The way that the BBC is handling the current overhaul of Radio 4 is
pretty smart - so far. The corporation has received a far better press
than it might have expected. The campaign is proving to be an object
lesson in how to tame a formidable array of opinion forming critics:
communication can work.
Controller James Boyle ordered up meticulous research into how audiences
behave and briskly kicked off an internal debate about the strategic
need to change programming.
But this has also been coupled with an increasingly confident policy of
targeting and briefing potential opponents about the broad details of
declining audiences, while underlining the commitment to core Radio 4
values. Compared with this high level charm offensive, which has
included some influential columnists and editors, mere journalists were
And as the BBC has talked to lobbyists championing everything from the
rights of disabled people and farmers it flatteringly drew them into the
process. This means they have not been taken aback by the results. For
example, Boyle has been able to axe Does He Take Sugar? by pointing to
the support the disabled lobby lends to ending ’tokenism’. The fact that
there have been 60 drafts of the new schedule shows that, this time, a
nervy BBC has listened.
But there was one point last week when I gasped with admiration. It was
the news that John Keegan, eminent military historian and Daily
Telegraph writer will be the next Reith lecturer. You only have to place
his name against that of the last lecturer, Dr Patricia Williams, a
black feminist New York academic, to appreciate the signal being sent
The BBC is especially concerned at how Daily Telegraph readers will take
the changes. Why? Because they form the backbone of its audience and can
cause huge trouble. The Keegan stroke disarmed the paper: ’A first rank
appointment’ commented its leader, which ’proves the corporation is
still capable of reaching upwards towards the high standards expected of
it’. The middle class is being invited to tune in.
So far, so good. But the path is far from smooth. The opinion formers
have been squared, but the listeners they presume to speak for have yet
to be heard. I suspect there is a big gap between the two camps. The BBC
will need a very effective marketing and consumer campaign to sell its
new schedules to a prickly audience by their introduction date of 1
Secondly, there is the question of internal morale. That so little of
Boyle’s detailed plans were leaked shows a tremendous loyalty to Radio 4
by BBC staff. But there are many working until next March on condemned
programmes. The BBC is famously bad at communicating with its staff.
Here lies another opportunity to break with its hoary past.