Radio 4's controller, James Boyle, threatens to chuck out the chintz on Radio 4, but he has been greeted like the Emperor Titus at the temple gates, about to cast the BBC into the dumbed-down diaspora. No, he is not actually going to touch The Archers or the Today programme - they are indeed sacrosanct. But he may murder 20 or even 30 other hallowed programmes - the biggest shake-up ever.
The gnashing of false teeth was as predictable as the news pips. It is always the most bone-headed who shout loudest about "dumbing down": they should know. Take the Express denouncing the "tripe" the BBC puts out, warning (wrongly) that comedies, quizzes and celebrity chat-shows will replace "heavyweight shows - or what pass for such at Broadcasting House." With lunatic nostalgia they recall the glory days of Two Way Family Favourites and Take It From Here: "Lord Reith will turn in his grave." The Sunday Times and The Times, pursuing their unwavering assaults on the BBC under Murdoch's approving eye, pitched in with stories of a cultural holocaust. They should look at themselves.
What are we talking about here? Why does Middle England's pulse start to race if anyone breathes the words "Radio 4" and "change" in the same sentence? What are these national values vested in Radio 4's bizarre hotch- potch of programmes, some very good, some dreadful, many mediocre? So far, we only know that change will come. Some programmes are for the mincer, others will be moved. On 24 July we shall see whether dumber dishes will take their place, or maybe a better, richer menu. Improvement would not be very difficult. But selling the new cuisine will be well-nigh impossible. Bring back our Snoek! Why, Oh Why...? We can write the Feedback letters now.
The loudest threats come from Parliament, because Yesterday in Parliament will almost certainly go - a tombstone in the schedule that has the listeners turning off with an almost vertical drop on the graph. Yet the Speaker herself has promised to intervene. Concern, she said, was "shared by millions of people outside and I certainly share it myself". What millions, Madam Speaker, and why aren't they listening? Boyle has done his research meticulously - and they turn off in droves for YIP. After all, the newsworthy debates make it on to the news without a protected slot. As for the rest of the day's business, even MPs can't be bothered to listen to one another (it takes TV to show us the deserted green benches on important debates), so why should the rest of us have to listen in the name of democratic duty?
Now this will be the best test of the BBC's resolve - can they for once resist the vanity of politicians? Good at resisting political pressure these days, they are hopeless at dealing with political vainglory. All in all, the BBC puts out unwarranted acres of politicians talking for fear of political retribution at licence-fee time. Politicians fight to be on at 8.10am, fondly imagining it to be the hot spot, but Boyle's research shows it has become the turn-off-in-droves slot. (Could that be because the politicians do appear then?)
What goes out in the prime 7.50am slot? Daftly, Thought for the Day, when the figures dip right down as people like me reach for the off button, turning on again at 8am for the news. Will Boyle dare drop God? Or relegate her to a snooze-button slot along with Farming Today? Standing up to God is almost as difficult as standing up to Parliament - but that will be another good test of Boyle's radicalism. Start the Week and Moral Maze appear to be due for the removal van. The plunge after nine o'clock leaves them not much of a leg to stand on - although I like them both very much. As for Midweek, Libby Purves's cosy encounters with nude trapeze artists, dumb or what? So is the fascinatingly frightful Archers - horrible characters doing nothing much - but who would dare shuffle off Shula's mortal coil?
The schedule is littered with colourless specialist niches - You and Yours, Moneybox, Science Now, all that God, gardening and nature study ("Sssh, isn't that a Greater Crested Snoek, Mike?"). Taking a scythe to these middling fillers would hardly be the sack of Rome. Boyle's research suggests specialist audiences do not specially seek out their niche programmes, while others turn them off. We all have our own tastes. Vociferous R4 listeners will take to the streets - or at least to their Basildon Bond notelets - in their thousands when the new schedule is announced. But never mind them. The many more millions who leave R4 for music channels every day, returning only for The Archers and the news programmes are the prize Boyle has his eye on. No reason to think they are dumb or young. The average R4 listener is 53, not a problem since it has stayed much the same for the past 10 years. Idiots and youth are not the target audience, so Boyle the Destroyer may turn out to be Boyle the Better. He wants more fine radio writing, thoughts and ideas instead of shallow Punch and Judy mock controversy on tired issues. (Soapbox is currently the worst.)
Why does R4 stir the cricket stumps of Old England? Because in their dreams R4 means seed cake and Darjeeling, warm beer and spinsters on bikes, when policemen were old, pews were full and India was ours. Betjeman's England yearning for Kipling's "If" and Jerusalem. Oh bring back all our yesterdays! (And Mrs Dale's Diary too.)
Of course R4 is no such thing. It is a spotted dick of a channel - a fair dollop of stodge studded randomly with many rich currants - invidious to pick particular favourites but I shall: Poetry Please, Analysis, A Good Read, Barchester, Sorry I Haven't a Clue, new plays, From Our Own Correspondent and, well, add in any others of your own. Will Boyle spoon out the duff and add more fruit?
Conservatives, by their nature, presume all change is always for the worse. Sometimes they have a point - for dumbing-down in the media is not imaginary. As we grow more affluent, educated and discriminating, the supermarkets, services, clothes designers and home furnishers all strive upwards in taste, quality and sophistication. So why does the media tend to head the other way? Why should cut-throat competition for viewers, listeners and readers so often cause a plunge for the lowest common denominator? Radio 4 can afford to swim against that trend and see whether better can also mean more listeners. As they used to say in the BBC's good old days, only time will tell - but change looks to me more like a promise than a threat.Reuse content