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Scheduling Radio 4

Tony Pilgrim 12:05, Wednesday, 22 April 2009


The first in a series of posts from Tony Pilgrim, explaining what on earth a Radio 4 Head of Planning and Scheduling does.

It is becoming easier to find and play or store and share radio programmes in the way that you want to, when you want to (podcasts, for instance). But listening live is still by far the way that the vast majority of our audience hear our programmes (the latest listening figures from industry body RAJAR). And it's forecast to remain so for some time to come.

So as well as deciding what programmes we should commission, we also have to keep trying to create the best on-air schedule we can, to keep lots of you happy for as long as possible every week.

Deciding what to listen to 'live' on the radio tends to be quite different to deciding what to watch on TV. People talk about the radio providing company for them, at home or in the car, often listening alone while carrying out other activities. People tend not to look through the radio listings picking out things to listen to, and then tune in at a particular time for a single programme and move on to another channel. Rather, the radio needs to fit in with their lifestyle and movements through the day. So the audience needs to know roughly what they are likely to get at what time, and tend to form listening habits around that.

The Radio 4 schedule is an attempt to gauge the lifestyle trends of our very broad audience, providing programmes that work well for the time of day they are on air, informing, stimulating and entertaining you all to just the right degree! And the basic shape and flow and change points in the schedule have not changed radically for quite a while.

For example, weekdays could be (very roughly) characterised as (pre-0900) agenda-setting news into (0900-1130) serious factual conversation into (1130-1200) entertaining diversion, then (1200-1400) popular/consumer news and information, then (1400-1600) relaxing diversion to (1600-1830) facts, news and behind the news, then (1830-2000) arts and entertainment on to (2000-2245) facts, news and behind the news for the more concentrated listen, then (2245) book at bedtime, and for those who don't want to go to bed (2300-2330) some more diversion and entertainment. There will be programmes that don't quite fit this, but the Radio 4 network team uses this pattern as a starting point.

There will be some people who find this shape across the day is not what works for them. And there will be some who think I just throw everything into a random schedule placement generator, and see what happens.

But hopefully we do keep evolving the schedule, trying to get the right tone and relevant content to address gradual changes in how people are living and consuming media.

My job is to help Controller Mark Damazer and the rest of the Radio 4 team to plan ahead for this evolving schedule in the medium- to long-term, while ensuring that there are no silences in the shorter-term. I have to plan for seasons and events to be marked in a clear way in the schedule, and get all 13,500 programmes a year, from 5.15 in the morning till 12.45 at night, in the right place at the right time. And we have to satisfy a number of checks and balances along the way: Statements of Programme Policy, Independent Production Quotas, in-house output guarantees, repeat ratios, subject/presenter clash-checking, complementing other BBC channels where possible.

So evolving the shape, ticking the boxes, not too many shocks, letting the programmes and presenters themselves do the surprising. But like my TV counterparts, I also sometimes get the chance to place programmes to try to get impact or attention for Radio 4, to get more people aware of the kinds of great programmes we broadcast, and hopefully get more of them to listen. The scheduling of last night's Down The Line Credit Crunch special on the eve of the Budget, is an attempt to do this.

I will post again to talk through the process of deciding a particular schedule change, and how we try to assess whether it will work. Or I could post on another aspect of radio scheduling if anyone has a particular interest. Let me know.

  • The latest listening figures from industry body RAJAR, which provides a single audience measurement system for the UK radio industry.
  • The latest BBC press release about radio listening figures.


  • Comment number 1.

    Is your objective in scheduling BBC Radio 4 programmes, Tony, to maximise ratings or to broadcast something you consider to be worth broadcasting to your existing audience (and, potentially, the rest of the world)?

  • Comment number 2.

    wow, always wondered how the schedule was put together but had underestimated the thought behind it. The volume of programmes was a surprise...really liked the idea of a random schedule placement generator.

    I'd like to know what are scheduling and planning emergencies? Will they be unplanned silences, presenters who overrun because of beligerent frogs in their throats? I'd think you'd be well prepared for the death of a VIP and have programmes at the ready which would simply be slotted in.

  • Comment number 3.

    Tony, a request
    (which may not be in your brief).

    I'm an avid radio listener - R2, R4, R5, R6, R7, WorldService, Talksport and have been for years - decades.

    BBC TV cross promotes the channels - but this is rarely done on the radio.

    At 5.00pm I generally listen to Eddie Mair on PM, but after an hour of news I don't want to listen to another half hour of news. At this point the BBC might lose me and often do, and many others - but if you were to highlight the subject under discussion on WorldHaveYourSay on WS I would appreciate it.

    WHYS is a topic based prog. The topic is the driver - not the actual programme. The topic should be trailored - especially on R4, but other radio channels should consider doing so. (Many teens and 20's listening to R1 might not realise they have international phone-ins on virginity, religion, marriage, drugs etc.) Radio 4 should trailor the WHYS topic though - especially when it has 90 minutes of news - much of which is repeated in the six o'clock news.

    WS should reciprocate for R4, because their schedules often deliver a block successive of news, when R4 has an alternative.

    For example at 14.00hrs WS might say,
    "On radio four in a few moments you can hear The Archers followed by the Afternoon Play about a poet in eastern Europe. meanwhile on World Service we have Newshour with Robin Lustig which includes reports from Sri Lanka and on climate change."

    At 17.55hrs it would be good to hear Eddie Mair tell us "the news follows at six o'clock on R4 or you can listen to WorldHaveYourSay on World Service where they will be broadcasting from NATO headquarters."

  • Comment number 4.

    Since so many people now listen 'on-demand' is it possible to do something about the mind numbingly dull titles given to many programmes, and the hideously old fashioned theme tunes that they have ?

    - Midweek with Libby..[zzzz] sorry, just nodded off there for a moment..

    - Start the week [I wonder who dreamt that one up ?]

    - You and Yours [How much did the youngsters in the marketing agency get paid for that one ?]

    And other spiffing programmes like 'File on Four' must turn off a huge tranche of listeners as soon as that flipping brass band come on !!

    Dearie me, isn't it about time these shows were given titles and themes which were a better reflection of the content ?

    How about -
    "Start Me Up - With Andrew Marr" [cue the Rolling Stones]

    Flying Lizards "I want Money !" - and now over to Paul Lewis..

    I was going to suggest Aerosmith and 'Dude looks like a lady', but Melvyn Bragg might get litigous...

  • Comment number 5.


    I'm far more interested in the programme content and it's quality rather than having snazzy programme names for them, if one is being put off a programme by it's descriptive title...

  • Comment number 6.

    @lordBeddGelert and Boilerplated There's a real point here too. As more and more listening is done online and as people get used to finding programmes and information about them via search engines, the names of programmes become more and more important. I'm told that programme makers everywhere are being urged to give their shows plainer, more descriptive titles because this makes it more likely that they'll show up in Google searches for the programme's subject matter. So 'With Great Pleasure' might become 'One celebrity chooses poems. Others read them' or 'Analysis' might change to 'Social issues discussed by clever people'.

    Steve Bowbrick, editor, Radio 4 blog

  • Comment number 7.


    "So 'With Great Pleasure' might become 'One celebrity chooses poems. Others read them' or 'Analysis' might change to 'Social issues discussed by clever people'."

    Sorry but either that was a very late April fools joke, I've missed the point or someone (in marketing?) doesn't understand how search engines work?!

    Look at any search result and you will see the sites/page name plus a short description of it's content: thus a search (in Google) for details of, or the programme name for, the PM programme returns results;

    Search term = PM programme "BBC"

    "BBC - BBC Radio 4 Programmes - PM
    Afternoon news and current affairs programme"

    Search term = Afternoon news and current affairs programme "BBC"

    "BBC - BBC Radio 4 Programmes - PM
    Afternoon news and current affairs programme"

  • Comment number 8.

    Some fun suggestions here re: prog titles. It is true that other data on programmes is picked up by search engines, and we are getting better technology for "tagging" them accordingly. It is also true though that we have to think carefully when giving titles to new shows. But the idea of changing established titles that some see as slightly obscure is tricky. We would be criticised if we changed the title of a programme but the content stayed the same - and some people may not be able to find it any more! Marathons became Snickers, and Opal Fruits became Starburst, but I can't think of any TV or Radio programmes that changed their titles but remained the same programme? Someone may remember some?

    Tony Pilgrim, Radio 4 Head of Planning and Scheduling

  • Comment number 9.

    @Richard_SM re: cross-trailing and menus. We may get more info on all this from other Radio 4 colleagues later, and I am not the expert. But a couple of thoughts in the meantime. We do cross-trail programmes on other channels, TV and Radio, but there are only so many opportunities to do this, and it has to be prioritised somehow. We already have a lot of messages to get across about our own programmes and schedule, in the junctions between programmes, and for some (see other posts) there are already too many interruptions. Let's not forget there is also criticism from some corners that the BBC abuses its multi-channel presence to advertise its own wares.

    The World Service idea is interesting. While World Service is of course there primarily for an international audience, I can see the link you make. But menus in junctions letting the audience know what's on elsewhere could be difficult to work out, much more so than on TV, where the menus tend to just point to what's on BBC 1,2,3 and 4, with a visual prompt. Some presenters on other stations do point to what's on elsewhere later, and it's something we discuss as a group to look at whether we are doing the right amount of cross-referencing.

    Tony Pilgrim, Radio 4 Head of Planning and Scheduling

  • Comment number 10.

    @blogsat re: emergencies. These events that happen on the day are handled expertly by our presentation editor and his team of duty producers and announcers, with various back-up plans and processes. Again, we may hear more of this later. But your suggestion that a programme might over-run is outrageous, we don't do over-runs. :-)

  • Comment number 11.

    Just to put on record, Tony, many thanks for your many replies/feed back.

    re comment made @ #8

    "but I can't think of any TV or Radio programmes that changed their titles but remained the same programme? Someone may remember some?"

    Didn't BBC 2's "Tonight" morph into "Newsnight" whilst basically covering the same subject matter in a similar style?

  • Comment number 12.

    @Boilerplated OK, so my 'funny' programme titles mis-fired (note to self: don't try to be funny in blog comments, leave that to LordBeddGelert) but my point stands: descriptive programme names will produce descriptive page titles which will improve search engine rankings. This is pretty basic SEO (although there are, as you point out, many other factors). Having said that, I think asking programme makers to choose plainer programme names is just too sad for words. I hope they ignore the memo.

    Steve Bowbrick, editor, Radio 4 blog

  • Comment number 13.

    And here's a better Search Engine Optimisation link.

    Steve Bowbrick, editor, Radio 4 Interactive

  • Comment number 14.


    "we don't do over-runs"

    But some programmes do 'crash' the pips, "Today" being a prim example! :-o
    In fact, to drift slightly off topic (not knowing were to raise this issue without entering the 'bear-pit' that is HYS or the [now defunct?) wholly over managed Today forum debates), I'm sure that the "Today" programme would be a much better programme if the presenters tool the devils advocate position with the main (subject) guest rather that having a second guest and the piece just degenerating into a inaudible slanging match!

  • Comment number 15.

    Thanks for your feed back Steve.

    re comments made @ #12

    Don't get me wrong, I'm with you on plain discriptive programme names (who would want "You and Yours" renamed to something like The Consumer Problems Show, but saying that, programme names should and must indicate what the programme is about - for example what does the title of "The Now Show" tell anyone, it actually sounds more like a current affairs programme (in the same way as the "Today" programme does), rather than it being a stand-up scetch style show - so there is a need to catch the eye (or ear) but have an acruate and discriptive meaning, many people are probably lost in the content of "Something Understood" but the title leaves no one, who might otherwise not listern, in any doubt what the programme is aiming to do, more so than a programme title of Theology Understood would I suspect.

  • Comment number 16.

    Boilerplated - Fair point, but 'You and Yours' sounds so dull that I've never listened to it enough to realise it was about 'consumer problems' - I thought it might be something to do with 'family and friends' for all I know.

    Mr Bowbrick - Fair point that 'plainer' names are not what is required, or necessarily boringly 'descriptive' ones, but if the title were sexy enough for you want to find out what the programme was about by listening to it that might help a lot.

    I also note that the continuity announcers are helping in this regard by ensuring that we now know that the programme is called 'Crossing Continents' - there seemed to be some doubt before...

  • Comment number 17.

    Sorry, trying to make a slightly less silly point - Telly Programmes do have a huge advantage in terms of being able to 'brand' themselves visually and with expensive theme tunes. 'Life On Mars' or even 'Newsnight' just wouldn't have the logos, typefaces, and funky music on the radio. And they would probably be played by a brass band in any case.

    If you can't have funky, fruity logos like 'Apple' or 'Orange' then I do think you need to have some decent musical intros. Even 'JAM' and 'CLUE' are quite recognisable. Will the Archers theme really be sustainable for the next decade ??

    The real problem is that '4Radio' never took off, as that would have been a catalyst for Radio4 to have looked at some of these things.

    Of course, Marks and Spencer never bothered to evolve until the asteroid of a Phillip Green takeover looked like it was on the trajectory to hit them, and they had to shake themselves out of their complacency. Let us hope Radio 4 doesn't die a slow death, as if it doesn't evolve it might be like the dinosaurs and simply not able to adapt quickly enough if a major competitor does appear out of the Sky...

  • Comment number 18.


    "Will the Archers theme really be sustainable for the next decade ?? "

    Yes, amongst those who would be interested in the programme, that is the point, most people do not need nor want to be spoon feed, the fact that you didn't know what "You and Yours" was about wasn't because of a none sexy title or theme-tune but because you couldn't be bothered to listen to the programme in the fist place - sometimes one just has to sample a programme - I knew that "The Now show" is a comedy sketch show but until I actually listened to an episode or two I had no idea if I liked the show/format (which I don't!).

    Also, isn't it what the descriptive sub-title/strap-line is there for, to describe what programme is about "The Archers" - Contemporary drama in a rural setting", "You and Yours - News and discussion of consumer affairs" or "The Now Show - Comedy sketches and satirical comments from Steve Punt, Hugh Dennis and guests"?

  • Comment number 19.

    Boilerplated, Good points.

    "most people do not need nor want to be spoon feed.." - That is a fair point, but by not giving people tasters, and relying on the 'core audience' and 'legacy' of people listening to the previous programme keeping the radio on through a combination of inertia and laziness, it reinforces the image of Radio 4 as a middle-class ghetto, most of whose listeners are pensioners.

    "because you couldn't be bothered to listen to the programme in the fist place.." - Again, a fair point - but I guess people where having these kinds of arguments in BBC TV when there was only BBC One, BBC TWO, ITV and Channel 4 [or S4C]

    'Why bother 'marketing' the shows, if they are too lazy to tune in, why should we go the extra mile to tell them how wonderful the programmes are ?'

    When digital, multi-channel, 'on-demand' viewing came across the horizon, no doubt there was panic-aplenty as the BBC suddenly realised they wouldn't just be able to rely on millions tuning into the news because it was after the Two Ronnies, or David Attenborough because it was after 'Holiday' or whatever.

    If BBC Radio 4 think they will survive simply on an audience too apathetic to listen to anything else, they are in for a big wake-up call.

    I watched a fantastic programme last night on BBC 4 called 'Who killed the honey bee ?'. If the BBC had elected to do that as a 'File on 4', it may have had more facts per minute, but since one wouldn't have known beforehand what it was about, and the sexy buzzing bees 'intro' which could have been used to 'hook' the listener would have been bumped by the need to have that 1920s 'brass band', well, all I can say is that I for one probably wouldn't have tuned in.

    I'm certainly not advocating unbridled populism and dumbed-down vapidity - you can listen to 'Five Live' or '5live' for that. But there is a real risk that the next 'licence fee' settlement will be the last that ever exists. And I think we all know what would happen if Radio 4 became a 'subscription only' internet-only service - it certainly couldn't exist as an 'advertiser-funded' channel and still be recognisable to listeners.

  • Comment number 20.


    "If the BBC had elected to do that as a 'File on 4', it may have had more facts per minute, but since one wouldn't have known beforehand what it was about"

    Of course they would have, they would have read, seen or watched the publicity for the programme. Panorama is still called Panorama after what - 45 years - people don't expect the programme title to be changed each week, no, they listen to, watch or read the programme details, which is easier than ever to do in this age if the information highway, and then decide if the subject matter interests them.

  • Comment number 21.

    My final missive on this point is maybe a more 'upbeat' one. There are some fantastic programmes on Radio 4 - I do just think people need to be hooked into listening to them. Here are some with fantastic 'hooks'.

    - The Unbelievable Truth
    - Iconoclasts - with Ed Stourton
    - Chain Reaction

    I can well remember an excellent programme presented by Stephanie Flanders about her father, his musical career and his long illness. Having missed it live I wanted to find it online. I couldn't find it anywhere. I even emailed her for help, and she was kind enough to reply that many of her friends had been able to find it, so I felt a bit 'twp', as we say in Wales.

    Eventually I did find the programme which was simply one in the 'Archive Hour' strand, which I wouldn't have thought of as being the home of such a touching 'human-interest' documentary in a month of Sundays.

    Of course I'm not suggesting that 'Desert Island Discs' is re-named "What is on your iPod", but neither do I think it is asking too much for a little bit of effort to be put into programme titles.

    Boilerplated's point about 'Panorama' is well made - but it does also have that visual logo and an absolutely scorching theme song, as did that other current affairs gem 'World In Action'.

    Despite all my previous misanthropic whingeing it may surprise you to know that I do love listening to 'Radio 4' which is why I sometimes find it frustrating that more isn't done to share it with an even wider audience.

  • Comment number 22.


    - The Unbelievable Truth
    - Iconoclasts - with Ed Stourton
    - Chain Reaction

    Those programme titles would actually send me - and I suspect many who prefer a dry, informative (rather than hyped), dead pan style of delivery - off in search of either a CD, Radio 3 or the WS to listen to!

    I rarely now listen to either "PM" or "BH" due to the presentation styles/content, preferring instead the afore mentioned alternatives.

  • Comment number 23.

    Boilerplated - you are of course entitled to your opinion and tastes. What I would ask is whether you would object to the following excellent progs, which don't in my view deviate from being 'informative', although I would agree that they may not be 'dry' or 'deadpan', which I don't necessarily see as an advantage in radio.

    The Reunion - Today's on Thalidomide was fantastic. I'm not the world's biggest fan of Sue McGregor, but she was no top form today. Brilliant theme tune and it 'does what it says on the tin'.

    Inside The Ethics Committee - Again, some might complain at the prosaic title, but it hooks you in.

    The Moral Maze - Okay, some of the guests can be annoying, but unlike a box of chocolates, 'you always know what you're gonna get'..

    My aim is not to upset other Radio 4 listeners with different views to my own - but in a world where people using digital technology will not listen for 6-8 hours straight of Radio 4, but 'cherry pick' programmes they do need to stand out a little bit.

    Of course, I don't necessarily welcome the development that people now download music primarily as 'singles' rather than whole albums, and this leads to a 'short attention span' which is inimical to listening to long pieces of classical music.

    But with times changing, the last thing anyone would want is for the BBC's flagship speech radio channel to become some sort of archaic museum piece because it didn't continue to evolve with the digital revolution.

  • Comment number 24.


    "because it didn't continue to evolve with the digital revolution"

    The "digital revolution" is nothing but a method of delivery (or production), it matters not one jot if the programme content is delivered by bush-telegraph, wax phonograph or as an series of Ones and Zeros (digital). What we are/have been discussing has nothing what so ever to digital broadcasting, or shouldn't have...

  • Comment number 25.

    "The "digital revolution" is nothing but a method of delivery (or production.."

    This might have been true 5 years ago. The programmes or content might have been 'streamed' digitally in a linear fashion from 05.30 in the morning until 01.00 the following morning. It wouldn't make a difference if they were digital or not. You would tune in to what was on at that point.

    So if you were around at lunchtime you might listen to 'Moneybox' or even 'You and Yours' because that is all that there was on.

    But the digital revolution is about much, much more than that. Why bother listening to 'You and Yours' if you can listen to the podcast of 'In our time' ? A far more interesting use of an hour.

    Of course, this has downsides. You might not listen 'off-line' to some deadly dull and worthy 'Afternoon Play', whereas in the past you might have had to, and actually found it rather 'improving' rather in the way you might have been forced to eat your broccoli in the past.

    For you not to see that the future of Radio 4 has to change when people are able to pick from a menu, rather than be fed 'the dish of the day' as decided by Mark Damazer and Tony Pilgrim shows that whilst you fully understand that a quality programme still has to be delivered, what that product is 'packaged in' has to be a lot more attractive as well.

    Of course, I'm not pretending that this doesn't have huge downside risks. It is far more difficult the TV drama budget when a 'popular' show has eight, rather than eighteen, million viewers.

    Marks and Spencer had to radically re-engineer their business and make their marketing a lot more slick, and part of that was paid for by buying products made outside the UK. So I can understand why some people are resistant to change.

    But sitting Canute-like at Radio 4 towers as the tide comes up the beach and the listeners desert to other shores just isn't an option which is sustainable in the longer term in my view. But then parts of Radio 4 are still like an English town circa 1950 - so maybe the pace of change just isn't going to advance with any alacrity in the near future. Let us see.


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