BBC Radio 4

    Scheduling Radio 4

    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.

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