Magic that can teach Radio 4 a few new tricks

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The Independent Online

The news that the fashion-conscious policy-makers at Broadcasting House have decreed that, at least for a year or so, children will be part of their audience is cause, I suppose, for muted celebration. "We should give children exposure to speech radio that is specifically aimed at them," Radio 4's controller Helen Boaden said this week, and if her words are not much of a rallying cry, they represent a significant advance on the kid-phobic policies of her predecessors.

The news that the fashion-conscious policy-makers at Broadcasting House have decreed that, at least for a year or so, children will be part of their audience is cause, I suppose, for muted celebration. "We should give children exposure to speech radio that is specifically aimed at them," Radio 4's controller Helen Boaden said this week, and if her words are not much of a rallying cry, they represent a significant advance on the kid-phobic policies of her predecessors.

From next year, 30 minutes on Sunday nights will be devoted to a children's programme which will include fiction readings, competitions and various internet-related jollities. In case it all seems too perilous a leap, Helen Boaden has emphasised that this is an experiment. "We will run it for at least a year to see if we can win an audience," she says.

Anyone conversant with BBC politics will detect the long, dark shadow of the focus group behind these words. The idea of interrupting the smooth, adult flow of Radio 4, and losing core listeners at a key moment in the early evening must alarm ratings-watchers, and Boaden has provided herself with an escape route should the pressure become too intense.

The problem is that, as recent radio history has shown, it takes a long time to establish new listening habits. When Radio 5 was originally launched, it was promoted as a station for news, sport and children's programmes. The few readings and dramatisations for children were not given that much air-time but gradually their regular 7.15 evening slot began to attract young listeners.

Not enough for the BBC, though. All too soon, Radio 5 was excitedly relaunched as a sports-based station - "Radio Bloke" as it came to be called. In place of programmes broadcast specifically for children, Radio 4 would place new emphasis on "family drama". Three years ago, that commitment was also quietly dumped.

Throughout this sorry saga - as abject a betrayal of public service broadcasting principles as one could fear to find - a few weary souls argued that there was a hunger for information and entertainment among children between the ages of six and 13.

But, for their own cynical reasons, politicians and broadcasters continued to see modern children as slack-jawed slaves to fashion, pop, computer games and trashy TV soap operas. Libraries were closed down. Budgets for books in schools were whittled away. The only programmes on offer to them from the BBC were pop shows on Radio 1.

All that was changed by the great cultural hero of our times, Harry Potter. Suddenly everything that a few teachers, librarians, authors and parents had been saying was confirmed by the ring of a million tills. Potter fans proved that children were indeed looking beyond the pap served up to them by cynical adults, that their enthusiasm could be kindled by a sustained, uncompromising work of the imagination - an old-fashioned story.

The worry is that, somewhere within the BBC, programme planners are looking for a share of the action, a bit of Potter-related magic to bring in new listeners. Of course, they will be disappointed. However successful it turns out to be, a half-hour weekly radio programme is never going to send the ratings soaring.

Personally, I would like to see the BBC leave wall-to-wall pop to its commercial rivals and transform Radio 1 into a music and talk station for young listeners. If there is little hope of that happening, I hope that Helen Boaden's Sunday night experiment will be granted the resources it deserves, that it is given time to work, and that those who run the BBC look beyond the listening figures to the qualitative effect it could have on the mind and listening habits of our children.

terblacker@aol.com

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