Leading Article: The BBC in danger of losing its voices

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The Independent Online
ASKED to name Britain's most sought-after media personality, most people could come up easily with a list: Noel Edmonds, Jeremy Paxman, Anna Ford, Stefan Buczacki . . . Stefan Buczacki? Yes. The former acting chairman of the panel on Gardeners' Question Time has just proved his celebrity status by defecting, along with four of his fellow-panellists - and no doubt a sizeable proportion of the Radio 4 programme's 1 million listeners - to Classic FM. Is the stardom thus being conferred on Dr Buczacki and his colleagues an isolated phenomenon, or part of a bigger trend?

Behind the panellists' defection is partly an old-fashioned cock-up. The BBC bruised Dr Buczacki's ego by asking him to stand in as chairman of the gardening panel after Clay Jones retired, but then awarding the permanent laurel crown to someone else. The good doctor and his colleagues were also dismayed at the casual way in which the BBC failed to offer them long-term contracts, and worried by rumours that their visits to village halls and local gardening societies, a mainstay of the programme's current format, would be abolished. They promise to preserve such visits on their Classic FM show.

But the gardeners' defection could be a mere acorn by comparison with oaks to come. Since 1955, the BBC has had to compete with ITV for faces, but its national radio monopoly tempted it to underrate its voices. With the arrival of Classic FM and Virgin 1215, those radio personalities are becoming more conscious of their own value. If their presence on a rival station can persuade conservative BBC listeners who leave their radios tuned to a single station to switch permanently, their market price is certain to rise. Competition may thus resurrect the radio star, whom many people believed had been killed by the birth of television.

The lesson for Michael Green, the controller of Radio 4, is clear. With one eye on his ratings, he must learn to treat those hitherto unassuming radio voices with more deference. How he does it must be his own concern: if he cannot afford large pay rises across the board, a generous quarterly lunch would be a good start. But unless he starts to take them more seriously, the presenters of other long- established BBC radio programmes - from Desert Island Discs to Just a Minute - may heed the call of the market.