IN THE DOG-EAT-DOG world of the British media one of the great untouchables, apparently immune from all criticism, seems to be BBC Radio 4.
So it set the cat among the pigeons when Dorothy Byrne, the head of news and documentaries at Channel 4, recently criticised Radio 4 and particularly the flagship Today programme, claiming that it was aimed at “the world of a middle-aged man from Bournemouth with a strong interest in bird watching whose wife wears cashmere twinsets and is active in the bowling club”.
Of course, Byrne has a specific motive, as Channel 4 has just launched various radio initiatives: it has bought a controlling stake in OneWord, a speech-based digital radio station and has launched a morning news programme on it. It has also announced a range of podcasts — radio programmes delivered over the internet — and is bidding to own and run the next digital multiplex when it is allocated. In short, it is setting itself up to be serious competition for Radio 4 — and it’s never too early to get your attack in.
But surely competition is what Radio 4 so desperately needs. Its audience is so conservative that a former Radio 4 controller, James Boyle, was practically lynched when he made some essentially very minor changes to its schedule. As a result, there are programmes such as Midweek and You and Yours that are surely well past their sell-by dates.
There is little coverage of the UK outside of London and the South East of England, and the whole network seems a bit like a museum. The Radio 4 controller appears incapable of making any changes to the offering for fear of the listeners’ reaction.
The Guardian newspaper has also launched a range of podcasts. One of these, MediaTalk, covers the field of British media in a way that makes Radio 4’s equivalent, The Message, sound positively old fashioned and unadventurous. Its recent series of original comedy podcasts featuring Ricky Gervais went straight to the top of the podcast download charts.
Where there is strong competition from the commercial sector, such as for the pop music channel Radio 1 and the easy listening channel Radio 2, the BBC has shown that it can field some of the most talented broadcasters in the country. Other channels, like Radio 2, are willing to make relatively risky changes to their schedules in order to keep their offering fresh. Radio 2’s recent hire is the former ‘bad boy’ of broadcasting, Chris Evans, much to the disgust of many of the more conservative Radio 2 listeners.
Where there is strong competition — such as the UK’s ‘serious’ newspaper sector, the Telegraph, Times, Guardian and Independent all compete aggressively, with attractive features and columnists promoted each day on theft front pages — the many UK readers who buy their papers from newsstands are willing to switch from day to day, so the newspapers have to be competitive and attractive to survive.
An equivalent US title, the New York Times, while clearly a very high quality publication. can hardly be described as exciting or dynamic. Its lack of meaningful competition means it doesn’t have to try hard to be attractive and competitive — it’s the US equivalent of Radio 4.
So we should welcome the competition. It will force the BBC to make its offering more attractive.