Speech by David Liddiment, Trustee, to the Voice of the Listener and Viewer's spring conference
Thank you very much for inviting me to talk to you about the BBC's radio services. It's a great pleasure to be here.
Your organisation plays a very valuable role in letting us know what licence fee payers think, and we at the Trust are always grateful for your members' honesty and frankness about the BBC.
I'm going to talk to you for around 15 minutes about the Trust's recent reviews of radio services and our drive to make the BBC's output more distinctive. That should leave plenty of time for you to ask me any questions that you might have.
The Trust exists to represent the interests of licence fee payers. We approve BBC strategy, defend the BBC's independence and, every five years, we take a forensic look at the performance of each BBC service.
In this process of service licence review, we hold a public consultation, carry out research, talk to our Audience Councils and listen to audiences' likes and dislikes. Then we give BBC management a summary of our findings and agree with them a set of recommendations for improvement.
Not all of you will have read our full report, and as an antidote to some of the commentary that followed its publication, let me use today to talk about what the Trust actually said in its recent reviews of Radios 3, 4 and 7.
Let's start with Radio 4.
The Trust's report is clear about what an excellent job we think Radio 4 is doing.
It sets the standard for speech radio. It is extremely high quality. And its scale means it plays a key role in fulfilling the BBC's public service mission.
A national treasure, then. But not one that is set in aspic, and our report made a number of observations about the Radio 4 audience, which the station's management addressed in their submission to the review.
Listening among audiences aged between 35 and 54 has been falling over recent years. In 2000, it was 33 per cent of Radio 4's audience, and last year it stood at 26 per cent.
I pick that statistic because this age group feeds Radio 4's future core audience in evolution of the demography of audiences and all broadcasters keep an eagle eye on those listeners who will form their core audience in years to come. It would, in my judgment, be negligent not to.
Radio 4 has always worked hard on ways to sow the seeds of listening amongst this group. Our report endorses management's latest set of recommendations for ways to do this, including making Radio 4's production less studio- and London-based and continuing the drive to make the network's tone more welcoming, spontaneous and at times a little less formal.
I want to be clear here. The Trust is not telling Radio 4 that it has to actively target younger audiences. You will not wake up tomorrow to find Chris Moyles presenting the Today programme!
Nor do we want to reduce Radio 4's intelligence, analysis or ambition. While it's right that Radio 4 thinks about how to appeal to younger listeners, note this is the 35-54 age group, this should not be at the expense of Radio 4's current core audience. More than half are over 55 and the station should continue to serve all of its listeners in the future.
The other area of our review of Radio 4 that generated a lot of comment was the demographic profile of its listeners.
Listening to Radio 4 is higher in London and the South East than other areas of the country; higher amongst white people than ethnic minorities and higher amongst people from better off households.
High reach and listening amongst these groups is a fantastic achievement and not a bad thing. But it highlights that there are audience groups where reach and listening are lower: people in the target audience for Radio 4's brand of intelligent speech programming who could be listening but are not.
We want as many people as possible who might enjoy the particularity of Radio 4 to listen to the station. And the people who run Radio 4 share this view: it is not a new challenge.
However, there are two important things that we said in the report, that were not mentioned by many commentators.
First, that these initiatives must not jeopardise the distinctiveness of the station
Second, we recognise that it is impossible for a station to appeal to all audiences equally. There will always be differences amongst audiences. And that's why the BBC operates a broad portfolio of radio stations that serve licence fee payers in different ways.
As with other service reviews, our drive for improvement rests not on criticism but on balancing a service's core strengths with measures which target areas for further development.
Let me reassure you that the Trust has absolutely no desire to change what makes Radio 4 special – its challenging, analytical and entertaining content that can't be found anywhere else on the dial.
Moving onto Radio 3.
Our review recognised the extremely high quality programming that Radio 3 provides. It explores and celebrates music, arts and culture to a degree that sets it apart from any other UK radio station.
Both audiences and industry alike are clear about the positive impact of Radio 3 - the UK's biggest commissioner of classical music - and the important role it plays in the cultural life of our country.
Nearly 60 per cent of its output is live or specially recorded, and the network will now broadcast a live concert every night. These are all reasons why we rate Radio 3 so highly.
Around 2 million people listen to Radio 3 each week. While this is a sizeable audience it is the lowest of the BBC's analogue radio stations and it has by some margin the highest costs per hour of listening. So it's right that Radio 3 thinks about how to attract more listeners.
To some classical music fans Radio 3 can, at times, sound daunting. And over the last few years, Radio 3 has made some changes to the tone, content and schedule in order to make the station more welcoming.
Some of the audience told to us they felt this was eroding the status of Radio 3 as a high quality broadcaster.
But we looked carefully at audience perception to test this point and we found that Radio 3 was still held in extremely high regard. The vast majority of respondents to our public consultation did not feel that there had been a retreat from the high levels of distinctive programming that Radio 3 typifies.
We believe that Radio 3 should continue to look for ways to make itself more accessible. But we are clear that this strategy should not come at the cost of quality.
Maximising reach is not Radio 3's primary objective. We recognise that there is a natural limit to its overall audience and that it should stay true to its core values.
But the BBC as a whole should continue to look for ways to reach audiences that might not come across this type of music and arts programming. And we've asked BBC management to think about how the BBC as a whole can best deliver classical, world and jazz music to all licence fee payers, whilst remaining distinctive.
So just to touch briefly on other important points made in our report.
Radio 7 was found to be well-regarded for its light-hearted and nostalgic output, playing an important role in promoting DAB. We endorsed management's strategy of broadening its audience, and we approved the proposal to rebrand the station as Radio 4 Extra. In doing so, BBC management is not launching a new service, but will build on the existing distinctive and valued elements of Radio 7.
Following recognition of the fact that listening levels were low for children's radio on Radio 7, no longer with us, by the title anyway, we approved a change in the overall audio strategy for this part of the audience. We believe that management plans to create a family-friendly slot will strengthen the BBC's speech radio for children.
Focusing resources on high quality programming that engages both children and adults should increase listening amongst children and instil the appeal of speech radio amongst audiences. Meanwhile, moving CBeebies radio to downloadable online content should be more helpful for parents while not inconveniencing listeners to the linear station.
Lastly, thanks to Radio 3 and Radio 4's long histories providing great public service broadcasting, they have built up a large volume of archive material.
We approved BBC management's proposal to make this available online in the form of Permanent Collections in a way that complements the linear services. You may have already read about the plan to make the Desert Island Discs archive available online, for instance. It's a great example of how we can unlock the public value in the BBC's archive of distinctive content.
The theme of distinctiveness is one that runs through our other reviews, too.
When we looked at the services for younger audiences in 2009, we pushed Radio 1 to renew its focus on younger audiences and deliver more public value through its speech output.
Since our review, where we asked Radio 1 to focus more clearly on younger audiences Radio 1 has made a number of changes to the schedule and line up and we have seen some impressive examples of public service speech broadcasting. In spite of the some of the changes introduced by the station, the average age stands at 30, so this still remains a challenge. We are in dialogue with Management about how best to achieve this.
And in our review of Radio 2 and 6Music last year, we asked Radio 2 to use its scale and influence to take more creative risks and be more distinctive. This is already having an impact, with our recommendations leading to changes including new arts programming in peak time, including the Simon Mayo's book club, Comedy series in Steve Wright, and the Story of Pop by Ken Bruce, and a series of social action campaigns in peak time.
We also said that Radio 2 should protect the interests of its older listeners. Their average age is 52 and there should be a particular focus to ensure the over 65 group continues to be catered for.
No BBC service can sit on its laurels. The privilege of licence fee funding brings a responsibility to provide quality, original and distinctive programming that can't be found anywhere else.
When we push the Executive to improve on services, we're not saying they should throw the baby out with the bathwater.
We expect any changes to be made sensitively, and with the appropriate level of respect for those very qualities that audiences already love, to ensure that services stay relevant, exciting and distinctive.
Thanks for listening. I am very happy to take questions.