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The view from abroad

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Tim Davie Tim Davie | 09:31 AM, Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Evan Davis in a BBC Radio 4 studio preparing for a recording of The Bottom Line. Picture by Steve Bowbrick.

As a BBC Director who is often defending the BBC's actions against critics, I often get asked if the BBC could be more vocal about its strengths. So with this in mind, forgive me if this blog is a somewhat shameless celebration of what we do best.

Last week, I hosted a drink to say goodbye to Mark Damazer, the tenth Controller of Radio 4. Apart from paying tribute to Mark's successful tenure at the helm, it was a chance to reflect on the joys of the network and celebrate the strength of radio. Despite all the changes that the digital revolution brings, the fact that Radio 4 is achieving record listening is testament to the quality of its programme teams who deliver radio across a wonderfully broad array of subjects.

But to assess the true value of the network, it is sometimes best to move away from the UK and experience a culture devoid of Radio 4. In 2001, I moved to Connecticut for 2 years and while I appreciated so much of American life, almost every evening I would go to the computer after putting the children to bed and listen to programmes such as Today or In Our Time on Listen Again (as it was once called). On returning to the UK, I can recall that my first decision in this job was to confirm that I wanted our domestic networks to continue to be available for free online across the world. It did not cost significant money and there was no clear way to commercialise the services, so it was an easy decision to make.

On this theme, an article published in the LA Times this week not only drew attention to the strength of radio but gave a perspective on how Radio 4 is perceived beyond our shores.

An illustration of a microphone in the colours of the Union Flag from The Los Angeles Times.

To radio lovers, an explanation of the appeal of the station is not likely to be surprising news. However, the LA Times article also touches on a point that is central to UK radio and stretches beyond a pure celebration of Radio 4. It makes the case that appropriate public funding in radio broadcasting can lead to a stronger overall radio market. UK listening has remained healthy versus the US because of the diversity and breadth of what we offer. Of course the BBC must remain utterly distinctive versus commercial stations but when used appropriately the Licence Fee can help build the overall size of the radio market and stimulate growth across all sectors, commercial and BBC, by ensuring that radio does not become sub-scale in an increasingly competitive, global media sector. Of course, this does not mean that growth is all down to public funding; ensuring enough space for further commercial competition and driving industry innovation is also critical.

As for Radio 4, I am sure that with the very capable Gwyn Williams now in the Controller's seat, you will hear it going from strength to strength. Meanwhile, when you do travel abroad, do try to get to a computer and have a listen. I may be a touch sentimental but when you are thousands of miles from home it is easy to agree with Stephen Fry that Radio 4 is "the best reason for living in the UK". I wonder what the second best reason is?

Tim Davie is Director of Audio & Music at the BBC


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