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The BBC Trust's review of service licences for Radio 4 and Radio 7

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Gwyneth Williams Gwyneth Williams 15:14, Tuesday, 8 February 2011

The BBC Trust's service licence review was hugely positive for Radio 4 and Radio 7. I have seen some of the listeners' responses on Radio 4 to the Trust. We are widely considered a 'national treasure' and the appreciation for what we do is humbling. The Trust's reseach received a record number of responses and revealed that eighty per-cent of the audience approved of us with a score of eight- or more out-of-ten. The reasons cited included "the passion and knowledge of the presenters; the range and depth of programming; extremely high production standards; and an intelligent and challenging tone". Add this to the new Rajar figures (one-in-five of us in the UK listen every week and Radio 4 accounts for one-in-every-eight radio listening hours) and the kind of quality delivered by Radio 4 for audiences is unarguable.

A broader picture too about radio seems to be emerging: we fit in with people's lives; we are modern, flexible and cheap. Radio 4 Extra (which is what Radio 7 will become) is another way of enjoying our drama and comedy programmes with something else thrown into the mix. There is a developing Radio 4 archive of documentaries and history programmes, science, film, arts interviews from the brilliant Front Row - all opening up other ways to find and share our programmes. Radio 4 is not confined to its successful schedule but can be enjoyed in different ways and this is a broad approach to the challenge posed by the Trust in their document this morning about expanding the Radio 4 audience in the future.

So let's think about David Liddiment's specific two 'buts' - prompted by our own excellent Sarah Montague on Today this morning (listen to the whole interview below). One, he said Radio 4 has a huge skew to the South-East of England. Those in the North don't listen as much as those in the South. And two, 35-50s aren't listening to Radio 4 as much as they were. Well, our audience has been quick to reply online; here are two examples from Twitter:

Fairly young still, living in the North, and listening to @r4today - no need to change this at all, dear BBC Trust! #r4todayless than a minute ago via web

Today program making me mad. Radio 4. Don't put regional accents on because it's pc. Put the best reporters on there. AAAAAGGGHHH mad.less than a minute ago via Echofon

And I'm sure that listener appreciates the excellent File on Four, our flagship investigation programme based in Manchester with its first class reporters. We want talent on Radio 4 - wherever we can get it and we will continue to look widely everywhere for the best reporters and presenters. Of course we are keen for people all over Britain to enjoy our programmes more and the Trust understands this and supports our endeavours.

Partly that is about getting the best programmes and contributors from as many places as possible but mainly it is about excellent programmes and talent, both on and off air - the best on Egypt at present for instance, from those who know and carry authority, whether it is Magdi Abdelhadi from the World Service or Jeremy Bowen, our Middle East Editor (did you hear his recent programme on the Lebanon and wine? - highly recommended). We have plans to take more of our programmes out and around the UK - the Moral Maze, for instance, and a new poetry masterclass with Ruth Padel. I think too that as we develop a more international sensibility - which is only keeping up with our audience - we will be more welcoming to new listeners wherever in the UK they happen to live.

And of course as I have already said we have other ways of listening to Radio 4 in our developing archive and easier ways of searching and sharing our programmes.I am delighted that the Trust has endorsed and encouraged our plans for extending the Radio 4 archive on our website. We know how popular the archive is. For example the In Our Time archive is one of the BBC's most valued sites. In the coming months we will be making even more of our factual programmes permanently available. We will also put together some more collections of older programmes and interviews to support our seasons and events. The collection of Film Interviews was one of the gems of the Film Season. We are building something similar for World Book Night as part of the BBC Year of Books. Here is a sneak preview of the collection of Radio 4 interviews with the featured authors. Our web team have a range of other plans in store in the next few months.

So we are responding to the challenges raised in the Trust report in our own Radio 4 way and we will carry on trying to find and make available, in the words of Matthew Arnold, more of "the best that has been thought and said in the world"- for more listeners everywhere.

Gwyneth Williams is Controller of BBC Radio 4 and Radio 7

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  • Comment number 1.

    When Mr Damazer was in charge he gave the precise figures every quarter, and every quarter they showed an increase in the numbers listening to Radio 4. Reading this blog a person would not realise that the most recent RAJAR figures show a reduction in the number of people listening to Radio 4. Perhaps, it is a seasonal thing; but I do not think that the day devoted to Bible readings in early January will have helped increase the number of listeners.

  • Comment number 2.

    I read that someone has suggested that Radio 4 needs to become more informal. This is the opposite of the truth. For example,I really think it was better when any news story about the Prime Minister started by referring to him or her as "the Prime Minister" and only later said "Mr Callaghan" or "Mrs Thatcher". Nowadays, a story about the Prime Minister" starts by referring to him as "David Cameron". Yes, I know his name is David Cameron, but referring to him without any honorific strikes a false note.

    Lest you think I am an incurable old fogey, I don't normally wear a tie at work, and my students address me by my first name. Moreover, I don't think titles like "Her Majesty" and "His Grace" should be scattered around too often.

    Informality on Radio 4 has increased, is increasing and should be diminished.

  • Comment number 3.

    The hand picked BBC Trust gives the Radio 4 a glowing report - shock!

    Despite the cynicism I'm a huge fan and long time listener to Radio 4. My major complaint is the very narrow choice of voices particularly news presenters and continuity.

    Scots for instance represent around 10% of the population and about 10% of R4 listeners. What's the percentage of Scottish voices on R4? Far in advance of 10%I would say.

    Compare against a similar population of people from the English midlands - however there's not one midland's accent on R4. Nor any Scouse, Mancunian, Yorkshire, Devonian, East Anglian or Geordie accents.

    Why are Scottish accents fine but not the vast array of English accents?

  • Comment number 4.

    Does Radio 4 need to change to include a younger audience?

    No, simple as that.

    I am 20 years old, I am a Hamiltonian undergraduate student who lives in Edinburgh.

    In my family Radio 4 has always been seen as the 'English' radio station. Yet, there is no other station that gives a better coverage on politics and the arts than Radio Four. If I want to listen to something ‘Scottish’ then I will listen to BBC Scotland. If I wanted to listen to rubbish double entendres and dodgy music selections then I would listen to one of the less serous radio stations.

    The reason I play Radio 4 in my car rather than anything else is primarily due to the serious nature of their programmes. Any Questions and Any Answers are a staple for anyone who wants to know and learn about politics. I do not care much about accents and I do not think that Radio Four should be that concerned about the purification of the language of their broadcasters.

    The only thing I would contest is the argument that Radio 4 needs to change to include a younger audience or that they have to change to fit with different regions. I’m Scottish, I’m young and I do not want Radio 4 to change!

  • Comment number 5.

    It is reassuring that the Trust understands the value of BBC Radio Four, but worrying that it seeks to change it.

    Why would you change something so successful? Unparalleled coverage of news and the arts, together with high quality drama, documentaries and so much more.

    It is precisely Radio 4's formality which makes it the only radio station many people can listen to for any length of time. A gentle tone - reflecting the 'silent majority' of people in our country perhaps - that one is at home with. When listening to Radio 4, you are relaxed, you are with friends.

    Radio 5 may strive to be 'matey': let it be. There are many radio stations like that for the people who want them. But for me, and for 10 million others, Radio 4 is one of my best friends. I suggest the BBC Trust, anxious to prove its worth, should be careful in what it strives to do with the BBC's best-loved institution.

    (From a 29-year-old who has listened regularly since the age of 18.)

  • Comment number 6.

    Changes? I am a foreigner, a low paid care worker, living in the north of England, listening to BBC Radio 4 since my early 30s (when I moved to the UK). As a volunteer, I help disadvantaged young people become engaged citizens. Radio 4 is vital to my knowledge, culture and ability to face society, which allows me to turn disaffected youth into future leaders. I don't want to listen to commercial style broadcasting: there are far too many channels providing such "service" to the nation. By the way, I was awarded an MBE for my work, so please do not be tempted to review the role of the Head of State, she's a national treasure too.

  • Comment number 7.

    I'm 25, currently living in the East Midlands, and I've been listening to R4 all my life. Radio 4 has a nice mix of programmes, but I think its main strength is that what it does, it does well, and gets the right balance between explanation and treating its listeners as intelligent.


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