising it will be offering us an "unrivalled range of musical genres", presented by experts who can communicate with listeners "with no specialist knowledge". Patronising, or what? Radio 2 has to promise to deliver documentaries on civil rights, South Africa and campaigns directed at students, as well as religious programming, folk music, big bands and jazz. Plus an arts series presented by Mariella Frostrup. By the way, Radio 1 is also promising news, sports bulletins, world music and documentaries. But it's when we get to the page extolling the planned output for Radio 3 that many listeners will finally throw up their hands in disgust. You won't be at all surprised to discover Radio 3 is also committed to (surprise, surprise) debates, discussion programmes, arts and cultural programming, world music, and education. Radio 4, of course, covers everything from documentaries to news and current affairs, arts and culture and international affairs. I'm only grateful that the thought police in Broadcasting House have not insisted that James Naughtie and John Humphrys front a series looking at the impact of world music on British post-war voting patterns, or an educational series telling young people the in-depth history of government press releases.
Five Live is, of course, committed to sport, news and live events. But it, too, has to cover "culture", although I think in their case this means a lot of football and rugby. The digital channels suffer, too, from an embarrassing need to please - 1Xtra promises to us that it will be playing 60 per cent music from abroad, and 10 per cent of the output will be news (again), documentaries and social action. Why? BBC 6 Music promises popular music, learning, social action campaigns and documentaries from the archive. It will be "celebrating British culture" as will BBC 7, which also promises plenty of "learning".
After an hour of reading this blatant grovelling, I felt mildly nauseous. It paints a more utopian future than any pre-election political manifesto. In the broadcasting reality of hundreds of competing radio stations, both analogue and digital, national and local, I would expect the BBC to take a deep breath and be prepared to be unique. It needs to have the guts to decide that it is not going to cover some areas, and then define each of its core stations in a highly focused and easily recognisable way. In short, each radio channel should be a brand you and I can easily identify and select or reject accordingly. Why does every channel need to have specially tailored news bulletins for a start? News is news, after all, whether you live in Swindon or Inverness, eat vegetables or play the tambourine. And the crazed need to "educate" us, no matter where we rotate the dial, is worrying. Do we have so many problems that we need advice shows on station after station? Why can't Radio 3 simply play classical music? Where is the evidence that proves a growing number of listeners seek world music alongside opera and the proms, baroque music or Stravinsky? Why does every piece of music on Radio 3 have to be so over-explained?
Saturday morning, once my favourite time for radio in the whole week, has gradually been eroded as more and more phrases, like "coming up in the next hour", followed by an interminable menu, fill up more and more airtime. Can I make a plea for Radio 3 to retain its unique distinctiveness. I can just about cope with the jazz, but the increasing amount of drama and arts programming is a real cause for concern. These programmes are fine in themselves, but they represent an increasing blurring of the points of difference between Radio 3 and Radio 4.
This policy statement is a dog's breakfast, and only serves to underline the deep insecurity at the heart of the corporation. If I was Ms Jowell, I would lob this glossy tome straight back to Broadcasting House and demand a rethink - she should order the BBC to dare to be different and stop appealing to the young and undereducated. In order to reach everyone, you have to go up-market as well as down.Reuse content