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More on the Radio 4 schedule changes: Short stories

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Gwyneth Williams Gwyneth Williams 18:08, Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Stevie Smith

From 1949, archive caption reads: "Miss Stevie Smith, poet, one of the finalists in the BBC Third Programme Short Story Competition, reading her story Sunday at Home"

Some concern has been expressed about the reduction in the number of short stories on Radio 4 from next April; we will broadcast 100 rather than 150. I wanted to explain my thinking behind this decision - taken very much in the context of the overall schedule changes for the Autumn which I announced last week.

Above all I want to make it clear that Radio 4 is committed to broadcasting new writing and new writers and my plans for the network very much reflect this reality.

Radio 4 aims to broadcast more of "the best that has been thought and said in the world", in the words of Matthew Arnold. This brilliant analysis of culture as an active force is very much the text that inspires me as controller. Culture and Anarchy was written in the most turbulent times of the nineteenth century as science displaced certainty so the echoes of Arnold's thesis ring particuarly true now.

And this aspiration lies behind our choices in the annual Radio 4 commissioning round which is just drawing to a close. We will soon have commissioned 500 out of 1,365 ideas for broadcast next year. Many more will be commissioned on a rolling basis throughout the year.

Each year Radio 4 broadcasts 13,000 programmes. We have just signed off on 22 plays by first or second time writers to radio in the Afternoon Play slot and over 60 pieces of new writing for 2012/13 across all our drama slots - and there will be more to follow as we have an ongoing commitment to commission nearly 150 original single plays in the afternoon drama slot alone.

We will commission 100 short stories each year, some of which will also be broadcast on Radio 4 Extra. In the autumn on Radio 4 Extra we will introduce a new short story slot each day Monday to Friday for archive stories and a limited number of new commissions.

We have just announced the Alfred Bradley Bursary for new writing in the North and we will broadcast the winner on Radio 4. We plan to join up with the World Service and support the International playwriting competition, again broadcasting winners on Radio 4.

We will continue to support the BBC National Short Story Award and broadcast winners across the week on the network - look out for the judging line-up which will be announced next week.

I hope that my Autumn schedule changes will inspire and engage listeners.

There will be a new prime-time science programme at nine in the morning presented by the physicist Jim Al-Khalili, a new interview programme called One to One designed around the passions and interests of presenters, new comedy for Sunday night, including new programming from some of the most talented writers and comedians working today like John Finnemore, Rory Bremner (repeated from Thursday night with new satire), Sue Perkins and others.

The World At One, presented by the formidable Martha Kearney, will be extended to forty-five minutes to take account of the extraordinary news agenda, both national and international. WATO, as we call it, has felt increasingly hemmed in at thirty minutes. Stories now develop faster and need a fresh eye by lunchtime. Parliament sits in the morning now and WATO needs to cover emerging issues. This leaves too little time, in my judgement, for other stories.

One of the results of extending the World At One, as I mentioned in my blog when I made the announcement last week, is that the number of short stories on Radio 4 has been reduced. We will still broadcast around 100 short stories on Radio 4 from April 2012 rather than 150, which is the current number. Some of these will also be broadcast on the new Radio 4 Extra short story strand.

My plan is to showcase the Short Story on Radio 4 and Radio 4 Extra as much as I can.

Other programmes have also been affected by the schedule changes on the network such as, for instance Americana, which has been decommissioned. In essence, I have made the editorial decision to add an hour and a quarter of programming each week and thus need to make space in the schedule.

I do want to make it clear that my commitment to writing, new writing and the BBC National Short Story Competition on Radio 4 remains. I am proud that Radio 4 is the place where most new writing is commissioned and broadcast and I fully intend to keep it that way.

Gwyneth Williams is Controller of BBC Radio 4 and BBC Radio 4 Extra


  • Comment number 1.

    Axing Americana is big mistake. It seems like only yesterday that Mark Damazer commissioned this excellent programme.

  • Comment number 2.

    Thanks for getting rid of the Tuesday morning misery that is Taking a Stand and The Choice. They just seemed to get grimmer and grimmer.

  • Comment number 3.

    Book At Beachtime on Radio4Extra ups the quantity of hours broadcast of BBC radio readings but not the quality lost by reducing the number of original short stories , IMHO.

  • Comment number 4.

    As more and more people come to appreciate the short story, the BBC decides to reduce its output to one story a week on Radio 4. This is a poor decision in itself, but what does the BBC plan to replace this with? More news and current affairs? More, really?

    How much more news can we bear? Do we really need another 15 mins of talking heads and pointless conjecture to fill an absence of available facts? The BBC has so many news outlets that I fear for Robert Peston who must spend all his time shuttling breathlessly between studios. Is there a license payer out there out there that believes genuinely that the BBC needs yet more news?

    It is so disappointing that the BBC seems totally incapable of recognising the immense richness and value of its short story output. On her appointment, John Plunkett described Gwyneth Williams in the Guardian as ‘a safe pair of hands on a delicate treasure.’ It is a beautiful phrase, worthy of inclusion in a short story perhaps, but its confidence seems sadly to have been misplaced.

    Could we not do more with the treasure of the short story format than to merely choke the life out of it? We celebrate the novel yet the short story requires both an elegance and economy in words that makes it stand out in its own right and it is the ideal format for radio and our digital age. It seems incredible that the BBC would choose to abandon the short story at a time when it has never been more popular or relevant.

  • Comment number 5.

    Good posting WGCFlyer (posting 4) – ‘Storytime’ [1] was one of the reasons that I started listening to Radio 4 when I was a child/teenager. There won’t be much left of Radio 4 at this rate. Intellectually challenging drama has got the chop and now the short story has seen a glimpse of its P45. I am beginning to understand why Radio 4 has refused to release the results of the Radio 4 Roadshow experiment.

    Hopefully R4 isn’t turning – like Woman’s Hour - into Radio Twitter.


    [1] ‘Storytime’ Broadcast daily @ 1630hrs – cannot recall when it was terminated.

    P.S How come females were so poorly represented on ' Meeting myself Coming Back' (lovely wave-like programme title)? Janet Street-Porter interview was so interesting - and she didn't get a cob on when Mr. Wilson asked sensitive questions. Isn't Emma Kingsley a woman?

  • Comment number 6.

    I would like to register my disappointment in the planned reduction of airtime for short stories. It would have been better to increase the output and vary the types instead of having a stream of too similar items. There are stories of relevance to different ages and interests, different lengths and types of production from actor and author readings to semi-dramatised. Not enough has been done in the past to avoid the taint of a sort of middle-class floral dirndl matron and chatelaine (I'm avoiding saying the name of that designer brand) chintzy, wishy-washy, watercolour, soporific, enervated and "harmless" sort of 15 minutes snooze. (Sorry for the litany there, it's not a rant just an attempt to define what I feel has been wrong.) Why do we have to have the majority of the stories in a sort of "Afternoon with mother" context and how could we ever have searing, exciting and plain speaking stories there? But that's only to say there could have been much more creative decisions and plans instead of the equivalent of a yawn and "We've had enough of that, I think, no?" approach that is evident, or seeming now. There is nothing else I turn to Radio 4 for, not for news because news is streaming permanently online, including through the BBC website, nothing else but new fiction and things like Just A Minute, insofar as it approaches the condition of humorous fiction. There's another type: humour. There's not much humour, adventure or real engagement with vital issues in a floral print. However the solution to floral prints is not to go naked or unfurnished: the solution is more better designs, more fiction. Thank you. I like floral as well, by the way, don't take my remarks in anything other than good will. (Steve Moran)

  • Comment number 7.

    Add your comment

    Whatever the controlling socio cultural force Mrs Williams, et al, might want to be, and whether the politics of it is to subvert, overwhelm, consolidate, or perhaps, perpetuate of the old, with such a slot filling cornucopia of ideas one one side, and Arnold's inspirational tidal roar on the other, that although the beeb can never reach the moon, it will splutter out less often in a talentless puddle of self glorification. And so looking forward Al Khalili's neo science slot too, where we can be sure that a corporation 'it' lathering itself over with the pseudo scientific religiousity 'One's, will have that mischief stuffed back into its black bottle. What stories Stevie Smith could have made of actual events.

  • Comment number 8.

    Why not ditch Bells on Sunday as well. It is a dreadful cacophony and is the last thing you want to hear in the early hours or late at night.

  • Comment number 9.

    Andrew Collingwood

    Good suggestion. Why is the BBC promoting bell-ringing? It is noise pollution pure and simple. Additionally, it is an activity that many parents pursue in order to secure a school place for their children. I would like to know how much licence-fee payers have to fork out for each minute of this nonsense.

  • Comment number 10.

    Well with the silly re-start of 'Questions Questions' - completely answerable by the listeners with Google, i suppose there is less space for stories. Yet, surely stories must be cheaper to present than a silly radio show.

    Yes, dump 'Questions Questions' and pop in some more stories. It would make ofr much better radio.

  • Comment number 11.

    I do not listen to R4 for news. On the internet I can access thousands of news outlets from around the world that provide news services much better than R4 can ever hope to achieve even when read by the "formidable" Martha Kearney. Ironically one of them is the World Service. What they cannot provide is the brilliant drama R4 is capable of producing. It appears to me R4 is in an identity crisis and wants to change to something but hasn't a clue what this something is. Take R4 Extra. What exactly is its purpose? a overflow for stuff not considered suited for R4?

  • Comment number 12.

    I am delighted that Americana is going. I strongly urge Gwyneth Williams to resist the lobbying, on this blog and elsewhere, for it to stay. There is more than enough, and at times an outrageous amount, of americana on Radio 4 without having a whole programme dedicated to it. I was hoping, with Gwyneth Williams background, that Americana would be replaced by Africana.


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