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Some changes to the Radio 4 schedule

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Gwyneth Williams Gwyneth Williams 06:55, Monday, 24 January 2011

Noctilucent clouds, photographed by John Rownlands, a finalist in BBC Radio 4's 'So You Want to be a Scientist' project.

I was promised freshly-brewed coffee and croissants at the end of their last run but when I went to Feedback to talk to R4 listeners - alas - I got a lovely welcome but just the usual BBC water... I did, however, get a chance to answer some listeners' questions and to put some of my early thoughts about Radio 4 to Roger Bolton. I was also interviewed by Ben Dowell from Media Guardian and his article is published today.

In my first three months as Controller of Radio 4 I have been travelling around meeting producers - and I have still to meet many, both in-house and in the independent sector. I have been overwhelmed by the commitment and quality that I encounter from programme-makers everywhere so I am determined to try and simplify our commissioning processes. Radio 4 has good audience figures and rings with intellectual rigour so if we cannot take a few creative risks now, when can we? In terms of strategic direction, I want to emphasise Radio 4's more forward-looking, modern side to complement our deserved reputation for history coverage and I am keen to encourage a more international sensibility across all programmes- I don't mean more foreign programmes but a subtle understanding that what happens in the world affects our local decisions and everyday lives, in culture, economics, health and most things.

From October I plan to launch a new 9 a.m. science programme - not about the ideas of science which Melvyn Bragg covers regularly in the brilliant In Our Time - but about science and working scientists, about the scientific method, across a range of subjects: physics, biology, engineering, technology, natural history. The Science Department will lead the work on developing this and I have been talking to various people, among them Jim Al-Khalili, a scientist and an experienced broadcaster, about possibly presenting it. I also want to broadcast a fifteen-minute interview strand in which some of our best journalists can be led by their passions and interests in choosing subject matter and interviewees. I hope to entice Lyse Doucet, Robert Peston, Bridget Kendall, John Humphrys, Lucy Kellaway and others to give it a try. I have been talking to the poet Ruth Padel about the possibility of presiding over a series of poetry masterclasses that will travel around Britain to tap into the current explosion of interest in poetry. And there will be new comedy on Sunday evening to cheer us at the end of the weekend and build on Radio 4's record of championing talent. Look out too for new satire from Rory Bremner.

This does not come without some sadness: Taking a Stand, On the Ropes, The Choice and Between Ourselves will go from October to make way for science. I launched Taking a Stand myself some twelve years ago with its talented producer. The programme was award-winning; I have one, for an interview Fergal Keane did with Rufus May, that I have kept with me and is now hanging on the wall of my new office in Broadcasting House. I have not made this change without a lot of thought and I can assure you that, in different ways, these much-loved presenters will still grace the airwaves of Radio 4.

Gwyneth Williams is Controller of BBC Radio 4 and Radio 7


  • Comment number 1.

    Nice to see some changes. I hope the science strand also considers some of the philosophical issues, e.g. what is the scientific method, why does it work (do we know?), what are the alternatives? etc. This might be more wide ranging than getting into specialisms, which by nature will be of focussed (but at times very significant) interest.

    I'd like to see a problem addressed: You have to admit that there are times when radio listening is not easy due to work during the day and, let's face it, the competition of TV and social gathering in the evening. Previously many interesting programmes have been placed at, for example, 8 o'clock at night. I should have listened, but I never did. I know the intention of previous controllers was to get us to listen at less popular times, but it is fighting a hard battle.

    I would (seriously) suggest more repeats of such programmes, but timed to pick up different audiences. In particular I would like to see repeats during the night. As an erratic sleeper I would love to hear an interesting programme in the middle of the night rather than endless repeats of world news. And please lose the school programmes at night. Any school can get these on-line surely...

    Keep up the good work. Mike.

  • Comment number 2.

    What a relief to get some more science on Radio 4... brilliant news.

  • Comment number 3.

    Science instead of misery at 9am - a good change (I exaggerate, but it was hard to tell Taking a Stand, On the Ropes and the Choice apart). How about a female presenter - and a real scientist, not a journalist?

    One suggestion that has come up in Radio 4 strands on Facebook is to enhance the international dimension by listening to ordinary people in other countries - from our own correspondent, but largely without the correspondent.

    Please, less focus on the USA and more elsewhere. American influence is so great that they will be omnipresent anyway, so we hardly need special helpings - dozens of reporters to cover the US elections, caravans of camper-vans to interview people in every diner on Route 66, and Americana! It is often interesting - in parts - but too often gushing and cloying in its acclamation of every snippet of mundanity, supposedly brightened by the application of a few stars and stripes.

    Any Questions is getting tired, specifically because of Jonathan Dimbleby's style. Over recent years he has intervened more and more, and too often his sentences are long, rambling, badly constructed and destructive of the flow of argument. Eddie Mair is far better.

  • Comment number 4.

    @Mike Kemp: Try iPlayer and/or podcasts. I make extensive use of both to listen to what I want, when I want. More repeats would mean less new content - i.e. less choice on iPlayer!

    At the times when I choose to listen to R4 all day, there are already more than enough repeats.

    More real science would be wonderful. Please, present it in an intelligent straight forward way. Not dumbed down. Not apologising for the merest hint of complexity. Not in a boring way either.

    However, Taking a Stand and The Choice were sometimes inspired. We heard the genuine voices of "normal" (though usually extraordinary) people. We need an outlet for this, when suitable subjects are found. I don't really mind which presenter is used, as long as they let the subject speak.


  • Comment number 5.

    I would mention the deletion of the so-called "Thought For The Day" from the Today programme, but I understand from elsewhere this topic is already closed.

  • Comment number 6.

    In the image of NLC, why did you cut Capella out of the shot?

  • Comment number 7.

    It sounds good. I particularly like the sound of the science programme, hope it's repeated in the evening. I also like the idea of the 15 min interviews. I like the idea of a more international sensibility too, I hope you mean items from the developed world, the rest of Europe for example, and not just worthy stuff from the developing world. There are a few odd things to do with health, economics and employment we could learn from the developed world. We have also enjoyed some of your European literature dramatisations and wouldn't mind a few more of those, now that things like Wallander and Zen are such hits on tv.
    I would also like you to sort out the Sunday evening schedule, it would be an ideal time for repeating all the good stuff we miss while we're at work. What I really hate is In Business and Westminster Hour and the rest while I'm chilling into the last dregs of the weekend.

  • Comment number 8.

    Since somebody mentions evening repeats, can I put in a plea for full repeats. Editing 45 minutes down to 30 minutes just seems like a job creation stunt.

  • Comment number 9.

    @3 "Eddie Mair is far better": hear hear!

  • Comment number 10.

    "In my first three months as Controller of Radio 4 I have been travelling around meeting producers - and I have still to meet many, both in-house and in the independent sector."
    Blimey! how many producers does Radio 4 employ?
    Nice if you'd taken time out to travel round and meet some listeners and listeners' groups as well - doing one Feedback programme doesn't give an impression of someone really keen to engage with their customer-base.
    Still, more science will be welcome. So would longer runs for More or Less; nothing else in any media outlet does more to alert the citizen to the way statistics are routinely misused - deliberately or through ignorance - by politicians, journalists, charities, local authorities..everyone, really.

  • Comment number 11.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 12.

    Dear Gwyneth Willimas,

    I really welcome more science output, but would ask you to consider re-opening the Science Message Board on Radio 4. When the QQ board closes only a few strands are left, and only a tiny bit of science goes on there anyway, as it does on the 'Choice is Yours'. The problem is that when more MBs were together, since Womans Hour has also gone, visitors that came for one would stray into others, which benefitted not only the quality of responses on the other boards, but kept them lively and fresh, with wider perspectives and more diverse user profiles.

    Currently, partly because of hosting policy the threads mentioned need re-stimulation, and the re-launch of the science thread would help to restore 'footfall'. Occassionaly prestigious science guests would stop by and give opinions and some very sound teachers and real scientists would come and solve mysteries or explode delusions. Obviously there were silly lay views as well, some from the young, but helping them understand was part of the educational function. The closure has been a great loss, and a big contributer to decline in board activity generally. It seems pretty daft to have as a main plank the provision of more science coverage, but not to have anywhere to discuss it.

    There is an internal contradiction on the R4 MBs that has rumbled on for years that must be resolved. The general rule that posts must be ABOUT Radio 4 PROGRAMS, which is so restrictive that nothing can be said, and what posters want, which is to expand that to specific topics mentioned on Today, or wherever, and to the CONTENT of specific recent R4 programs. This is all further muddled by the general remit to, 'meet your fellow listeners and discuss wht you have heard'. This is a never ending source of trouble with hosts, who seem to apply the rules in random and vindictive ways, and with posters who mostly feel that being customers they have a right to better and more intelligent treatment. Further more when threads and posts are deleted, just citing all the rules or writing 'offtopic', is just a catch all nonsense that has no meaning and does not hep posters modify their posting habits. When repeated continously it drives people away. Most having been to other venues, never return. This is also a loss to the BBC as valuable free feedback is lost.

    Some seemingly rivial changes are big mistakes, the expensively re-formatted redesigned R4 main Home Page, now only refers to its MBs in a tiny little bit of script hidden right at the bottom embedded in the black margin strip. How can that possibley help to make the MBs friendly and accessible to new visitors, and to expand their usage. Also there are a host of trivial other faults that still need tweaking. The users are free beta testers, why does no one listen to us?

    Given that the ancient Reithian injunction, to inform, educate, and entertain is still haunting the overall policy of the BBC, to have no easily accessible MB to discuss science, is pretty poor, but to have had a successful one and to have closed it; what can anyone say?

    Please think again.

  • Comment number 13.

    Jim Al-Khalili, now that name rings a bell. Could he possibly have presented the 'Secret Scientists' series (on, was it the World Service?), where those of us who couldn't be bothered to reach for the off switch would be told that Muslim scholars did it all earlier and better than Western scientists? Why, yes, he could have.

    Right on, Gwyneth. Totally refutes the notion that the Muslim world, except in the area of nuclear technology, has become anti-science and anti-culture, so there's another feather in your cap.

    Maybe Jim Al-Khalili can explain why the Archers' board can still have borders around posts, following the message board revamp, but Radio 4's can't. I've asked anna for a link to an explanation, but she is strangely silent on the subject...

  • Comment number 14.

    I detect inconsistency and contradiction in what the Controller says.

    In the interview with Ben Dowell she states: "in order to keep it [Radio 4] good it must change," but why does she offer an iron-clad guarantee that there will be no change to the contentious and divisive Thought For The Day? Continuing to give preachers a pulpit on Radio 4 will not contribute to making the station "more easily modern and forward-looking".

    Keep your dogma to yourself.

  • Comment number 15.

    Is there still a serving of personal misery in [Saturday Live]? I can't be doing with it myself but there's clearly demand for it.

    Trying to remember who it was who sang a country music piece rejecting all the refrains of suffering that normally populate that genre, I seem to find that I'm remembering Bob Luman's "Let's Think About Living" and it is described in Wikipedia as "a novelty song". As in, "A country song that isn't about something terrible happening. Now there's a novelty."

    In W. H. Smith's book section I believe you are looking for the aisle marked "Tragic Life Stories". I don't know if there's also a Dewey categosy number. Something under Biography, I suppose.

    Come to think, half of the bible is "Tribulations". The other half is telling you that you deserve every bit of it. So, look under T.

  • Comment number 16.

    It's great that there will be more science on Radio 4, although it would have been nice to have it at, say, 7:50am rather than 9am. If we're not going to scrap Thought For The Day, can we at least allow John Humphrys to interview the Thinker with the same vigour he reserves for all other people? Please don't pretend that Thought For The Day is a separate programme; it is introduced by Today presenters and not continuity announcers. And why can't we have atheists, humanists, secularists and agnostics on Thought For The Day?

  • Comment number 17.

    I am delighted to hear that there will be more science on R4.
    Also in favour of keeping 'Thought for the Day'.

  • Comment number 18.

    Any chance that you could be very brave and confer on R4 messageboards the same status as Speaker's Corner in London? "Blogs" such as this - to which we are frequently referred if we want to discuss content of R4 programmes rather than presentational issues - simply do not meet the interactive need. Quite happy to have racism and other naughties jumped on, but to discuss, say, whether the Government's economic strategy is a wise one on a messageboard seems to me a nature development of the democratic process. This is particularly so in respect of people like me who glean many of the facts upon which we argue the case from our beloved R4. If some kind of control is felt necessary to avoid endless discussion, then give every topic a fixed period. At present we feel like naughty children trying to slip one past teacher. I would say to all those responsible for deciding on this issue: "Courage mon braves".

  • Comment number 19.

    I heard your interview this morning on Feedback (we're 7 hours adrift). As 50+ year listeners to the Home Service/Radio4, my wife and I were heartened to learn of your planned additions (science especially) as well as your clear understanding of the heritage you have been entrusted with. Similarly, your chagrin at the loss of Archer's listeners (my wife and I included - almost 4 weeks now) was appreciated. Yes we are in mourning, no not over the silly death, but over the complete reversal of the intelligence and gentle social engineering always habitually present in Archer's programming. Two of the most mature, stable characters, having been drinking, having been warned and agreeing not to go on the roof in frozen windy conditions to manhandle a large banner - the stupidity was out of character, the social engineering completely adverse to Archer's good sense, the sensationalism rampant and, on a science note, the dopler effect incorrect.
    On the other hand, perhaps this is the new Archers, new social engineering - in support of a divisive Britain, one where nothing seems to follow any logic and where stability of customers (listeners) is unimportant. Were this commercial radio the whole production team would have been fired with the drop in listeners' numbers.
    Fire her, apologize and maybe we can have faith that a nurturing, critical part of our day can return. For now, dozens of people we know have simply switched off. And that's just the Archers fans we know.

  • Comment number 20.

    Any chance of getting rid of that miserable, mawkish, dismal excuse of a programme Saturday "Dead" and giving us something nice like Loose Ends back on a Saturday morning!

  • Comment number 21.

    Wow. More science on Radio 4 is really interesting. I will surely follow this always.

    Thank you, it will surely take away my boredom.

  • Comment number 22.

    While it is always good news to hear that there will be more science on the radio, the description "science and working scientists, about the scientific method, across a range of subjects: physics, biology, engineering, technology, natural history" sounds very much like the excellent and informative Material World presented by Quentin Cooper.
    I do hope you have not overlooked this gem of a programme.

  • Comment number 23.

    Another shout-out here for the excellent Material World which has always been one of my favourite Radio 4 offerings. I'm always in favour of more science programming but maybe you should make sure that your new programme doesn't replicate what you're already doing well.


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