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Jenny Abramsky

Director of Radio & Music

Sound Matters - Soundtrack for the UK - How did we get here?

Wednesday 30 January 2002
Printable version

Text of a lecture given by Jenny Abramsky, News International Visiting Professor of Broadcast Media 2002 at Green College, Oxford University.

This speech was first in a series of four.

Lecture two

Lecture three

Lecture four


Please check against delivery


Sound is what Radio is about.

Radio conjures pictures with words, conveys ideas, challenges assumptions... all by using an infinite variety of sound.

I joined the BBC in 1969 because I was enthralled by radio.

It had kindled my obsession with news when, for example, I had listened, in my bedroom, to Alastair Cooke and William Hardcastle on Radio 4, telling me of the shooting of Robert Kennedy.

It had fostered my love of drama, putting on productions that swept my imagination into realms of fantasy. It had entertained me with the Goon Show...

Radio had stimulated my interest in ideas with programmes like Brian Redhead's A Word in Edgeways playing, almost toying with words.

Radio, for me, was and is an extraordinarily potent medium.

I don't know what I expected of the BBC... at my first interview the Chair of Appointments asked me if I could change a plug?

"Yes", was my reply. "Did I know why I had to change the plug" was the next question... I was flummoxed...

"To get the fire working again" I ventured? A smile crossed his face. I had given the right answer...

BBC Radio in those days was hierarchical, intellectual, pulsating with creative energy and full of people at war with each other.

The Radio Directorate was ambitious, challenging, curious, exacting, and arrogant... and it seemed to do everything. But it was remarkable fun.

I was struck by the range of programming Radio produced every day.

In my first year I worked on schools drama, classical record review, Charlie Chester, the World at One.

I helped set up the rig for a live concert from the Royal Albert Hall, I was part of the team covering the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh and, later, the team working 24 hours a day on Apollo 13.

Whatever the genre, whatever the event, radio attempted it.

I am going to try, in these four lectures, to explain how the radio we know today came about, look at radio’s role within the BBC, and, in my final lecture, discuss whether radio can have a continuing public service role as technologies converge and audiences seem to expect and demand so much more from their public services.

I am not a historian. This is a personal reflection, coloured by some 30 years of experiencing the extraordinary shifts and turns of the BBC's own attitudes to radio.

I cannot in this lecture cover every aspect of radio and every milestone over the past eight decades... this will be a selective reflection.

When radio began, almost 80 years ago, society was unimaginably different.

The Treaty of Versailles was three years old. The Great Depression was yet to come. George V was roughly halfway through his reign. Elgar was about to be appointed Master of the King's Music.

Something called ragtime was on the way out and something called jazz was beginning to be noticed. Movies were silent... and the Labour Party had never held office.

That first BBC - the British Broadcasting Company - was a commercial venture.

The manufacturers of wirelesses wanted to sell their new products and they realised they needed content... and a distribution system... so they formed a limited company, a commercial monopoly, which was financed by a Post Office licence fee and supplemented by royalties from the sale of receiving sets, made by the manufacturers.

The licences granted to the company had severe restrictions. Broadcast content was to be limited to music, educational and religious subjects and entertainment. News, not already printed, was to be prohibited except by special permission.

That first BBC had a staff of four! - it was led by an engineer, John Reith, who became the first General Manager of the BBC in the late Autumn of 1922. Reith was enough of a visionary to see the potential of broadcasting.

How did radio impact on the social and political life of this country? Not very easily at first!

On the 30th April 1926 it was a music programme - Jack Payne's dance music - which was interrupted by an announcement of a coal strike.

Never afraid of the limelight the announcement was made by Reith himself.

The planned miners' strike rapidly became a real general strike, and it's worth looking at, because it was the first event that raised the key issue of independence from Government which has been so important in the last 75 years.

There were no newspapers. This was after all, a general strike.

Churchill, then the Chancellor of the Exchequer, edited and managed a propaganda sheet, called the British Gazette from 11 Downing Street... who says spin-doctoring was invented by New Labour...

So it was difficult for most people to know what was going on - unless they had a wireless and a receiving licence.

By the time of the General Strike there were more than two million licence holders. They paid 10 shillings a year (a figure which remained unchanged until 1946).

Although Reith saw early on that a critical role for the BBC was to "inform", when the company was licensed the newspaper proprietors had wanted no news to be broadcast until it had already been published in both the morning and early evening newspapers.

BBC News could only be heard in the evening, at 7 o’clock... and every bulletin had to begin with the acknowledgement "Copyright News from Reuters, Press Association, Exchange Telegraph and Central News". The BBC did not gather any news of its own.

The BBC was also forbidden to deal with controversial issues.

So, in May 1926, Reith had a delicate path to tread. The news agencies temporally agreed to abandon their restrictions. There were five bulletins a day starting at 10.00am.

And the status of the BBC?

The constitutional position was clear - the Ggovernment had the legal authority to tell the BBC what to broadcast... and, if it felt so inclined, could take over the BBC and turn it into an arm of government.

And there were those led by Churchill, who wanted to do just that.

There were others less strident in their views who wanted, as one of them put it, to leave the BBC with "a measure of independence".

I am not sure we would define what happened as "independence".

The Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, trusted Reith and knew him well... well enough to broadcast a message to the nation from Reith's own house in the middle of the strike... the words of the message were written by Reith! Imagine if that happened now!!

But despite this cronyism the important decision was that the Government did not take over the BBC.

Of course if we were to look at the BBC's coverage of the General Strike with today's emphasis on impartiality, on fairness, we would not be very proud.

The coverage was sober, it was non-inflammatory, it was accurate, so far as it went... but it was very far from comprehensive.

The BBC reinforced authority, it was unfair to the Labour Party, never allowing them airtime.

But the truth is that it was probably the best that the BBC could do at the time, against a background of deference and dinner-jacketed newsreaders on the radio.

After the General Strike, the Government needed to take a long term view of how broadcasting should be regulated and financed. I will not go into details.

All I will say is that the first committee, of the endless committees that have looked into the future of British Broadcasting, the Crawford Committee, recommended to the Conservative Government what you might say was one of the first nationalisations...

The British Broadcasting Company was turned into a public service corporation, its authority guaranteed by Royal Charter, financed by a licence fee.

In those early days was the BBC outward looking - audience focused?

Reith had argued for a BBC dedicated to the highest standards, free from political interference and commercial pressure. He saw that broadcasting could be a force for both good and ill.

As early as 1924 he wrote "he who prides himself on giving what he thinks the public wants is often creating a fictitious demand for lower standards which he will then satisfy"... dumbing down was even an issue in 1924!

I must confess as I researched these lectures I have been struck by how many issues were raised on the day the BBC started and every few years came back to haunt it.

The First Charter came into force in January 1927. And Radio was now able to broadcast regular news.

It was trusted by the public, who continued to buy wireless licences in increasing numbers. They turned to the radio for entertainment - and for news when news mattered.

Radio could concentrate on the business of "bringing the best of everything into the greatest number of homes" ….Reith's objective for public service.

"The best of everything" meant more than the cultural elitism which many people associate with pre-war BBC.

Reith may have said there would never be jazz or variety on Sundays - and by the way there wasn't - but the bedrock of the schedule, then, as now, was plays, debates and above all music - concerts, both classical and popular, particularly light and dance music.

Jack Payne, and later Henry Hall, were the first stars - bandleaders who became major broadcasting personalities, as influential as the stars of Radio 1 and 2 are today.

From the earliest days music accounted for the largest slice of broadcasting time - over 60% - and nearly 20% was devoted to classical music.

Like newspaper proprietors, the musical establishment had been suspicious of this new upstart, fearing the BBC would destroy concert going in the UK.

But the BBC, as early as 1924, contracted the first full-time musicians and in 1927 Radio rescued the Proms. Radio had become a catalyst for stimulating concert-going.

The orchestras were founded in 1930 and Adrian Boult was appointed Permanent Conductor and Director of Music.

He turned the BBC Symphony Orchestra into a world class orchestra.

Not only that, but Boult, as Director of Music, also developed the BBC's role of cultural patron by commissioning works from composers such as Elgar and Holst.

He had identified an important role for public service broadcasting, which continues today.

The same was true of drama, where the man in charge was Val Gielgud. Gielgud, brother of John, was clear from the onset that radio drama needed to be different and distinctive from theatre.

Supporting writers was now part of radio's mission.

And there was comedy, variety, children's broadcasting, educational broadcasting, but, with the exception of Children's Hour once a month, the Governors banned quizzes and competitions!

By 1927 there was sport as well. I find it remarkable how quickly the new BBC set up camp on every territory!

By the time Reith left the BBC in 1938, he had made the BBC a cultural institution, a catalyst for artistic development and also the major source for entertainment in the country.

It had a strong relationship with its audiences. The educational role of the BBC had been established, and embedded in the radio schedule.

And radio had established itself as much the journal of record as the press, if not more so...

There was an expectation that great events would be heard on radio... and of course when war broke out the morale-boosting and propaganda power of radio was fully recognised.

With the onset of war the BBC recognised the need for the first time to be more audience focused, to cater for a variety of tastes.

The Empire Service, the forerunner of the World Service, had already been established.

The Home Service replaced the National and Regional programmes and a different service, the Forces Programme, was created to serve the British Expeditionary Forces.

People were hungry for news... and news / information was now the most important thing the BBC broadcast...

The BBC was now a truly news-gathering organisation with correspondents like Richard Dimbleby, Wynford Vaughan Thomas, Frank Gillard and Godfrey Talbot...

I didn't know that until the war roving reporters, like Dimbleby, were known as Mobile Topicality Assistants, so as not to upset the newspapers!

I intend to look at the impact of that war reporting in my third lecture, on its continuing influence on radio.

But the BBC's broadcasting during the war, enormous as its role of information provider, communicator was, was much more - new stars were discovered, new formats were developed.

Light music, comedy, request programmes, variety dominated the airwaves.

Programmes like Desert Island Discs began... celebrating its 60th birthday this year.

And radio's nurturing of comedy talent flourished with programmes like ITMA – It's That Man Again, and its star Tommy Handley.

At the start of the war there were 4,000 staff broadcasting 50 hours per day and in seven languages.

By the end of the war there were 11,000 staff broadcasting 150 hours a day in 45 languages.

It is tempting to look back at those times and the early post-war years with a rosy glow.

One commentator has said "nostalgia creeps in".

But was it a golden age as some producers thought when "free spirits, unconfined by the BBC hierarchy" were able to do virtually what they wanted... With no expense spared? Should we be nostalgic?

The BBC had two domestic services in the immediate aftermath of war - the Light Programme, replacing the General Forces Programme in the summer of 1945, and a regionalised Home Service.

If you look carefully at the schedule of both services, it's not clear which audiences they were meant for.

They seem more like a scheduler's muddle and were remarkably similar.

Both broadcast light music, plays, and comedy.

The Home Service did do more news, and religion, but it was the Light Programme, for example, that paid tribute to Bernard Shaw on his 90th birthday, and put on a performance of The Man of Destiny with Eric Portman, whilst the war time comedian, Arthur Askey entertained on the Home Service...

I had not realised that the 1946 season of the Proms only broadcast the first half of each concert... (neither, by the way, had the present Director of the Proms, Nick Kenyon).

It was time for a new vision - that was provided by the Director-General, Sir William Haley.

In 1946 he was perhaps the first to see that radio broadcasting needed to reflect a wider variety of tastes and that the way to achieve this was to create more of, as he called it, a "settled system of programmes".

He decided to introduce a third service, a "minority service... the Third Programme".

Haley was ambitious, he was "determined to break new ground"... "aiming high".

The services must "continually seek to innovate, to raise standards", he demanded.

This was an ambitious challenge to radio in the austerity of post-war Britain.

In the post-war years, as television gradually became the senior partner, radio did, I believe, establish a critical role contributing to and shaping the cultural fabric of the UK.

The contributors to the Third Programme included Bertrand Russell delivering the first Reith Lectures, W.H. Auden, Iris Murdoch, Tolkein, Robert Graves, Edith Sitwell, Isaiah Berlin, Camus, Thomas Mann.

Drama included plays by Sartre, Pirandello, Brecht, Louis Macniece, Beckett, Pinter and Tom Stoppard's first work.

The Features department was run by Laurence Gilliam. One person described this department as "a haunt of wayward talents".

From the start it was in fierce competition with the Talks department, the forerunner of the News and Current affairs department.

The BBC from its earliest days has created warring baronies. In the Fifties, the Features department, the intellectuals as they saw themselves, regarded Talks with contempt, and vice versa.

It is extraordinary how many of the battles fought in or over the BBC have been repeated every decade.

Even the disdain of administrators was around in those early post-war years - features producers had no compunction in cheerfully biting the hand that fed them - a habit of BBC producers from then on.

Producers in those days were more like impresarios, like film producers, they encouraged writers, they commissioned artists, they spent money - lots of it.

For instance Douglas Cleverdon took between a week and nine days to rehearse a play and he and other producers would not hesitate to hire an orchestra if a character went to a concert.

Out of that so called "profligacy" came disasters, but there also came programmes that fulfilled Haley's dream.

Cleverdon took seven years to persuade, cajole, drink with and coax Dylan Thomas to write Under Milk Wood.

Producers, like Cleverdon, were stubborn and uncompromising.

They were also elitist. They aimed their programmes at a small audience, at certain friends - their words not mine - and they didn't care about the people who didn't understand.

But without Cleverdon we would not have Under Milk Wood, which took the use of words and sounds to a new level... evoking mood, place, sense.

Another producer who understood and exploited the power of sound was Charles Parker, who used radio as a chronicle of working class life, by blending voices and music.

The Radio Ballads, which Parker produced, with the help of folk singers Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger, from 1958 to 1964, truly broke new ground, giving ordinary people a voice. He made one a year.

There are 5,000 hours of Parker recordings stored in his archive in Birmingham.

"Free spirits" like Parker and Cleverdon lived uncomfortably in the BBC and were often accused of being "too free with the Corporation's money"... and they certainly were, but I am not sure the BBC has ever got the balance right between enabling free spirits to flourish and ensuring public money is well spent.

Like Cleverdon, Parker fell foul of a BBC becoming more cost conscious, of a BBC deciding that an output of one programme a year from a radio producer, was not tolerable.

But they represent ambition... and they were influential.

BBC Local Radio's millennium project The Century Speaks, with the voices of 6,000 ordinary people, owes its origins to Charles Parker's pioneering work.

Individuals also shaped radio's approach to classical music.

First Boult and, much later, Sir William Glock, Controller of Music from 1959 to 1973, who used his position to invigorate contemporary music.

From its inception BBC Radio introduced to this country major works of Bartok, Prokoviev, Schoenberg and Webern, almost unheard in the UK until the BBC embraced them.

To date the BBC Symphony Orchestra has given over 1,000 premieres - some have sunk without trace - but Glock, as Controller of Music, began the Proms policy of commissioning the best young composers, which led to works by Harrison Birtwhistle, Maxwell Davies and more recently to Tavener's The Protecting Veil... one of the most successful works of our time.

But radio has been influential in other equally important aspects of our cultural life.

The Fifties saw the flowering of radio entertainment - with programmes like Round The Horne, Hancock's Half Hour and the Goon Show.

Since then radio has nurtured comedy talent in the UK.

Without its investment, its showcasing, I think the comedy scene would have been the poorer.

As early as the Fifties, it was realised that radio could be the testing ground for television.

Hancock's Half Hour was the first show to transfer, a tradition that has continued to this day with shows like League of Gentleman, Goodness Gracious Me.

But all this took place when the BBC was a monopoly. Radio faced little competition.

The first domestic competition the BBC faced was its Television Channel.

In 1955 ITV launched and, from then on, radio's position within the BBC was gradually eroded as television, rightly, took the greater share of resources.

But despite the balance of power shifting to Shepherds Bush, the shape of radio remained largely unchanged for some 21 years until offshore pirate radio stations, like Radio Caroline, increasingly listened to by young people like myself, were banned.

Radio Caroline, broadcasting from an Irish ship, with a Dutch crew and flying a Panamanian flag, was a challenge the Government could not ignore.

But as one cabinet minister said in 1967, "we can't remove the sweets without replacing the saccharine".

And the BBC could not ignore the popularity of pop either.

So the origin of Radio 1 appears to have been a politically expedient deal between the Government and the BBC.

The Government banned the pirates and the BBC launched a new service Radio 1 which it did in September 1967. And it renamed the other services Radios 2, 3 and 4.

Launching Radio 1 wasn't easy. Radio had said that it could create Radio 1 by making "special economies" and that no increase in the licence fee would be needed.

Its audience was not at first well served. Somehow the BBC muddled through – many programmes were broadcast simultaneously on Radios 1 and 2 like Late Night Extra, presented by a little-known Irishman called Wogan.

And from its start Radio 1 faced the argument that the provision of pop music was not a public service and should not be paid out of public funds.

I started at the BBC two years later. The BBC I joined was in the throws of a revolution - it was in turmoil.

On my first day in Broadcasting House someone asked me to sign a protest sheet about something called Broadcasting in the Seventies.

"Broadcasting in the Seventies" was the most controversial document ever produced by radio.

It was prompted by problems of scarcity - scarcity of resources, and scarcity of frequencies.

A policy study group, chaired by Gerry Mansell, then Controller of Radio 4, with help from McKinsey's - the first time the BBC used consultants - considered the future of radio and the structure of the BBC in the regions.

The report, partly written by Ian Trethowan, later to become Director-General, warned "there will be both gains and losses", and recommended cutting the cost of music, rationalising the BBC in the regions and opening more local radio stations – the first, Radio Leicester had opened in 1967.

There were losses. The orchestras were cut - although rather slowly. In 1970 there were 12 BBC orchestras, over the next 10 years they were cut to six. Greg Dyke would never have been so slow.

But "Broadcasting in the Seventies" was not just about cuts. It was also a visionary document. It helped the audience. It led to networks that were more coherent.

It created a new Radio 3 concentrating wholly on music and the arts... Radio 4 became a speech network and the present structure of BBC Local Radio was established.

But in 1969 the report was seen as anything but visionary – both outside the BBC and within.

The Times forecast that specialist networks "would not broaden a listener's horizons".

The Sun, yes The Sun, supported an increase in the radio licence fee with the headline "BBC needs money, not an axe... it deserves a roll of drums from every BBC orchestra while there is still time".

The first Campaign for Better Broadcasting - the CBB - was set up with members including Sir Adrian Boult, Tyrone Guthrie, Henry Moore and Jonathan Miller.

They saw the document as "a masterpiece of devious and subtle generalisation... a capitulation to accountants' logic".

I have learnt from experience that the BBC is very good at fighting itself.

200 staff signed a memo to the DG, Charles Curran, criticising the changes and claiming "there will not be enough adventurous broadcasting, risks will not be taken". 134 signed a protest letter to the Times.

So were their fears realised? Did radio lose its creative nerve?

I would argue no.

The new specialised Radio 3 continued to commission new contemporary music, to do Shakespeare, continued to do programmes on ideas, use contributors like Sir Isaiah Berlin and produce series like Beowulf.

Radio 4, now a wholly speech station, commissioned some of the its finest series - The Long March of Everyman, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, The Lord of the Rings dramatisation being repeated now. It was able to offer its audience the rich mix of programming we expect today.

And Radio 1 and Radio 2 were able to develop as separate entities for their different audiences.

Its interesting that the arguments had raged over the Third programme, but what of those millions who wanted a quality public service for their tastes and passions?

Splitting Radio 1 and Radio 2 showed the BBC had realised that, to their different audiences, the music of Bing Crosby was on a different planet from that of the Rolling Stones!

And the report gave the go ahead for a chain of 40 local radio stations to be created - without which the BBC's relationship with communities would be very much the weaker.

So I do think it was visionary.

What "Broadcasting in the Seventies" achieved was a shape for public service radio that enabled it to become more audience focused, more able to compete when faced with commercial competition. Above all it created a framework for Radio BBC to develop.

But there is one thing else that pervades "Broadcasting in the Seventies"... the belief that, because we were in the television age, radio had to change.

"There are still some fields in which it has a unique role," it said but it went on, "for most people radio is now mainly for daytime".

This narrowing of radio's ambition explains perhaps why there grew among some executives in the BBC, a belief that radio was somehow no longer central to the future of the BBC, and by the turn of the century would be a dead medium.

Indeed I remember being told so in no uncertain terms by one senior TV Production Head in the early Eighties.

The Licence dropped any reference to Radio in its name in 1971... not surprisingly many people today are unaware that it pays for radio as well as television.

The uneasy relationship radio enjoyed in the BBC during the latter half of the last century owed much to a failure to see the complementary relationship that could be forged between television and radio and, as resources became scarce, a sense that the old media could only diminish.

In the Nineties it led to controversial restructuring and ways of working which will be the subject of my third lecture.

But those executives who espoused the view that radio had little future could never explain why much of the passion and controversy surrounding the BBC was still inspired by radio.

News and current affairs programmes had developed from those early deferential days. Politicians were being interviewed and challenged... although they were not always forthcoming.

In the Seventies news and current affairs programmes had become "appointment to listen" programmes on Radio 4, as a result of the creation of the World At One in 1965 and later its spin-off programme PM by Andrew Boyle and William Hardcastle.

They were determined to set the agenda for news. As a result the Today Programme had changed. It was much more of a current affairs programmes than the soft magazine of the Sixties. And there was The World Tonight at 10 o’clock.

So when, in 1977, the then Controller of Radio 4, Ian McIntyre, decided to slash all these news and current affairs programmes because he did not believe they could sustain quality, there was uproar.

McIntyre cut the Today programme into two half hours. PM and The World Tonight were cut to half an hour.

This was war - and most of the battle took place outside Broadcasting House in the diary columns of the newspapers, in particular the Londoner's Diary of the Evening Standard. Producers were leaking on a daily basis.

Last year the Director-General Greg Dyke sent an email to staff exhorting them to stop whinging or get out.

If the DG had sent a similar e-mail in 1977/8, and acted on it, it would have led to the end of the Radio News and Current Affairs department - the whole department was in revolt.

Fortunately for them, so was the audience.

News and current affairs are central to Radio 4 in 2002. They proved central to Radio 4 in 1977/8.

Quality coverage, comprehensive coverage, an international perspective, without these things public service radio would be the poorer.

The debate was about the soul of Radio 4 and on this occasion news and currents affairs, rightly, was restored to its role as the spine of the network.

If it had not, I do not believe Radio 4 would have survived as the force it is today.

A restored Today was able to become the leading current affairs programme across all media. And it also showed that radio was about more than daytime.

When radio has lost its way it's usually because it has become internally focused and not put the needs of its audience first.

The upheavals on Radio 4 had been partly caused by the BBC's response to competition.

Radio had been cocooned from competition but finally, in 1973, commercial radio launched in the UK with LBC in London and Capital. This was a different challenge than offshore pirates.

ILR [Independent Local Radio] started with some programming of real public service values - programmes like Capital Radio's The Way It Is.

LBC had a significant news-gathering capability, with specialist correspondents. It quickly took significant share in London.

Gradually, the number of services expanded and in the Eighties they were gaining significant audiences.

In the process they had dropped most of their speech programming and much of their experimentation.

And by the early Nineties the ending of simulcasting, splitting frequencies and adding new services like Capital Gold had an immediate impact and seriously eroded BBC Radio audiences.

Radio 2's share in London went from 22% in 1988 to 11% in 1991! As dramatic a decline as Radio 1's would be four years later.

The 1990 Broadcasting Act freed ILR from the IBA yoke and gave it a regulatory body of its own, the Radio Authority.

And the act enabled national radio and regional radio stations to be created, this led to the successful launch of Classic FM.

But this growing strength of commercial radio, with nearly 150 stations, had an inevitable impact on public service radio.

Throughout the Thatcher years Radios 1 and 2 were under threat. Should they be privatised? Did they have a public service role?

This threat has never gone away. The new Shadow Culture Minister, Tim Yeo, has recently suggested it should be discussed again.

In the early Nineties this debate dominated the future of BBC Radio, at a time when most of its components/networks were suffering from wobbles and uncertainties which affect all creative organisations from time to time, and amid predictions that its share of audiences would decline to 38% by the year 2000, if services remained unchanged.

Radio 1 had not changed for many years. It still had an audience of some 18 million, but it had lost much of its freshness... the sense of danger and originality that DJs like Kenny Everett had brought in its early years.

The music it played was far from the cutting edge of the new music of the young.

The repositioning of Radio 1 in 1993/4 has been written about at great length... it's even been turned into a an enjoyable TV programme... so I will not go into it here, except to say the BBC virtually handed eight million listeners over to commercial radio on a plate!

In doing so it refocused Radio 1 on its primary purpose... to serve its young audiences, with relevant programming and championing their music.

And the debate, within the BBC, about radio's role in popular culture was not confined to Radio 1.

The spotlight was now firmly on most of its output. How did you justify services unless you could demonstrate their distinctiveness?

Local radio was the first to undergo sweeping change. It became obligatory to produce speech programmes at key times of the day, which significantly improved their news coverage but the focus on news meant what had been a fertile training ground for radio production talent almost dried up.

Some stations were merged to save money losing for the BBC a critical connection with their communities. Investment in local radio stagnated.

BBC Radio was losing confidence in itself. Radio 3, became uncertain about its purpose, as Classic FM discovered a new audience and seemed to challenge Radio 3's existence, whilst never attempting its specialist remit.

And Radio 2 appeared to be gently sliding into the grave... slowly, sedately but surely...

BBC Radio seemed to be losing touch with its audience. The scale and speed of loss of audience to Radio 1 shocked many in the BBC.

But in dealing with radio the corporation made some critical mistakes.

The decision to put schools programming, all sports coverage, children's radio and the Open University together and make them into a new network in 1990 - Radio 5 - was a mistake.

It enabled the other networks to become more focused, but Radio 5 was more an administrative solution to a problem than a broadcasting one.

It failed and the reasons for its failure and for the creation of Radio Five Live will be the subject of tomorrow's talk.

The scale and speed of change imposed on Radio 1 was partly responsible for its loss of audience.

The BBC did not learn and, in 1997, made the same mistake with Radio 4. It was a failure to understand how radio relates to its audience.

It is a friend and companion. It is the soundtrack to your life. When it changes, it affects your life...

In 1997 the wholesale changes to the schedule were as radical for the Radio 4 audience as Dave Lee Travis and Simon Bates' departures had been for Radio 1.

All this coincided with dramatic upheaval in the organisation and structure of production that appeared formally to set parts of the BBC in opposition to each other.

I am not going to look at this now. This lecture is about the networks and programmes public service radio delivers to licence payers. I will talk about it in my third lecture.

But I am sure this inward focus played a part in affecting programme making quality as the audience deserted Radio 4.

When the new schedule was introduced in 1998 the comedy was poor, some of the new magazine programmes were just not good enough. Some of the producers failed to understand their audiences.

But some of those programmes have already become classics... John Peel's Home Truths, Front Row, Broadcasting House.

I have dwelt on much of the turbulence that has affected the shape of BBC Radio in the latter part of the twentieth century.

So what is the state of public service radio in its 80th year?

Pretty healthy. Certainly audienced focused.

Unlike Radios 1 and 4, Radio 2 in the last five years has elected for evolutionary change, for bringing the audience with it, each step of the way... and its audience has by and large stayed.

Indeed the image of Radio 2 quietly slipping away has been banished, as a vibrant refocused network has emerged and a new audience switched it on. It's now the most listened to station in the UK.

After the wobbles of the late Nineties Radio 4 has settled down, and comedy has once again become confident, nurtured new talent and broken new ground.

We have come a long way. Mocking politicians was expressly forbidden 80 years ago!

Certainly the doom mongers of the Eighties have been proved wrong.

Far from a dying medium, listening to radio is increasing, the medium is flourishing as 90% of the population listen to radio each week.

In 1998 radio contributed 46% of all viewing and listening to the BBC and now contributes 56%.

BBC Radio has a 51.6% share of the total radio audience, not the 38% predicted a decade ago!

And radio has embraced new technology. Taken advantage of the opportunities offered by the internet.

In the BBC, Radio is the third most used section of BBC Online, after News and Sport, with over 30 million page impressions a month.

But volume is not everything.

I said at the start of this lecture that I could not possibly deal with the whole history of radio in one lecture. This is a selective reflection.

What does it all add up to? Has radio delivered a vision for public service broadcasting which is it still central to the BBC's purpose?

I have never subscribed to a definition that public service radio should just be about market failure.

I think radio must have range, and ambition, but it also has a duty to be popular, to contribute culture – both popular and high.

Enabling listeners to gain access to the music of their choice, setting that music in context, opening their minds to other forms of music, is as important to a vibrant society as an understanding of the minutiae of politics.

Radio must take risks, must not be safe - like Radio 1 should do and does with new bands, with new music, with a bespoke news service for young people.

Like Radio 2 should do and does with documentaries, with comedy, with a wide range of specialist music.

Like Radio 3 did ten days ago with the weekend festival of John Adams music at the Barbican - by broadcasting and performing his Death of Klinghoffer it broke new ground.

It’s what Local Radio did last year with its coverage of Foot and Mouth. It's what Radio 4 must always do.

If public service radio is to continue to have a role it must produce programming not heard anywhere else, like Fergal Keane's Taking a Stand, like In Our Time discussing the nature of good and evil, like The Irving Trial, where all the protagonists and the judge spoke for the first time, like Five Live's coverage of 11th September, like the new writing in The Wire on Radio 3, like The Proms.

All fulfil in some way the mission to inform, educate and entertain.

Are we adventurous and creative enough? I think most of the battles fought within the BBC have been over different interpretations of how to do just that.

This country is changing rapidly.

We need to offer our listeners programmes that tell them about those changes, and not just on networks like Radio 4 and 3, but through programming on stations like Radios 2 and 1.

All our listeners are affected and have a right to be informed.

How a station like Radio 1 responded to September 11 is important. Was it relevant for its audience?

They sent thousands of e-mails, like this from Joanna, aged 15: "Listening to the show has helped me a lot. Knowing that there are other people in the world with the same thoughts as my own in a weird way is already helping me come to terms with what is going on."

The BBC I joined has changed in the 33 years. There's less strife.

Radio has become more attuned to its audiences, less inclined to deliver from on high. Its range is all the greater as a result.

And, in doing so, it has lost some of the arrogance that alienated sections of licence payers.

So I think radio is still relevant and forward looking.

It is still trying "to bring the best of everything into the greatest number of homes".

Perhaps we still have some way to go. Perhaps we could be more ambitious?

There are audiences who feel disenfranchised by the BBC - disenfranchised by radio as a whole, particularly ethnic minorities. We must respond.

This year there will be five new public service radio stations - aiming at diverse audiences, with what must be distinctive quality programming.

In one year the BBC will be creating as many stations as it previously took 72 years to do.

Radio, commercial as well as public service, is taking advantage of digital - be it satellite, cable, online, or DAB. It's moving forward.

So, over 80 years of public service radio has carved out a role in the UK - as an enabler, as an informer, as an entertainer, as an educator, as a feeder of passions, and as a platform for ordinary people to have a voice.

Within the BBC there is a growing realisation that radio is essential to deliver its public remit.

Where would its role as cultural patron be without Radio 3's support of five orchestras and the Proms, its support of World Music, without Radio 4's support of writers?

Would it have a relevance to young people without Radio 1? Would it have sustained its reputation for Sport without Radio Five Live? I doubt it.

Would it have a strong relationship with communities without Local Radio? I doubt it.

And would it be the effective provider of news and current affairs I believe it is today without programmes like Today and Jimmy Young? I don't think so.

Since its inception radio has offered both its audience and the BBC opportunity, because, as the first Controller of Radio 4 I knew - a man called Tony Whitby, summed up -

"In the realm of ideas, radio operates with uncluttered lucidity: in the realm of the imagination, it soars where other media limp."


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