Leading Article: Auntie knows best

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The Independent Online
NEXT year, or shortly thereafter, the BBC intends to introduce a 24-hour rolling news service on the long-wave frequency now occupied by Radio 4. The BBC's flagship service will then be available only on FM. Many listeners claim that FM reception is patchy or poor in their areas, or that their receivers need constant retuning. Those who switch to the World Service from Radio 4 when the latter goes off the air after midnight would in future have to change waveband.

The plan, and the manner of its introduction, has outraged many of the BBC's most loyal supporters. They include, but are not limited to, educated, middle-class, middle-aged or elderly people - as well as those living on the Continent, who cannot receive British FM transmissions. The Prince of Wales has written to Marmaduke Hussey, the chairman of the BBC Board of Governors, asking for details of the planned change. The recently formed lobby group Campaign to Save Radio 4 Long Wave has attracted wide support, and its founder, Nick MacKinnon, is to meet BBC managers next week.

It is hard to know what they will find to talk about. The initial response from the BBC exemplifies the arrogance of those insulated from the market. Spokespeople were quoted yesterday as saying, for example, that there would be 'no turning back', that there was 'always a traditional pocket of radio listeners resistant to change', and that the BBC's decision was 'irreversible'. It is hard to believe that if Radio 4 were funded from advertising the BBC would have been so dismissive of its customers' concerns. And if a commercial institution did find it necessary to take a marketing decision that it knew would distress some of its most loyal clients, it would make great efforts to placate them.

The BBC claims that it has conducted extensive research which reinforces its belief that there is a demand for a non-stop news and current affairs channel. This is debatable. Politicians like rolling news because endless airtime has to be filled. The result is endless exposure for obscure backbenchers. The public is less enamoured of the sound of politicians' voices.

Much of the BBC's audience research was carried out during the atypical months of the Gulf crisis. At that time Radio 4 switched to a rolling news format quickly and efficiently. It attracted large numbers of listeners, most of whom apparently declared themselves very satisfied. There is a limited, but logical, conclusion to be drawn from this finding. During a prolonged national drama - in particular, one in which British lives are at stake - the public expects the BBC to supplement its regular programming with constantly updated news and analysis. What reason is there to jump from this to the claim that large numbers of people would listen to endless rolling news, day after day, week after week, when nothing very exciting or significant was happening?

To defend such a contention, the BBC would have to commission further market research and make the results widely available. Instead, the corporation will today tell Mr MacKinnon that Auntie knows best what its listeners ought to want, and that it intends to press ahead, however vociferously lobby groups protest. This is a poor introduction to the more open and responsive management style the BBC announced two months ago.