Comment: They mixed it up, we switched off

Joan Smith@polblonde
Monday 05 October 2015 01:22

EARLIER THIS year, in the run-up to the introduction of its new schedule, listeners were bombarded with lectures from the controller of Radio 4, James Boyle. As Mr Boyle enthused about the delights to come - quiz shows, a new Sunday-evening edition of The Archers - two things became apparent. First, the new schedule represented a trivialisation of Radio 4, with flagship current affairs programmes such as The World At One truncated to make way for inane panel games. For months now it has been possible to imagine Nick Clarke announcing at 1.29pm that world war has broken out, but there's no time to discuss it because a woman whose special subject is bird-hipped dinosaurs is about to compete on the radio version of Mastermind.

Second, Mr Boyle was a hopeless advocate of changes whose rationale was never apparent, other than the revelation that the BBC had convened a series of focus groups whose members thought whole swathes of the Radio 4 schedule were old hat. Smug and patronising by turns, Mr Boyle rushed from studio to studio, offending thousands of listeners the moment he opened his mouth. I still treasure the moment when, responding to an obviously precocious child who had called a phone-in about the revamp, Mr Boyle asked why she wasn't at school on a Tuesday morning.

"Mummy teaches me at home," she replied, an answer that any loyal listener would have predicted. I have always assumed that the Radio 4 audience, far from being tweedy and conventional, is made up of misfits and iconoclasts - the kind of people who work from home, educate their children themselves and wouldn't dream of watching daytime television. Why would they want to listen to game shows or - plumbing new depths of whimsy last week - the radio "diaries" of Lord Hattersley's dog Buster? And so, on Wednesday, the BBC was finally forced to admit that the new schedule has resulted in a loss of 2 million listening hours per week.

This is hardly surprising, given that certain programmes - The Candidate, for example, in which some egomaniac is given the chance to say why he or she should rule the world - make any sensible person lunge for the "off" button. Then there are endless consumer programmes, in which members of the public talk at length about the refusal of their insurance company to replace their garden shed, and promos that sound like poor imitations of trailers for Spielberg movies.

Is Mr Boyle repentant? Not exactly. "Listeners have told me - and I agree with them - that the 1.30pm slot is not quite right yet," he announced at a meeting of a broadcasting pressure group last week. From the New Year, he went on, "we will be enriching the mix at 1.30pm by including features two days a week, while retaining the best of the quizzes and panel games".

"Enriching the mix" is one of those expressions, like Marks & Spencer's "cotton-rich" label on garments made partly of synthetic fibres, that makes my skin crawl. But tinkering with the schedule, even bringing back the 9am news bulletin which acts as a punctuation mark at the end of the Today programme, does not address the problem. The revamp, with its relentless populism, veneration of celebrities and reverence towards people with short attention spans, has not worked. It should be ditched, along with any senior Radio 4 executive who is unable to speak in public without mangling the English language.

AMID CONTRADICTORY reports about Iran's intentions towards Afghanistan, the Taliban militia seized the capital of the central province of Bamiyan on Monday, prompting fears of another massacre of members of the minority Hazara tribes. As many as 6,000 Hazaras are believed to have been murdered on 8 August, when the Taliban stormed the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, leading Amnesty International to call last week for immediate action to prevent the deaths of thousands of civilians.

The Taliban's latest military success means that most of Afghanistan, with the exception of the Panjshir Valley controlled by the anti-Taliban commander Ahmed Shah Masood, has fallen to a fundamentalist sect which is unremittingly hostile to recorded music, television sets, clean-shaven men and all women. Some of its edicts - insisting Afghan men grow beards, for instance - are patently ludicrous. But recent reports of women having their nails ripped off for wearing nail polish under their burkas demonstrate that it is possible to be a laughing-stock and lethal at the same time.

The sickening combination of banality and cruelty exhibited by the Taliban demands extreme remedies. What is needed is a feminist hit-squad which would round up the Taliban leadership, force them to shave off their beards and put on lime-green Lycra cycling shorts. They would then be driven by coach to a nightclub where they would be exposed to videos of Courtney Love, Madonna and the Spice Girls, at maximum volume, for several hours. At the end of this carefully orchestrated ordeal, they would be carted off to an international tribunal and charged with mass murder.

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