Robert Hanks: Too many repeats on the Beeb? This time bosses had no choice

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The Independent Online

A honking horn is not easy to interpret. When drivers honked at pickets outside Broadcasting House yesterday, reporters assumed that it was an expression of support for the 24-hour strike, and they may have been right.

A honking horn is not easy to interpret. When drivers honked at pickets outside Broadcasting House yesterday, reporters assumed that it was an expression of support for the 24-hour strike, and they may have been right.

But to me it seems likely their honks were saying something else entirely: they were outpourings of frustration and disgust at a strike that could take out swathes of Radio 4 and Radio Five Live, while Chris Moyles carried on intact on Radio 1.

Before the strike, Bectu had talked in terms of "black screens and dead air"; by last night, it seemed the elusive "John Cage moment" was not going to happen. News was worst affected - with Dermot Murnaghan and Natasha Kaplinsky both unwilling to cross picket lines, BBC1's Breakfast was reduced to a swift bowl of cornflakes washed down with half a glass of tinned orange juice.

Elsewhere, television news joined forces with BBC News 24, where they are used to eking meagre resources out into hours of screentime. On Radio 4, The Today Programme was replaced by documentaries and light entertainment, with a 15-minute news bulletin at 8am. Prospective listeners to PM at 5pm instead got Annie Nightingale reminiscing about the Glastonbury Festival - which puts Eddie Mair in his place.

Never shy of filling the schedule with repeats, the BBC slipped in a few extras. On BBC1, since the opening of the Chelsea Flower Show couldn't be done they slipped in last year's opening instead. On Radio 4, the usual live editions of Start the Week, Woman's Hour and You and Yours were replaced by one-off specials from the last few months. On Radio 5, where news alternated with recorded material half-hourly, Simon Mayo had an enjoyable chat with film critic Mark Kermode about the sheer awfulness of the latest Star Wars film. It was a repeat from Friday's show.

The most shocking thing, though, was how little difference the strike made for large tracts of the day. True, that was partly because many presenters decided the strike was not their affair, and turned up anyway: Radios 1 and 2 were virtually unscathed, despite Jeremy Vine's absence.

But it was also a reflection of the nature of digital technology - most of Radio 3's music for, instance, just needs a button to be pressed. The lack of noticeable difference suggests - since it was live shows that got bumped off - that the BBC values spontaneity and live broadcasting, more than the listeners do.

On Radio 3, the Monday lunchtime concert was to feature a live appearance by the Hagen Quartet, playing Beethoven, Shostakovich and Haydn: instead, listeners got CDs of the quartet playing Beethoven, Shostakovich and Haydn - not quite what was billed, but I didn't feel cheated. A few more strikes and this sort of thing may grate; but at the moment, I wonder whether in choosing to strike, the unions were confusing symbolic effects with practical ones.

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