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Feedback: Radio Science

Friday 21 June 2013, 15:34

Roger Bolton Roger Bolton

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Editor's note: Feedback is available to listen to online or to download and keep.
http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006slnx
http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/feedback
Next month a new science series begins on Radio 4, which should be the cue for rejoicing amongst those who enjoy such programmes.
However judging by the Feedback postbag there is a lot of mourning going on as well, because the new programme is replacing the much-loved Material World. Also dematerialising, at least for the moment, is the long running series presenter, Quentin Cooper.  This week on Feedback I talked to the BBC executive responsible for these changes, Deborah Cohen, Editor of the radio Science Unit.
CLIP
It’s not for me to comment on whether Deborah Cohen has made the right decision, but perhaps I can add a couple of thoughts.
First, unlike some of her colleagues, Ms Cohen never ducks an interview and will always come on Feedback even when she knows she’ll have to face a lot of criticism.
Second, I suspect that she would have liked to have kept both programmes, but given the shortage of space on Radio 4 doesn’t have that option.
That shortage is due in no small part to the dominance of news and current affairs. Just have a look at the Radio Times and see how much of the network is given over to news programmes. Add other mainstays such as Womans Hour, You and Yours and the Archers, and there isn’t much airtime left.
Then there is the problem of creative competition. In science radio there is hardly any.
This network is unique, but there is a downside. Some good shows have to come to a premature end to make space for new formats. Yet those new shows have to succeed almost immediately. There are few if any other places to experiment. It alright talking about the “right to fail”, but if you exercise that option too frequently you will likely be defenestrated along with your programmes.
A few years ago it was hoped that Channel 4 might develop a thriving radio arm, but that came to nothing. Then it was hoped there would be money available for significant original productions on Radio 4’s digital sister station 4 Extra. There isn’t.
So if you cancel a long running popular series and dispense with its much loved presenter you are certainly taking a brave decision, with no guarantee the new show will be a success.  Good Luck Deborah Cohen! I look forward to your next appearance of Feedback.
Finally just a reminder that you set the agenda on Feedback, and that you can write to us about anything to do with BBC radio, network or local. That includes policy as well as programmes.
Listen to this week's Feedback or download it as a podcast
http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b02x9f59
http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/feedback
Read all of Roger's Feedback blog posts
http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/radio4/tags/Feedback
The BBC is not responsible for the content of external websites.

Editor's note: Listen to this week's Feedback or download the podcast

A round-bottom flask The appliance of science - Radio 4 is changing it's science programmes soon.

Next month a new science series begins on Radio 4, which should be the cue for rejoicing amongst those who enjoy such programmes.

However judging by the Feedback postbag there is a lot of mourning going on as well, because the new programme is replacing the much-loved Material World. Also dematerialising, at least for the moment, is the long running series presenter, Quentin Cooper. This week on Feedback I talked to the BBC executive responsible for these changes, Deborah Cohen, Editor of the radio Science Unit.

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Deborah Cohen, Editor of the radio Science Unit discusses changes to her programmes.

It’s not for me to comment on whether Deborah Cohen has made the right decision, but perhaps I can add a couple of thoughts.

First, unlike some of her colleagues, Ms Cohen never ducks an interview and will always come on Feedback even when she knows she’ll have to face a lot of criticism.

Second, I suspect that she would have liked to have kept both programmes, but given the shortage of space on Radio 4 doesn’t have that option.

That shortage is due in no small part to the dominance of news and current affairs. Just have a look at the Radio Times and see how much of the network is given over to news programmes. Add other mainstays such as Womans Hour, You and Yours and The Archers, and there isn’t much airtime left.

Then there is the problem of creative competition. In science radio there is hardly any.

This network is unique, but there is a downside. Some good shows have to come to a premature end to make space for new formats. Yet those new shows have to succeed almost immediately. There are few if any other places to experiment. It alright talking about the “right to fail”, but if you exercise that option too frequently you will likely be defenestrated along with your programmes.

A few years ago it was hoped that Channel 4 might develop a thriving radio arm, but that came to nothing. Then it was hoped there would be money available for significant original productions on Radio 4’s digital sister station 4 Extra. There isn’t.

So if you cancel a long running popular series and dispense with its much loved presenter you are certainly taking a brave decision, with no guarantee the new show will be a success. Good Luck Deborah Cohen! I look forward to your next appearance on Feedback.

Finally just a reminder that you set the agenda on Feedback, and that you can write to us about anything to do with BBC radio, network or local. That includes policy as well as programmes.

Listen to this week's Feedback or download it as a podcast

Read all of Roger's Feedback blog posts


The BBC is not responsible for the content of external websites.

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  • rate this
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    Comment number 1.

    IMHO, in this weeks edition, I must say that I found it very unfair to compare EIGHT YEARS of "hush money"[1] and another EIGHT YEARS of "DMI failure"[2] and then to suggest it could fund so-and-so service for ONE YEAR.

    If you spread the money over the rein of Mark Thompson, as it were, it come out as a waste of £15.75m a year. That's JUST 18% of BBC Radio 4's content budget. [3]

    In addition, it also (IHMO, of course) sloppy journalism to constantly refer to ALL BBC money as "licence-fee payers' money" as the BBC UK does not just receive money from the fee:

    £222m comes from BBC Worldwide and £277m from Grant-in-aid. [3]

    You could quite easily argue the other way that that the money "wasted" on these two areas of spending was totally funded from BBC Worldwide.

    [1] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/bbc/10128702/BBC-spent-28m-of-licence-fee-payers-money-gagging-500-staff.html

    [2] Started September 2004. http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbctrust/assets/files/pdf/review_report_research/vfm/digital_media_initiative.pdf

    [3] http://www.bbc.co.uk/annualreport/2012/exec/overview/finances/

  • rate this
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    Comment number 2.

    It will come as a great blow to licence-fee payers that so much of their money has been used to hush former employees. The size and scale of these "compromise agreements" is a clear sign that there is an excess of money sloshing around the BBC. It is incumbent upon Lord Patten to state unequivocally that the BBC will not pay anyone for his or her silence, especially in cases involving allegations of bullying and sexual harassment. All allegations of bullying and sexual harassment at the BBC need to be rigorously investigated and any failure to do so raises serious questions about the integrity of those at the top. Are the people who authorized these hush payments of up to £500,000 still in post?

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 3.

    The decision to ditch Material World and Quentin Cooper seems a strange one. If there was a concern that the programme was broadcast live, then could it not have gone out recorded with the same presenter? The lack of science programmes on Radio 4 is obvious, but choosing which programmes to ditch or shorten to make way for more science would have a lot of arty types up in arms. I would torpedo the Archers.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 4.

    Quentin could have an annoying style at times, particularly 'pod people' but a presenter with such breadth of science knowledge will be hard to find.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 5.

    What about the BBC Messageboard scandal? Millions down the drain on that wasted exercise (and it wasn't the contributors fault)

    I am aware that Mr./Dr./Professor/Rev/Ms Newlach is a big radio fan, so recommend they check out last night’s edition of The Archive Hour which featured radio listening memories. However, why didn’t the programme talk to some ordinary radio listeners for their radio memories? All the guests were southern, extremely posh – and very famous. Some of them struggled to actually recall the names of R4 programmes!. No mention of the radio genius Mr. Christopher Dunkley, the desperately missed – and highly respected - Ms. Jeanine McMullen (RIP), The hypnotic and reassuring voice of the mighty Mr. Douglas Stuart – a sure cure for anyone on the verge of a nervous breakdown if ‘O’/’A’ levels/degree exams were on the horizon…….Ms. Caroline Raphael’s important interview with Mr Bolton when she admitted that she wasn’t likely to become a great actress. Ms. R. certainly gave us some great Friday plays (Chicago Conspiracy Trial, The Hanging……) when she occupied the position of commissioning editor for drama and comedy. The late David Munrow’s superbly inspiring music programmes……the late Derek Jewel’s fascinating radio pronunciations on R3……..

    No mention of tuning into Radio Caroline (NORTH) on a Codar CR45 TRF [1], with The Pregnant Insomnia’s ‘Wallpaper’[2] playing in the background as one devoured page after page of Exchange & Mart, wondering if one would ever own a Lafayyete radio receiver [3] – possibly the most romantic radio receiver name of all time?

    Newlach will be interested in the comments made about the Archers

    P.S. Why not devote an edition of Archive Hour to the professional lives and experiences of radio producers – both working and upper-class (Female and Male) and covering all radio backgrounds?

    References

    [1] See: http://vintageradio.me.uk/military/cr45_info.htm

    [2] See: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mn_kTXCnwHY

    [3] See: http://www.ohio.edu/people/postr/bapix/LafArt_60.htm

  • rate this
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    Comment number 6.

    A shame, as you say, to have to lose 'our' Quentin Cooper in order to 'make space' for a trio of 'real scientists', however worthy. There may be more to the story, 'none of our business' perhaps, but we are losing a rare talent from an important role.

    So feeble seemed the reasoning from Deborah Cohen, 'looking to the future', suspicion was re-awakened that the BBC might be awarding 'general series' to apparently independent but in fact more pliant presenters, taken out of their fields to 'deal with' public anxiety on such as nuclear power and fracking.

    Public trust and the public good depend on the genuine independence of the BBC, in turn on the professionalism of its presenters, investigators, questioners and translators. In the BBC, as elsewhere, casualisation might reflect active mischief as well as false-economy.

    If such suspicion is correct, the determining forces might be far beneath the awareness of any editor, and also beyond Feedback proof, but if paranoia can be resisted it might be well to keep in mind our vulnerability in democratic deficit.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 7.

    Material World presented by Quentin Cooper is - now sadly was - simply the best audio popular science program. I subscribe and listen to many podcasts, a fair share of them about science, and have always been amazed by the amount of information that Quentin has managed to elicit from his guest, the depth and breadth of his knowledge that has come across in his questions and - yes, I admit it - the way his comments and awful puns made me chuckle.
    I agree with the all the other comments puzzled about this decision by the BBC and very disappointed.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 8.

    The decision to axe Material World and Quentin Cooper is still not really explained. If the BBC is as committed to science programming, as it often claims, then surely space could be made in the schedules for another show.
    The idea that the new presenters “know the questions to ask” appears to unfairly suggest that Quentin Cooper didn't do that, on the contrary, he always seemed to ask exactly what we were wondering.
    Also Radio 4's definition of successful appears to be the fame of the presenters, not the size of the audience or how much we like the programme, which is disappointing

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 9.

    I just wanted to say that listening to Elizabeth Stokoe talking today on The Life Scientific, the story of how she got into science after being drawn to feminism, could have been the answer I'd have given myself..! Nothing inspires quite as much as being told that you cannot do something. I am a little older, but hearing my mother say things like"Oh women don't do things like that dear..", or "Don't look too clever dear or no one will ever marry you" was all the encouragement I needed to study sciences in school... and yes, I did find physics hard work, and no I had no one at home to help or encourage me .. "Learn to type dear..." or "How about a bilingual secretary.?" was all the career guidance I got at home - and this to someone who was helpless at languages! But still my mother thought it more suitable 'for a woman" than chemistry, which I actually WAS good at!

    I ended up studying geology and oceanography, which draw on a very diverse and interdisciplinary range of sciences, and then I spent 7 years offshore in the oil industry, trailing sonars around the North Sea and acquiring geophysical data and I have had various earth science and science management jobs since, over 30 years. I'm currently a project manager at a Silicon Valley tech company, having moved countries.

    And yes, I did get married and no, I never learned to type properly! I sometimes wonder if we are doing women no favors by encouraging them into science; tell them "No, that's not for you dearie..." in a suitably patronizing manner, and they will flock to it!

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 10.

    Re Material World and Quentin Cooper; I still don't understand the Beeb's reasoning for this, even after having listened to the statements made by Deborah Cohen.

    Cooper is such a knowledgeable and skillful live broadcaster, though, his talents will surely be in demand somewhere!

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 11.

    Quentin was / is a fantastic presenter and should still be presenting Material World! His sharp Wit and humour combined with his perceptive questions which I as a layman could understand should not be thrown away and wasted in this criminal way. Re instate Quentin now!!!!

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 12.

    Why on eart has D Cohen made the ridiculous decision to get rid of the wonderful Quentin Cooper. Re instate him now!!! Anthony Frost

  • rate this
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    Comment number 13.

    Accessible and entertaining scientific communication can be very hard to find. This is certainly something I've found in the form of Mr Cooper. I feel a reshuffling of priorities should take principle over removing sturdy pillars from the science broadcasting network. I hope the decision to do away with Material World grants Quentin a new founded creative breathing space on our airwaves that leads to a lot more exposure. There is certainly a demand for it.

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 14.

    Like many R4 listeners, I'm sure, I am baffled and horrified by the decision to drop a popular, educational and entertaining show, along with its enthusiastic and erudite presenter. 'Material World' is the programme that inspired both my son and my daughter to pursue the sciences at university (okay, son swapped to music but started with Physics). I rarely miss an episode - it makes me feel that I am keeping - a bit - up to date with advances in science and technology; sometimes it makes me feel dim. However, it never fails to be enormously entertaining. This is due to Mr Cooper's engaging and amusing presentation. I do hope that the BBC are planning a new opportunity for this talented man. I get the impression that Quentin Cooper could turn his enthusiastic skills to the presentation of any sort of information-based programme. Get him back on air ASAP.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 15.

    I very much enjoyed Material World.

    Listening to Feedback, it was stated that the programme was celebratory of science, and (as I remember) the new science programme will dig rather deeper. I for one find the search for controversy on Radio 4 rather wearisome - in fact, as an engineer I think we need all the celebration & simple briefing of science we can muster.
    However, let's see how the new programme works out.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 16.

    I think I heard the defence of the change as "Material World is too celebratory of science". Is "A good read" too celebratory of literature? Is "Ramblings" too celebratory of walking? Is "The food programme" too celebratory of food?

    Please tell me that isn't what was meant, otherwise I'll have to break out the Bell, Book and Candle and curse the whole of the BBC.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 17.

    Why has the BBC stopped the Radio Downloader from working, it is not like the BBC are offering the same service.
    The range of programmes available as podcasts is not as great as those on iPlayer.

    This extreme heavy-handedness by the BBC really annoys me especially as it currently offers no alternative and even when it does (some time next year, maybe) the downloads will be time limited.
    The author of the software makes no profit, the bbc make no loss, and the programmes get that little bit of extra audience.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 18.

    Dear Mr. Bolton. I enjoy listening to your "Feedback" program. It is one of the increasingly rare programs on Radio 4 that is worth listening to - as was the brilliant "Material World." I used to listen to the program every Thursday on my way home from work. Quentin Cooper presented the program excellently. He seemed to know just the right kind of comment to make, which added interest and humour to any particular subject being talked about - and he knew what he was talking about, as quite often the guest expert would fully agree when Quentin made a knowledgable comment about the subject being discussed. Material World was a very popular program and Quentin Cooper an ideal presenter for the show. Science programs can be dull and "dry" sounding, but Quentin Cooper brought science to life! He had the qualities to make science interesting - and humerous! I listened to your interview of Deborah Cohen, and found the reasons she gave for taking the program and Quentin Cooper out of the shcedules, unconvincing. Material World and Quentin Cooper were a winning formula. The BBC is always on about capturing - and keeping - audiences. With this in mind I find some of their programming decisions perplexing to say the least. Yours, very dissapointed. Phil Edwards.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 19.

    I just listened to the section on space junk and was appalled at the selective criticism of China destroying a satellite in space. This doesn't mean that I'm in favour of China's actions but in failing to list US and Russian activities of a similar nature since the 1950's and focussing only on one recent China incident you have abandoned even the remotest standards of objectivity and rationality that one would expect from a so called "science" based programme.

 

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