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28/07/2015
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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.

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


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  • Comment number 19. Posted by U15781704

    on 5 Jul 2013 10:31

    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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  • Comment number 18. Posted by Phil Edwards

    on 5 Jul 2013 00:02

    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.

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  • Comment number 17. Posted by yellowcat

    on 3 Jul 2013 22:37

    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.

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  • Comment number 16. Posted by jrubinstein

    on 1 Jul 2013 09:26

    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.

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  • Comment number 15. Posted by GldfrdEng

    on 28 Jun 2013 23:32

    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.

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  • Comment number 14. Posted by Susan Burrell

    on 27 Jun 2013 20:11

    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.

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  • Comment number 13. Posted by Brenjamin

    on 26 Jun 2013 21:43

    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.

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  • Comment number 12. Posted by Anthony Frost

    on 26 Jun 2013 09:26

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

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  • Comment number 11. Posted by Anthony Frost

    on 26 Jun 2013 09:20

    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!!!!

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  • Comment number 10. Posted by Meles

    on 25 Jun 2013 20:59

    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!

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